Stumbling on Happiness

Stumbling on Happiness

by Daniel Gilbert

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781400077427
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/20/2007
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 59,130
Product dimensions: 5.16(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.68(d)

About the Author

Daniel Gilbert is Professor of Psychology at Harvard University and Director of the Social Cognition and Emotion Lab. He is generally considered the world's foremost authority in the fields of affective forecasting and the fundamental attribution error. He has published numerous scientific articles and chapters, several short works of fiction, and is the editor of The Handbook of Social Psychology. He has been awarded the Distinguished Scientific Award for an Early Career Contribution to Psychology by the American Psychological Association, fellowships from both the Guggenheim Foundation and the American Philosophical Society, and has been a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Research in the Behavioral Sciences. In 2002, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin listed Gilbert as one of the fifty most influential social psychologists of the decade, and in 2003 one of his research papers was chosen by the editors of P sychological Inquiry as one of four "modern classics" in social psychology.

Read an Excerpt

Journey to Elsewhen

O, that a man might know The end of this day’s business ere it come! Shakespeare, Julius Caesar Priests vow to remain celibate, physicians vow to do no harm, and letter carriers vow to swiftly complete their appointed rounds despite snow, sleet, and split infinitives. Few people realize that psychologists also take a vow, promising that at some point in their professional lives they will publish a book, a chapter, or at least an article that contains this sentence: “The human being is the only animal that . . .” We are allowed to finish the sentence any way we like, of course, but it has to start with those eight words. Most of us wait until relatively late in our careers to fulfill this solemn obligation because we know that successive generations of psychologists will ignore all the other words that we managed to pack into a lifetime of well-intentioned scholarship and remem- ber us mainly for how we finished The Sentence. We also know that the worse we do, the better we will be remembered. For instance, those psychologists who finished The Sentence with “can use language” were particularly well remembered when chimpanzees were taught to communicate with hand signs. And when researchers discovered that chimps in the wild use sticks to extract tasty ter- mites from their mounds (and to bash one another over the head now and then), the world suddenly remembered the full name and mailing address of every psychologist who had ever finished The Sentence with “uses tools.” So it is for good reason that most psychologists put off completing The Sentence for as long as they can, hoping that if they wait long enough, they just might die in time to avoid being publicly humiliated by a monkey.

I have never before written The Sentence, but I’d like to do so now, with you as my witness. The human being is the only animal that thinks about the future. Now, let me say up front that I’ve had cats, I’ve had dogs, I’ve had gerbils, mice, goldfish, and crabs (no, not that kind), and I do recognize that nonhuman animals often act as though they have the capacity to think about the future. But as bald men with cheap hairpieces always seem to forget, act- ing as though you have something and actually having it are not the same thing, and anyone who looks closely can tell the difference. For example, I live in an urban neighborhood, and every autumn the squirrels in my yard (which is approximately the size of two squirrels) act as though they know that they will be unable to eat later unless they bury some food now. My city has a relatively well-educated citizenry, but as far as anyone can tell its squirrels are not particularly distinguished. Rather, they have regular squirrel brains that run food-burying programs when the amount of sun- light that enters their regular squirrel eyes decreases by a critical amount. Shortened days trigger burying behavior with no intervening contemplation of tomorrow, and the squirrel that stashes a nut in my yard “knows” about the future in approximately the same way that a falling rock “knows” about the law of gravity—which is to say, not really. Until a chimp weeps at the thought of growing old alone, or smiles as it contemplates its summer vacation, or turns down a taffy apple because it already looks too fat in shorts, I will stand by my version of The Sentence. We think about the future in a way that no other animal can, does, or ever has, and this simple, ubiquitous, ordinary act is a defining feature of our humanity.

The Joy of Next

If you were asked to name the human brain’s greatest achievement, you might think first of the impressive artifacts it has produced—the Great Pyramid of Giza, the International Space Station, or perhaps the Golden Gate Bridge. These are great achievements indeed, and our brains deserve their very own ticker-tape parade for producing them. But they are not the greatest. A sophisticated machine could design and build any one of these things because designing and building require knowledge, logic, and patience, of which sophisticated machines have plenty. In fact, there’s really only one achievement so remarkable that even the most sophisticated machine cannot pretend to have accomplished it, and that achievement is conscious experience. Seeing the Great Pyramid or remembering the Golden Gate or imagining the Space Station are far more remarkable acts than is building any one of them. What’s more, one of these remarkable acts is even more remarkable than the others. To see is to experience the world as it is, to remember is to experience the world as it was, but to imagine—ah, to imagine is to experience the world as it isn’t and has never been, but as it might be. 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. As one philosopher noted, the human brain is an “anticipation machine,” and “making future” is the most important thing it does.

