Stumbling on Happiness is a fantastic book by Daniel Gilbert that dives into how our brains work and why we sometimes make decisions that leave us feeling unhappy. It provides readers with guidance on how to make decisions that will lead to a future filled with happiness.
Gilbert is also a social psychologist which makes the book & its summary even more interesting.
Summary Read Time: Less than 5 minutes
Actual Book Length: 263
First Published in: 2006
Below is the detailed yet quick summary of the book:
Part 1: Prospection
In the book’s opening, Gilbert argues that humans are the only animals who can envision future events and make decisions. Some people with certain types of brain damage lose this ability to plan ahead, but they may also seem more contented and at peace in their daily lives as a result. Most humans want to be able to predict their futures because it is gratifying to make choices that help them shape the future they want. Imagining the future is typically pleasant for people.
This is not an easy task, but one that we must do at one point or another.
Part 2: Subjectivity
The majority of people have difficulty imagining or planning for their futures. This is largely because experience is subjective. Many studies have shown that people are often inaccurate when it comes to knowing what they are feeling at any given moment. When they try to predict what will make them happy in the future, they often make mistakes because happiness is subjective and can change over time.
There are several explanations rooted in neuroscience as to why people are unable to imagine the future accurately. It is because people go about imagining it in a specific way that this occurs. The reason is that memories are composed of the most important elements, with unimportant details being supplied by the imagination. When people think about the future, they usually focus on the big picture, whereas happiness factors that are not based on real-world data are not necessarily ignored.
Part 3: Realism
The mind often times disregards things that don’t seem important in the moment, but may be crucial later on. People tend to pick up on things that seem out of the ordinary, without taking into account that these types of events are, by their nature, not representative of what usually happens to people most of the time.
Part 4: Presentism
Presentism is basically the act of living more in the moment and thinking less about things that haven’t happened yet or have already passed. For example, say you’re feeling hungry right now, it might be hard to recall what it feels like to be full or to imagine how you’ll feel after eating a big meal later. The same goes for trying to feel a certain emotion – if you’re unhappy at the moment, it’ll be tough to picture yourself being happy.
This is because imagining a particular emotion requires us to engage the part of our brain that processes emotion. And if we’re feeling a negative emotion in the present, it’s difficult to tap into that part of the brain.
Part 5: Rationalization
While it’s normal for negative events to have an impact on us, they don’t usually affect us for as long as we think they will. Our psychological immune system is what allows us to cope with negative situations that come our way. It does this by cooking up facts about ourselves that make us think we’re better off than other people.
For example, when our experiences make us unhappy, our psychological immune system will cook up facts and shift blame to offer us a more positive view.
Wealth has been shown to increase happiness up to a certain point – once people are no longer living in poverty and have reached the middle class. After that, there is less of a correlation between wealth and happiness.
When trying to predict our future happiness in a specific place or situation, it is best to look at someone else’s subjective experience of the future that we desire. People are more similar than they are different, so this can give us a good idea of what to expect.
However, we cannot rely solely on our imagination to tell us what we will feel like in the future, as our imaginations are often not accurate.