Stumbling on Happiness

In Stumbling on Happiness, Dan Gilbert analyzes three main failures of our brain that influence our ability to judge and predict our happiness. The first, Realism, is a shortcoming wherein our imagination “fills in” details into our memories. The second is Presentism, the brain’s ability to inject the present into the future, which distorts how happy we think we’ll be. Finally, Rationalization examines our psychological immune system, which causes even bad events to look a whole lot better once they happen.

Reading Notes

The greatest achievement of the human brain is its ability to imagine objects and episodes that do not exist in the realm of the real, and it is this ability that allows us to think about the future.

Studies such as these tell us that monkey brains “know” about gravity (objects fall down, not sideways) and that baby human brains “know” about kinetics (moving objects transfer energy to stationary objects at precisely the moment they contact them and not a few seconds later).

Rather, a disproportionate share of the growth centered on a particular part of the brain known as the frontal lobe, which, as its name implies, sits at the front of the head, squarely above the eyes

As scientists now recognize, the frontal lobe “empowers healthy human adults with the capacity to consider the self’s extended existence throughout time.”

In one study, volunteers were told that they had won a free dinner at a fabulous French restaurant and were then asked when they would like to eat it. Now? Tonight? Tomorrow? Although the delights of the meal were obvious and tempting, most of the volunteers chose to put their restaurant visit off a bit, generally until the following week.

Forestalling pleasure is an inventive technique for getting double the juice from half the fruit.

Researchers have discovered that when people find it easy to imagine an event, they overestimate the likelihood that it will actually occur.29 Because most of us get so much more practice imagining good than bad events, we tend to overestimate the likelihood that good events will actually happen to us, which leads us to be unrealistically optimistic about our futures.

Why do we imagine unpleasant events?

  1. First, anticipating unpleasant events can minimize their impact.
  2. Fear, worry, and anxiety have useful roles to play in our lives.

Knowledge is power, and the most important reason why our brains insist on simulating the future even when we’d rather be here now, enjoying a goldfish moment, is that our brains want to control the experiences we are about to have.

We insist on steering our boats because we think we have a pretty good idea of where we should go, but the truth is that much of our steering is in vain—not because the boat won’t respond, and not because we can’t find our destination, but because the future is fundamentally different than it appears through the prospectiscope.


Emotional happiness is a phrase for a feeling, an experience, a subjective state, and thus it has no objective referent in the physical world.

You may think yellow is a color, but it isn’t. It’s a psychological state. It is what human beings with working visual apparatus experience when their eyes are struck by light with a wavelength of 580 nanometers.

As the philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote, “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question.”

The ancient Athenian legislator Solon suggested that one could not say that a person was happy until the person’s life had ended because happiness is the result of living up to one’s potential—and how can we make such a judgment until we see how the whole thing turns out?

The second interesting finding was that describing the color impaired rather than improved performance on the identification task. Only 33 percent of the describers were able to accurately identify the original color. Apparently, the describers’ verbal descriptions of their experiences “overwrote” their memories of the experiences themselves. (In a study where describers were shown a color swatch, asked to describe it, then, had to pick it out of a line-up of swatches.)

The point of these studies is not that we are hopelessly inept at detecting changes in our experience of the world but rather that unless our minds are keenly focused on a particular aspect of that experience at the very moment it changes, we will be forced to rely on our memories—forced to compare our current experience to our recollection of our former experience—in order to detect the change.

Our experiences instantly become part of the lens through which we view our entire past, present, and future, and like any lens, they shape and distort what we see.

What we can say is that all claims of happiness are claims from someone’s point of view—from the perspective of a single human being whose unique collection of past experiences serves as a context, a lens, a background for her evaluation of her current experience.