But what exactly does “making future” mean? There are at least two ways in which brains might be said to make future, one of which we share with many other animals, the other of which we share with none. All brains—human brains, chimpanzee brains, even regular food-burying squirrel brains—make predictions about the immediate, local, personal, future. They do this by using information about current events (“I smell something”) and past events (“Last time I smelled this smell, a big thing tried to eat me”) to anticipate the event that is most likely to happen to them next (“A big thing is about to ———”). ut notice two features of this so-called prediction. First, despite the comic quips inside the parentheses, predictions such as these do not require the brain making them to have anything even remotely resembling a conscious thought. Just as an abacus can put two and two together to produce four without having thoughts about arithmetic, so brains can add past to present to make future without ever thinking about any of them. In fact, it doesn’t even require a brain to make predictions such as these. With just a little bit of training, the giant sea slug known as Aplysia parvula can learn to predict and avoid an electric shock to its gill, and as anyone with a scalpel can easily demonstrate, sea slugs are inarguably brainless. Computers are also brainless, but they use precisely the same trick the sea slug does when they turn down your credit card because you were trying to buy dinner in Paris after buying lunch in Hoboken. In short, machines and invertebrates prove that it doesn’t take a smart, self-aware, conscious, brain to make simple predictions about the future.

The second thing to notice is that predictions such as these are not particularly far-reaching. They are not predictions in the same sense that we might predict the annual rate of inflation, the intellectual impact of postmodernism, the heat death of the universe, or Madonna’s next hair color. Rather, these are predictions about what will happen in precisely this spot, precisely next, to precisely me, and we call them predictions only because there is no better word for them in the English language. But the use of that term—with its inescapable connotations of calculated, thoughtful reflection about events that may occur anywhere, to anyone, at any time—risks ob- scuring the fact that brains are continuously making predictions about the immediate, local, personal, future of their owners without their owners’ awareness. Rather than saying that such brains are predicting, let’s say that they are nexting.

Yours is nexting right now. For example, at this moment you may be consciously thinking about the sentence you just read, or about the key ring in your pocket that is jammed uncomfortably against your thigh, or about whether the War of 1812 really deserves its own overture. Whatever you are thinking, your thoughts are surely about something other than the word with which this sentence will end. But even as you hear these very words echoing in your very head, and think whatever thoughts they inspire, your brain is using the word it is reading right now and the words it read just before to make a reasonable guess about the identity of the word it will read next, which is what allows you to read so fluently. Any brain that has been raised on a steady diet of film noir and cheap detective novels fully expects the word night to follow the phrase It was a dark and stormy, and thus when it does encounter the word night, it is especially well prepared to digest it. As long as your brain’s guess about the next word turns out to be right, you cruise along happily, left to right, left to right, turning black squiggles into ideas, scenes, characters, and concepts, blissfully unaware that your nexting brain is predicting the future of the sentence at a fantastic rate. It is only when your brain predicts badly that you suddenly feel avocado.

That is, surprised. See?

Now, consider the meaning of that brief moment of surprise. Surprise is an emotion we feel when we encounter the unexpected—for example, thirty-four acquaintances in paper hats standing in our living room yelling “Happy birthday!” as we walk through the front door with a bag of groceries and a full bladder—and thus the occurrence of surprise reveals the nature of our expectations. The surprise you felt at the end of the last paragraph reveals that as you were reading the phrase it is only when your brain predicts badly that you suddenly feel . . . , your brain was simultaneously making a reasonable prediction about what would happen next. It predicted that sometime in the next few milliseconds your eyes would come across a set of black squiggles that encoded an English word that described a feeling, such as sad or nauseous or even surprised. Instead, it encountered a fruit, which woke you from your dogmatic slumbers and revealed the nature of your expectations to anyone who was watching. Surprise tells us that we were expecting something other than what we got, even when we didn’t know we were expecting anything at all.

