I first came across Daniel Gilbert when I heard his 15 minute TED talk on happiness last year. As it turns out, this talk is one of the most viewed TED videos of all time. The TED talk led Gilbert to write a best-selling book – Stumbling on Happiness. The book isn’t is a self-help book with the panacea to all our problems but more of an extremely entertaining thesis written by a professor about our pursuit of happiness. The author goes to great lengths to point out our delusional behaviour but also affirms that it is okay to be so.
The main premise of the book is how much we love simulating the events of the future but how wrong we tend to be in predicting what will make us happy. We are very good in knowing exactly what would make us happy in the short term (i.e. a great cup of coffee right now or a date with a loved one) but lousy in predicting what will make us happy in the long term.
Early in the book Gilbert talks about three different types of happiness:
Emotional Happiness – a phrase for a feeling or an experience for instance eating an ice cream, hugging a loved one, or even listening to that favourite song from when you were a teenager
Moral Happiness – when you feel virtuous after doing something morally right
Judgemental Happiness – Happiness that comes from the occurrence of certain events that you want: a promotion at work, getting into your dream college, or even your favourite football team winning an important match
Unfortunately, human beings tend to place the most importance on the third kind of happiness and individuals spend a lot of time constructing tomorrows that we hope will make our future selves happy. This also causes us to question the happiness of other people who claim to be happy despite what we believe to be difficult circumstances (the person who did not get promoted). Gilbert narrates stories of individuals who say that they were happy in jail or of studies proving that cancer patients aren’t as unhappy as others expect them to be.
Pete Best, the original drummer for the Beatles, was replaced by Ringo Starr in 1962, just before the Beatles got big. Now he’s a session drummer. What did he have to say about missing out on the chance to belong to the most famous band of the 20th century? “I’m happier than I would have been with the Beatles.”
The problem according to Gilbert is not the part about our planning our future but that we constantly project our present situations into the future. We tend to over-exaggerate the positive effects of events that will make us happy or the negative effects of the events that will make us unhappy.
Simply put, “the good news is that going blind is not going to make you as unhappy as you think it will. The bad news is that winning the lottery will not make you as happy as you expect”.
Individuals tend to revert to their emotional baselines quickly after the occurrence of events – bad breakups, losing their job, or even when they lose a loved one. Our brain has a fantastic immune system that kicks in helping us to deal with these negative events (call it rationalisation or the synthesis of happiness). Further, events that should make us happy don’t give us as much joy as we expect them to (buying a car or a house or even having a child) – we imagine them to be life changing but more often than not the joy tends not to last for long.
Gilbert points out one of the best ways to improve our prediction of our happiness is to (surprise, surprise) seek out other individuals who have gone through the same experience (cue the growth of review websites). However, Gilbert also points out that human beings tend to have very high belief in their own uniqueness and therefore do not seek out opinions as often as they should or to disregard the opinion of others. My only issue with the book is that Gilbert gets too caught up with the ideas and research he puts forward that he does a very poor job of bringing it together in the end. I kept waiting for a punch line but never found it coming.
I loved the book and I recommend this to any one who seeks an interesting and thought provoking read. My best advice would be to watch Gilbert’s video and to get the book if you find it interesting.