Our visual experience and our awareness of that experience are generated by different parts of our brains, and as such, certain kinds of brain damage (specifically, lesions to the primary visual cortical receiving area known as V1) can impair one without impairing the other, causing experience and awareness to lose their normally tight grip on each other. For example, people who suffer from the condition known as blindsight have no awareness of seeing, and will truthfully tell you that they are completely blind.11 Brain scans lend credence to their claims by revealing diminished activity in the areas normally associated with awareness of visual experience. On the other hand, the same scans reveal relatively normal activity in the areas associated with vision.


Imagination’s first shortcoming is its tendency to fill in and leave out without telling us.

The elaborate tapestry of our experience is not stored in memory—at least not in its entirety. Rather, it is compressed for storage by first being reduced to a few critical threads, such as a summary phrase (“Dinner was disappointing”) or a small set of key features (tough steak, corked wine, snotty waiter). Later, when we want to remember our experience, our brains quickly reweave the tapestry by fabricating—not by actually retrieving—the bulk of the information that we experience as a memory. This fabrication happens so quickly and effortlessly that we have the illusion (as a good magician’s audience always does) that the entire thing was in our heads the entire time.

This general finding—that information acquired after an event alters memory of the event—has been replicated so many times in so many different laboratory and field settings that it has left most scientists convinced of two things. First, the act of remembering involves “filling in” details that were not actually stored; and second, we generally cannot tell when we are doing this because filling in happens quickly and unconsciously.

we do not outgrow realism so much as we learn to outfox it, and that even as adults our perceptions are characterized by an initial moment of realism. According to this line of reasoning, we automatically assume that our subjective experience of a thing is a faithful representation of the thing’s properties. Only later—if we have the time, energy, and ability—do we rapidly repudiate that assumption and consider the possibility that the real world may not actually be as it appears to us.

But studies show that when ordinary people want to know whether two things are causally related, they routinely search for, attend to, consider, and remember information about what did happen and fail to search for, attend to, consider, and remember information about what did not.

When we think of events in the distant past or distant future we tend to think abstractly about why they happened or will happen, but when we think of events in the near past or near future we tend to think concretely about how they happened or will happen.

When volunteers are asked to “imagine a good day,” they imagine a greater variety of events if the good day is tomorrow than if the good day is a year later.23 Because a good day tomorrow is imagined in considerable detail, it turns out to be a lumpy mixture of mostly good stuff (“I’ll sleep late, read the paper, go to the movies, and see my best friend”) with a few unpleasant chunks (“But I guess I’ll also have to rake the stupid leaves”). On the other hand, a good day next year is imagined as a smooth purée of happy episodes.


Our imagination uses the filling in trick which distorts our view of the future. This greatly influences our ability to predict how happy we’ll be.

The writer Arthur C. Clarke formulated what has come to be known as Clarke’s first law: “When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.”

These volunteers—who had not actually experienced the intense curiosity that taking the quiz produced—simply couldn’t imagine that they would ever forsake a Snickers for a few dull facts about cities and rivers. This finding brings to mind that wonderful scene in the 1967 film Bedazzled in which the devil spends his days in bookstores, ripping the final pages out of the mystery novels. (How does that apply to blogging and writing?)

The emotional experience that results from a flow of information that originates in the world is called feeling; the emotional experience that results from a flow of information that originates in memory is called prefeeling

We cannot feel good about an imaginary future when we are busy feeling bad about an actual present. But rather than recognizing that this is the inevitable result of the Reality First policy, we mistakenly assume that the future event is the cause of the unhappiness we feel when we think about it.

Psychologists call this habituation, economists call it declining marginal utility, and the rest of us call it marriage. But human beings have discovered two devices that allow them to combat this tendency: variety and time. One way to beat habituation is to increase the variety of one’s experiences (“Hey, honey, I have a kinky idea—let’s watch the sun set from the kitchen this time”).9 Another way to beat habituation is to increase the amount of time that separates repetitions of the experience.

when episodes are sufficiently separated in time, variety is not only unnecessary—it can actually be costly.