Because feelings of surprise are generally accompanied by reactions that can be observed and measured—such as eyebrow arch- ing, eye widening, jaw dropping, and noises followed by a series of exclamation marks—psychologists can use surprise to tell them when a brain is nexting. For example, when monkeys see a researcher drop a ball down one of several chutes, they quickly look to the bottom of that chute and wait for the ball to reemerge. When some experimental trickery causes the ball to emerge from a different chute than the one in which it was deposited, the monkeys display surprise, presumably because their brains were nexting. Human babies have similar responses to weird physics. For example, when babies are shown a video of a big red block smashing into a little yellow block, they react with indifference when the little yellow block instantly goes careening off the screen. But when the little yellow block hesitates for just a moment or two before careening away, babies stare like bystanders at a train wreck—as though the delayed careening had violated some prediction made by their nexting brains. 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). But more important, they tell us that monkey brains and baby human brains add what they already know (the past) to what they currently see (the present) to predict what will happen next (the future). When the actual next thing is different from the predicted next thing, monkeys and babies experience surprise.

Our brains were made for nexting, and that’s just what they’ll do. When we take a stroll on the beach, our brains predict how stable the sand will be when our foot hits it, and then adjust the tension in our knee accordingly. When we leap to catch a Frisbee, our brains predict where the disc will be when we cross its flight path, and then bring our hands to precisely that point. When we see a sand crab scurry behind a bit of driftwood on its way to the water, our brains predict when and where the critter will reappear, and then direct our eyes to the precise point of its reemergence. These predictions are remarkable in both the speed and accuracy with which they are made, and it is difficult to imagine what our lives would be like if our brains quit making them, leaving us completely “in the moment” and unable to take our next step. But while these automatic, continuous, nonconscious predictions of the immediate, local, personal, future are both amazing and ubiquitous, they are not the sorts of predictions that got our species out of the trees and into dress slacks. In fact, these are the kinds of predictions that frogs make without ever leaving their lily pads, and hence not the sort that The Sentence was meant to describe. No, the variety of future that we human beings manufacture—and that only we manufacture—is of another sort entirely.


From the Hardcover edition.

What People are Saying About This

Seth Godin

"This is a brilliant book, a useful book, and a book that could quite possibly change the way you look at just about everything. And as a bonus, Gilbert writes like a cross between Malcolm Gladwell and David Sedaris."
author of All Marketers Are Liars

Daniel Kahneman

"Everyone will enjoy reading this book, and some of us will wish we could have written it. You will rarely have a chance to learn so much about so important a topic while having so much fun."
Professor, Princeton University, Winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics

Daniel Goleman

"In Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert shares his brilliant insights into our quirks of mind, and steers us toward happiness in the most delightful, engaging ways. If you stumble on this book, you're guaranteed many doses of joy."
author of Emotional Intelligence

Steven D. Levitt

"Stumbling on Happiness is an absolutely fantastic book that will shatter your most deeply held convictions about how your own mind works. Ceaselessly entertaining, Gilbert is the perfect guide to some of the most interesting psychological research ever performed. Think you know what makes you happy? You won't know for sure until you have read this book."
author of Freakonomics

