Derek Sivers

Stumbling on Happiness - by Daniel Gilbert

Stumbling on Happiness - by Daniel Gilbert

Go to the Amazon page for details and reviews.

Not at all new-agey, as the title might suggest. Harvard professor of psychology has studied happiness for years, and shares factual findings that will change the way you look at the world.

my notes

How much of what you do is for now, and how much is to please the future you?

We do "good" things in the charitable service of the people we will soon become. We treat our future selves as though they were our children, constructing tomorrows that we hope will make them happy.

The human being is the only animal that thinks about the future.

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. The human brain is an "anticipation machine" and "making future" is the most important thing it does.

Volunteers imagined themselves requesting a date with a person on whom they had a major crush, and those who had had the most elaborate and delicious fantasies about approaching their heartthrob were *least* likely to do so over the next few months.

When people find it easy to imagine an event, they overestimate the likelihood that it will occur. Because we get more practice imagining good events than bad events, we overestimate the likelihood that good events will actually happen to us, which leads us to be unrealistically optimistic about our futures.

Although citizens of other nations are not as optimistic as Americans, they also tend to imagine that their futures will be brighter than those of their peers.

Fear, worry, and anxiety have useful roles to play in our lives. We motivate by dramatizing the unpleasant consequences of misbehaviors by imagining the unpleasant tomorrows.

The most important reason why our brains insist on simulating the future is that our brains want to control the experiences we are about to have.

If we lose our ability to control things, we become unhappy, helpless, hopeless, and depressed.

People often act as though they can control the uncontrollable. People bet more money on games of chance when their opponents seem incompetent than competent - as though they believed they could control the random drawing of cards from a deck and thus take advantage of a weak opponent. People feel more certain that they will win a lottery if they can control the number on their ticket, and they feel more confident that they will win a dice toss if they can throw the dice themselves. People will wager more money on dice that have not yet been tossed than on dice that have already been tossed but whose outcome is not yet known, and they will bet more if they, rather than someone else, are allowed to decide which number will count as a win. All of these are absolutely absurd if they believed they had no control over an uncontrollable event.

Subjectivity : the fact that experience is unobservable to everyone but the person having it.

Remembering yellow: 73% of people not-describing a remembered color remembered it. Only 33% of those that described it in-between remembered it. Describing the color impaired rather than improved performance. Verbal descriptions overwrote their memories.

No one knows what happiness really is. Therefore we should never say we are happy until we are dead because otherwise, if the real thing ever does come along, we will have used up the word and won't have any way to tell the newspapers about it.

Volunteers showed quiz-show questions, and asked to estimate the likelihood that they could answer them correctly. Volunteers who saw only the questions thought they were difficult. Volunteers who saw both the question and the answer believed they could have answered the questions easily had they never seen the answers at all.

^ Once we have an experience, we cannot simply set it aside and see the world as we would have seen it had the experience never happened. The jury cannot disregard the prosecutor's snide remarks.

To say an experience that once brought me pleasure no longer does? A man given a drink of water in the desert may rate his happiness at that moment as an 8/8. A year later, that same drink might make him feel no better than a 2/8. Are we to believe he was wrong about how happy he was in the desert, or that a sip of water can be a source of ecstasy or a source of moisture depending on one's experiential background?

The moment we encounter an object, our brains instantly analyze just a few of its key features and then use the presence or absence of these features to make one very fast simple decision: "Is this object an important thing to which I ought to respond right now?"

Numbfeel : It is possible - at least for some of the people some of the time - to be happy, sad, bored, or curious, and not know it.

Our brain offers us an interpretation of the way things are. Because those interpretations are usually so good, we do not realize that we are seeing an interpretation. Instead, we feel as though we are sitting comfortably inside our heads, looking out though the clear glass windshield of our eyes, watching the world as it really is. We forget that our brains are talented forgers, weaving a tapestry of memory and perception whose detail is so compelling that its inauthenticity is rarely detected. The mistake we make when we unthinkingly accept the validity of our memories and perceptions is the same mistake we make when we imagine our futures.