The problem is that when we reason by metaphor and think of a dozen successive meals in a dozen successive months as though they were a dozen dishes arranged on a long table in front of us, we mistakenly treat sequential alternatives as though they were simultaneous alternatives.

In general, mental images are atemporal. So how do we decide how we will feel about things that are going to happen in the future? The answer is that we tend to imagine how we would feel if those things happened now, and then we make some allowance for the fact that now and later are not exactly the same thing.

This pattern of results suggests that all volunteers made their predictions by the flip-then-flop method: They first imagined how much they would enjoy eating the spaghetti in the present (“Yum!” if they were hungry and “Yuck!” if they were full) and used this prefeeling as a starting point for their prediction of tomorrow’s pleasures.

Because we naturally use our present feelings as a starting point when we attempt to predict our future feelings, we expect our future to feel a bit more like our present than it actually will.

There is no answer to the question “Can people detect five ounces?” because brains do not detect ounces, they detect changes in ounces and differences in ounces, and the same is true for just about every physical property of an object. Our sensitivity to relative rather than absolute magnitudes is not limited to physical properties such as weight, brightness, or volume. It extends to subjective properties, such as value, goodness, and worth as well.

Because it is so much easier for me to remember the past than to generate new possibilities, I will tend to compare the present with the past even when I ought to be comparing it with the possible. And that is indeed what I ought to be doing because it really doesn’t matter what coffee cost the day before, the week before, or at any time during the Hoover administration. Right now I have absolute dollars to spend and the only question I need to answer is how to spend them in order to maximize my satisfaction.

Because it is easier to compare a vacation package’s price with its former price than with the price of other things one might buy, we end up preferring bad deals that have become decent deals to great deals that were once amazing deals.

Because side-by-side comparisons cause me to consider all the attributes on which the cameras differ, I end up considering attributes that I don’t really care about but that just so happen to distinguish one camera from another.

Now let’s step back for a moment and ask what all of these facts about comparison mean for our ability to imagine future feelings. The facts are these: (a) value is determined by the comparison of one thing with another; (b) there is more than one kind of comparison we can make in any given instance; and (c) we may value something more highly when we make one kind of comparison than when we make a different kind of comparison.

In short, the comparisons we make have a profound impact on our feelings, and when we fail to recognize that the comparisons we are making today are not the comparisons we will make tomorrow, we predictably underestimate how differently we will feel in the future.


Imagination’s third shortcoming is its failure to recognize that things will look different once they happen—in particular, that bad things will look a whole lot better

Indeed, it would be more appropriate to say that one is the letter H and the other is the letter A because the identity of an inky squiggle has less to do with how it is objectively constructed and more to do with how we subjectively interpret it.

How we disambiguate a stimulus (the letters H and A for example)?

  1. Context
  2. Frequency
  3. Recency

The brain and the eye may have a contractual relationship in which the brain has agreed to believe what the eye sees, but in return the eye has agreed to look for what the brain wants.

Because we do not realize that our psychological immune systems can rationalize an excess of courage more easily than an excess of cowardice, we hedge our bets when we should blunder forward.

It is only when we cannot change the experience that we look for ways to change our view of the experience, which is why we love the clunker in the driveway, the shabby cabin that’s been in the family for years, and Uncle Sheldon despite his predilection for nasal spelunking.

Unexplained events have two qualities that amplify and extend their emotional impact. First, they strike us as rare and unusual…The second reason why unexplained events have a disproportionate emotional impact is that we are especially likely to keep thinking about them.

Because we tend to remember the best of times and the worst of times instead of the most likely of times, the wealth of experience that young people admire does not always pay clear dividends.

Science has given us a lot of facts about the average person, and one of the most reliable of these facts is that the average person doesn’t see herself as average. Most students see themselves as more intelligent than the average student, most business managers see themselves as more competent than the average business manager, and most football players see themselves as having better “football sense” than their teammates. Ninety percent of motorists consider themselves to be safer-than-average drivers, and 94 percent of college professors consider themselves to be better-than-average teachers.

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