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Stumbling on Happiness 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 97 reviews.
davidk01 More than 1 year ago
It is an interesting read if you have never read anything else on positive psychology but if you're familiar with some aspects of happiness research then there is very little that is new in this book. The book takes a tour through a number of "happiness fallacies" but there is very little action oriented advice about combating these fallacies.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Don't buy or read this book. I got it as a gift and I regret wasting my time reading it. The author uses too many over simplified examples and analogies to explain complicated concepts. He 'dumbs-it-down' so much that he never actually gets around to explaining what the points of his arguments are. I had to look at the cover of this book and check the title several times ('Stumbling on Happiness') to figure out what the subject of this book was. This book was also a choppy read with many small breaks within chapters that created discontinuity from one sub-chapter to another. Don't allow this author's resume (or the word 'Happiness' in the title) to mislead you. (Alot of 'misleading' is what goes on in this book.) This is a poorly written self-help book after-all because you have only yourself to figure out what the author is trying to say. At the end, nothing he proposes is that enlightening either....
suebNY More than 1 year ago
I came upon this book as a result of catching Dr. Gilbert's series on PBS called "This Emotional Life". I found the book to be full of a great amount of information regarding emotions, and the presentation had me laughing out loud at almost every page. I do have to say that my favorite quote from the book is, "My friends tell me that I have a tendency to point out problems without offering solutions, but they never tell me what I should do about it." (page 245). I found this to be true of a lot of the book, however things are wrapped up at the end with some common sense recommendations for happiness. This book is highly entertaining.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have met Dan Gilbert and he is as funny and interesting as his book. He really has come from an untraditional background and has made it all the way to Harvard. His book combines humor with scientific facts and research and really is a great read!! If you ever have the opportunity to see Dan Gilbert speak in person, GO!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Imagine a standup comic with an encyclopaedic knowledge of psychological research, and you'll have an idea what it is like to read this book. I enjoyed it and recommend it, but I also recommend that you maintain a skeptical attitude while reading. The text is a stew of insightful observations, quirky research results, and fallacious reasoning, so keep your wits about you as you enjoy. Beware the poor description of the law of large numbers on page 68.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The writing is so smooth and funny and enjoyable it almost does the subject matter a dis-service. One of the better books I've read in quite some time. It definately goes into the re-read pile. Pick it up.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I was amazed as I read this book at how easily we succumb to our memory's inaccurate remembrances. I was amazed that is until I went back and read a journal I had written while on a particularly disappointing vacation. My memory of that vacation was so much more positive 'I was even considering repeating the trip' than I felt as I was experiencing the vacation. Precisely the effect that Dan Gilbert says we should expect, but we simply don't believe it. Well believe it. He's right and he's got a lot to teach us about the way in which we keep tricking ourselves into making the wrong choices about what will make us happy. A definite keeper.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was amazing.
stringsn88keys on LibraryThing 23 days ago
This book sited a lot of the same examples as The Paradox of Choice, so much so that at times it felt like The Paradox of Choice was used as a primary resource in writing this book.
dogrover on LibraryThing 23 days ago
Gilbert's book is wry, funny and informative. My initial joy at finding such a book was muted as I read, finding little that I could relate to. Now, the point of the book is that the many cited studies show that everyone thinks better of themselves than they can justify, so perhaps I'm in that boat. In the end, though, I found myself frustrated by how little new knowledge I gained. True, the details behind the mechanics of thought, perception, judgement and analysis are fascinating, but only confirm what observant folks have been saying for years.A fun read, but unsatisfying.
bacis88 on LibraryThing 23 days ago
Why do humans often fail at making themselves happy? Gilbert answers with a great mixture of humor and psychology.
JimmyChanga on LibraryThing 23 days ago
Central message: our minds trick us the same way our eyes trick us with visual illusions. And we are foolishly un-aware of the ways it tricks us. The rest of the book is basically a list of psychology experiments backed up by pretty horrible long-winded prose to explain how that applies to our daily lives, sprinkled with annoyingly "witty" jokes. His "wit" was not funny to me, but merely annoying, like someone trying really hard to counteract his innate boring-ness w/ strained jokes. While I did appreciate the science behind this book, I felt that his writing style was bloated and dull (even when the subject matter was so interesting). He seems to think that the more you repeat a thing that is self evident, the more interesting it becomes. Perhaps he also underestimates his reader's ability to get something after reading it a couple of times. He needs a good editor; this book could have been cut down to 150 pages (instead of 240 minus notes). I would recommend reading Flow, The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi instead, which is excellently written and researched, and covers a more satisfying aspect of Happiness. This book is still worth reading, though, and works as a good complement because it's nice to have some insight into how we trick ourselves (which Flow really doesn't cover). But this book tackles happiness in a most superficial way; it would be more fitting to say it tackles brain-illusions. It should be called "Brain Illusions: How the mind tricks you daily" instead of "Stumbling on Happiness", which is kind of a misnomer. Overall, Dan Gilbert could've afforded to be a little more ambitious and visionary with all this data.
motjebben on LibraryThing 23 days ago