Seeing in time is like seeing in space. When things are far away (in space) they are vague and lacking in detail. We do not mistakenly conclude that the far-away thing is vague and lacking in detail. But when we remember or imagine a distant (in time) event, our brains seem to overlook the fact that details vanish, and we conclude that the distant events are as vague as we are imagining and remembering them. For example, have you ever wondered why you often make commitments that you deeply regret when the moment to fulfill them arrives? When we said yes, we were thinking in terms of why instead of how, in terms of causes of consequences instead of execution, and we failed to consider the fact that the detail-free event we were imagining would not be the detail-laden event we would actually experience. Doing something next month is "an act of love", whereas doing it right now is "an act of lunch".

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. Tomorrow is imagined in considerable detail, as mix of good stuff and unpleasant stuff. A good day a year later is imagined as a smooth purée of happy episodes. When asked, they think the mental images of the near and far futures are equally realistic.

Curiosity : people given boring quiz asked (beforehand) if they'd prefer a candy bar at the end or to know the answers. Everyone predicted they'd want the candy bar. But after the test, even though the questions were trite, people chose to know the answers over the candy bar. Like a mystery novel, couldn't stand not knowing.

Just as imagination previews objects, so does it prefeel events.

Before making a choice, some volunteers were asked to think logically, whereas others were asked to make their choice quickly and "from the gut". When asked days later about the result of their decision, the thinkers were least satisfied. Nonthinkers trusted their prefeelings: if imagining the future made them feel good, choosing that choice would make them feel good, and they were right.

Prefeeling allowed nonthinkers to predict their future satisfaction more accurately than thinkers did. When people are prevented from feeling emotion in the present, they become temporarily unable to predict how they will feel in the future.

When we ask our brains to look at a real object and an imaginary object at the same time, our brains choose the real object. (Eyes open and looking at something overrides imagining something.)

When we try to ignore our current gloomy state and make a forecast about how we will feel tomorrow, we find it's a lot like trying to imagine the taste of marshmallow while chewing liver. It's only natural that we should imagine the future and then consider how doing so makes us feel, but because our brains are hell-bent on responding to current events, we mistakenly conclude that we will feel tomorrow as we feel today.

Volunteers in a no-variety group were more satisfied than volunteers in the variety group. Variety made people less happy, not more.

Wonderful things are especially wonderful the first time they happen, but their wonderfulness wanes with repetition. (Think about the first time your love said "I love you", versus the 100th time.)

Time and variety are two ways to avoid habituation, and if you have one, then you don't need the other.

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

Starting points have a profound impact on ending points. Starting points matter because we often end up close to where we started. When people predict future feelings by imagining a future event as though it were happening in the present and then correcting for the event's actual location in time, they make the same error.

People prefer to have a job that pays $30k, then $40k, then $50k - rather than a job that earns $60k, then $50k, then $40k, even though the latter would earn more money.

We don't think in absolute dollars. We think of relative dollars. (We would drive across town to save $50 on a $100 radio, but not to save $50 on a $100,000 car.)

If you ask someone to pay an unrealistically large cost ("could you commit to coming to our rally every weekend this summer?") before asking them to pay a smaller amount ("ok then could you at least contribute $20?") - they're much more likely to agree to pay the small cost after having contemplated the large one, in part because doing so makes the small cost seem so bearable.

People are more likely to purchase a vacation package that has been marked down from $600 to $500 than an identical package that costs $400 that was on sale the previous day for $300. We end up prefering bad deals that have become decent deals to great deals that were once amazing deals.

People don't like to buy the most expensive item in a category, so retailers can improve their sales by stocking a few very expensive items that no one actually buys (a $500 bottle of champagne) that makes less expensive items seem like a bargain by comparison (a $60 champagne). Realestate people often bring clients to shitholes first, so that the ordinary house feels like a miracle in comparison.

People were given the opportunity to bid on a dictionary that was in perfect condition and had 10,000 words. They bid $24. Others given the opportunity to bid on a dictionary with a torn cover but 20,000 words. They bid $20. When a different group was able to compare them side-by-side, they bid $19 for the small intact dictionary and $27 for the large torn dictionary. People care about an attribute (# of words) only when it is brought to their attention by side-by-side comparison.

What do all these facts about comparison mean for our ability to imagine future feelings?
(a) - value is determined by the comparison of one thing to another
(b) - there is more than one kind of comparison we can make in any given instance
(c) - we may value something more highly when we make one kind of comparison than when we make a different kind of comparison.
If we want to predict how something will make us feel in the future, we must consider the kind of comparison we will be making in the future, and not the kind of comparison we happen to be making in the present.

When we start shopping for a new pair of sunglasses, we compare the cool new ones in the store with the old outdated ones on our nose. But a few days after buying the new ones, we stop comparing them with the old pair and the delight that the comparison produced is gone.

"Presentism": judging historical figures by contemporary standards. Condemning Thomas Jefferson for keeping slaves or Sigmund Freud for patronizing women is like arresting someone today for having driven without a seat belt in 1923.


People who don't have dire reactions to tragic events are sometimes diagnosed as having "absent grief". Recent research shows conventional wisdom is wrong, that the absence of grief is quite normal, and most people are surprisingly resilient in the face of trauma.

When people are asked to predict how they'll feel if a bad event occurs, they consistently overestimate how awful they'll feel and how long they'll feel awful.

Researchers asked volunteers to write down their definition of "talented", then to estimate their talent using that definition as a guide. Other volunteers were given the definitions that the first group had written down and were asked to estimate their own talent using those definitions as a guide. The ones who defined "talented" rated themselves as more talented than the non-definers. Because definers were given the liberty to define the word talented any way they wished, they defined it exactly as wished - in terms of some activity at which they happened to excel.

Because experiences are inherently ambiguous, finding a positive view of an experience is done well and often. Racetrack gamblers evaluate their horses more positively when they are leaving the betting window than when they are approaching it. Same with voters. Objects are fine on their own, but when they become *our* objects, they are instantly finer. People are adept at finding a positive way to view things once those things become their own.

We cannot do without reality and we cannot do without illusion. Each serves a purpose, each imposes a limit on the influence of the other, and our experience of the world is inbetween.

When volunteers in one study were told that they'd scored poorly on an IQ test, and were then given an opportunity to peruse articles about IQ tests, they spent more time reading articles that questioned the validity of such tests than articles that sanctioned them. When volunteers in another study were given a glowing evaluation by a supervisor, they were more interested in reading background information that praised the supervisor's competence and acumen than background information that impeached it.

Half a group was shown that extraverts are more successful. Other half shown that introverts are more successful. Then when asked to recall events from their past to help determine which they were, they remembered just the events that support the successful group they were told.

We spent countless hours and dollars arranging our lives to ensure that we are surrounded by people who like us, and people who are like us.

A question such as "Am I the best lover you've ever had?" is dangerous because it has only one answer that can make us truly happy. "What do you like best about my lovemaking?" is brilliant because it has only one answer that can make us truly miserable.

96% of cancer patients claim to be in better health than the average cancer patient.

If we can't find people who are doing more poorly than we are, we create them. Volunteers in one study took a test and were given the opportunity to provide hints that would either help or hinder a friend's performance on the same test. When described as a game, they gave helpful hints. When described as an intelligence test, they gave hindering hints.

Although the word "fact" seems to suggest an unquestionable irrefutability, facts are nothing more than conjectures that have met a certain standard of proof. If we set that standard high enough, then nothing can ever be proved, including the fact of our own existence.

When we want to believe that someone is smart, a single letter of recommendation may suffice. When we don't want to believe that person is smart, we may demand a thick envelope full of transcripts, tests, and testimony.

It doesn't take much to convince us that we are smart and healthy, but it takes a lot of facts to convince us of the opposite.