How can you predict how happy you'll be doing something in the future? Ask someone else who is doing that same thing NOW!Why? Daniel Gilbert explains with wit and humor that psychological studies, observations and experiments show how poorly we remember our emotional states of the past, and how that and our present states color - usually "wrongly" - our imagination of our future states. And yet, evolution selected for these seemingly conflicting traits for the benefit of us and the others: If one weren't somewhat deluded into imagining the future could not be better than the present, then one might be content to just remain status quo, and not working for the advancement of society in general. Read about this and more in Gilbert's wonderful book! Do note, however, that this is not so much a book that gives prescription for happiness, but rather explains the stumbling blocks that cause us to mis-estimate our happiness. It would seem that other than attempting to gauge future levels of happiness by querying others in the present, that we are always bound (by evolutionary wiring) to otherwise not predict or remember well, and it is difficult or impossible to get around such. Again, that is not necessarily such a bad thing; after all, evolution selected for this.
sarahjbray on LibraryThing 23 days ago
The author is incredibly funny and persuasive. He's also quite adept at using metaphor to explain complex ideas. I was annoyed at his depressing conclusions, which inferred that we're all chasing an elusive feeling, and the only way to scientifically know how to achieve it is to ask people who are currently experiencing what we want, which no one ever does. Clearly science doesn't include "instill hope for humanity" in its list of aims.
tintinintibet on LibraryThing 23 days ago
In the broader genre of psychology / sociology / statistics "why we make decisions" (Freakonomics, Nudge, Sway, Drunkard's Walk, Blunder, Black Swan, Predictably Irrational, Chances Are, Traffic, Critical Mass, Wisdom of Crowds, and all those annoying Malcolm Gladwell books), this one is a refreshingly well-written one that does weigh heavily on the psychology side of my rough genre description.I took a star off because the book (or maybe just me) lost steam as it progressed. The narrative has a somewhat compelling plot structure that aims to show us why imagination fails us, but the forced structure (with formal "summaries" -- what he calls "outlooks" I think -- at the end of chapters), takes something away from the experience. It's like watching a documentary mini-series of self-contained episodes rather than a single unified movie. So it is kind of uninspired. And it feels a bit more academic than most of the others in this genre.That said, I'd recommend this one over many of the others, simply because it is probably more well-written, thoughtful, and "big picture" than some of the others.
mabeline on LibraryThing 23 days ago
Interesting tidbits about how the mind works, but didn't really all come together to explain why people are or aren't happy. It suffered by comparison to the book I read this just before it: "Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience" by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. "Flow" was a much more satisfying (and positive) exploration of what makes us happy.
vnovak on LibraryThing 23 days ago
He has some interesting ideas and research results - the basic premise is that people are not very good at figuring out what will make them happy. However, I really didn't like the style of his writing. The examples he made up to illustrate concepts ended up being more distracting than illustrative, and his humor is not all that funny.
OnorioCatenacci on LibraryThing 23 days ago
A thoroughly fascinating read that manages to examine neurology, psychology and a few other related disciplines to explain why it is that we're so bad at determining what it is that will make us happy.
aarondesk on LibraryThing 23 days ago
A great book - what makes us happy and why.
RichardEarl on LibraryThing 23 days ago
Gilbert writes about our perceptions of what will "make us" happy, sad, satisfied.... He supports his points by outlining current research. This is a book about the difficulties of decision making and our ability to predict how we will feel.This is not a 1, 2, 3 book of how to be happy. A good read based on psychological research.
KendraRenee on LibraryThing 23 days ago
I liked this book for his humor and many illustrations--he made it interesting and accessibily for the general public, no matter how little one might know about modern psychology. And, though I didn't LOVE it, I'm almost tempted to give it a higher rating just because he made the very short list of non-fiction books I've read through in less than a week. A thumbs-up for sure.
pecochran on LibraryThing 23 days ago
Very interesting book. I thought it was well done, and amusing. Didn't take itself too seriously, but some good info.
madcurrin on LibraryThing 23 days ago
A very pleasant discovery and not at all what I was expecting. Rather than 'how to be happy' it explains why we can never predict how happy we will be in the future. Easy and entertaining to read. One of those books you wish you could remember every point to impress your friends with at dinner parties.
dvf1976 on LibraryThing 23 days ago
A good book that's in the same vein as Gladwell's books.I've tried alot of the experiments on my wife and she doesn't give the results that the book would lead me to think she should get.I'd like to think I would give answers divergent from the results in this book too. And that I'm pretty good at predicting how to create my own happiness.Unfortunately, that may just be me fulfilling the misapprehension the book says people have about their own uniqueness.
PointedPundit on LibraryThing 23 days ago
Every psychologist vows to one day complete the sentence, ¿The human being is the only animal that . . .¿Most wait until late in their careers to complete the sentence. They know, intuitively, the worse they do, the better they will be remembered. In this book, Daniel Gilbert, a psychology professor at Harvard College argues ¿The human being is the only animal that thinks about the future.¿In a witty, well-written and insightful fashion, he uses the latest research in psychology, cognitive neuroscience, philosophy and behavioral economics to illustrate our ability to imagine the future and our capacity to predict whether we will like it when we arrive there. Foresight is a fragile commodity. Happiness is not found using a simple formula. In answering ¿the question,¿ Gilbert entertains while he illuminates many of the reasons why we stumble in our visions of the future. The subject is not new, but Gilbert¿s treatment is novel, perceptive and amusing.Penned by the Pointed PunditDecember 9, 200612:04:35 PM