People are typically unaware of the reasons why they are doing what they are doing, but when asked for a reason, they readily supply one.

Listening to a piece of music, some volunteers were told to just listen, while others were told to listen while consciously trying to be happy. The volunteers who had tried to be happy were in a worse mood than the ones who had simply listened. Why? (1) deliberate attempts to be happy tend to backfire and we end up feeling worse than we did before. (2) deliberate attempts to cook the facts are so transparent that they make us feel cheap.

Nobody wants to be stood up at the altar, but those who have had it happen say it was the best thing that happened to them. Like so many things, getting jilted is more painful in prospect and more rosy in retrospect.

Most people think they will regret foolish actions more than foolish inactions. But 90% of them are wrong. People in all walks of life seem to regret NOT having done things much more than they regret things they did. The most popular regrets are not going to college, not grasping profitable business opportunities, and not spending enough time with family and friends.

It's harder to manufacture positive and credible views of inactions than actions. When our inactions cause regret, we can't console ourselves by thinking of all the things we learned from the experience because there wasn't one.

The intensity of suffering triggers defensive systems, which work to help them achieve a credible and positive view of their experience. When people are given electric shocks, they actually feel less pain when they believe they are suffering for something of great value. The intense shocks were unpleasant enough to trigger their psychological defenses, but the mild shocks were not, hence they valued the club most when its initiation was painful. That's why you can forgive your spouse for cheating but stay angry about the dishes.

You may ultimately feel better when you are the victim of an insult than when you are bystander to it.

We're more likely to look for and find a positive view of the things we're stuck with than of the things we're not.

It is only when we cannot change the experience that we look for ways to change our view of the experience.

We find silver linings only when we must.

People try to explain events. When people do not complete the things they set out to do, they are especially likely to think about and remember their unfinished business. Once we explain an event, we can fold it up nicely, put it away in memory's drawer, and move on to the next one. But if an event defies explanation, it becomes a mystery or a conundrum, which refuse to stay in the back of our mind.

People choose certainty over uncertainty and clarity over mystery, despite the fact that in both cases clarity and certainty had been shown to diminish happiness.

We naturally (but incorrectly) assume that things that come easily to mind are things we have frequently encountered.

Infrequent or unusual experiences are the most memorable.

The fact that the least likely experience is often the most likely memory can wreak havoc with our ability to predict future experiences.

Memory's fetish for endings explains why women often remember childbirth as less painful than it really was, and why couples whose relationships have gone sour remember that they were never really happy in the first place.

Genes tend to be transmitted when they make us do things that transmit genes.

Wealth increases happiness when it lifts people out of poverty into middle class, but it does little to increase happiness thereafter.

Economies grow only if people are deluded into believing that the production of wealth will make them happy.

The belief that children are a source of happiness becomes a part of our cultural wisdom simply because the opposite belief unravels the fabric of any society that holds it.

One way to make predictions about our own emotional futures is to find someone who is having the experience we are contemplating and ask them how they feel.

The best way to predict our feelings tomorrow is to see how others are feeling today.

The average person doesn't see themselves 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. Most football players see themselves as having better sense than their teammates. 90% of motorists consider themselves to be safer-than-average drivers. 94% of college professors consider themselves to be better-than-average teachers. Ironically, our bias towards seeing ourselves as better than average causes us to see ourselves as less biased than average, too.

This is general tendency to think of ourselves as different from others - often for better but sometimes for worse. When people are asked about generosity, they claim to perform a greater number of generous acts than others do, but when asked about selfishness, they claim to perform a greater number of selfish acts than others do. When people are asked about their ability to perform an easy task, (driving, bike-riding), they rate themselves better than others, but when asked about their ability to perform a difficult task (juggling or playing chess), they rate themselves as worse than others.

We don't always see ourselves as superior, but we almost always see ourselves as unique.

Surrogation is a cheap and effective way to predict one's future emotions, but because we don't realize just how similar we all are, we reject this reliable method and rely instead on our imaginations, as flawed and fallible as they may be.