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Stumbling on Happiness 

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Are we just too stupid to be happy? Psychologist Daniel Gilbert reveals some of the common mental mistakes that defeat our search for happiness.


Daniel Gilbert says we get in the way of our own happiness because we don’t understand how our mind works and the tricks it plays on us. The Harvard psychologist is author of the best-selling Stumbling on Happiness. His research shows that most of us look at both the past and the future through rose-colored glasses, downplaying painful times of the past and overestimating experiences in the future. He says this is just one of the ways that faulty thinking defeats our attempts to achieve happiness.

Gilbert is in the growing field of happiness studies, which tries to determine what makes us happy and why. Some of its findings seem obvious but others may surprise you. In this interview with the Shambhala Sun, Daniel Gilbert offers insights to make you think—and think about your thinking.


Shambhala Sun: Why do we stumble on happiness instead of going there directly?

Daniel Gilbert: “Stumbling on happiness” has two meanings—to find something by accident or to trip over something like a child’s bike in the garage—and I intended them both. The book is much more about the second meaning, though: how we make mistakes as we pursue happiness. When we try to make plans to discover happiness, we’re likely to find ourselves facedown in the mud.

Shambhala Sun: Even though it’s about happiness, your book seems to have a negative message—that we’re not in control of our minds and that we’re fooling ourselves all the time.

Daniel Gilbert: It is a book about pitfalls and errors, but I don’t think learning about our mistakes sends a negative message. Only good comes of knowing the truth, even when that truth is not the truth you wanted to know. The book describes, as best I could, the truth about the human mind and its pursuit of happiness. Now, some of the things it describes aren’t what we want to hear, but I think we’re better off hearing them than not.

I want my book to invite people to have a healthy skepticism about their own intuitions. When they look forward, thinking that winning the lottery will make them happy, perhaps they will rethink that. In addition to being skeptical, I would encourage people to observe. If you think winning the lottery is going to make you really happy, for a long time, check out some lottery winners. What you’ll find is that some of them are really happy, and some of them are really unhappy. If you look at enough of them, you’ll find that on average, they are exactly as happy as the people who didn’t win the lottery. So distrust your brain, and trust your eyes a little bit more. Ultimately, the way to overcome the foibles of imagination is to circumvent imagination entirely. Instead of closing your eyes, open them.

Shambhala Sun: Do you use the findings of your work to make yourself happier?

Daniel Gilbert: Most of the errors and mistakes I describe in my book almost have the status of optical illusions; that is, you can know all about them, but that doesn’t mean they still don’t fool you. So I think I make all the same mistakes everybody makes when they’re prospecting, looking forward in time, making decisions, pursuing happiness. The difference is, when I’m making them, I know their Latin names!

With that said, I do think the work has had some effect on me. For example, I’ve been involved in work on “impact bias,” research which shows that negative events don’t have the pervasive, long-term, powerful effects that people think they do. Knowing that has made me braver in my life. I take more risks because I’m much more confident that no matter how things turn out, I’ll probably do pretty well. Even if I get the bad outcome, there will be a way in which it turns out to be the good outcome.

A year ago, for example, my wife and I were house hunting. We were asking ourselves which of two houses would work: the bigger one far out of the city or the smaller one in town. I turned to her and said, “It doesn’t matter. We could take either house, and a year from now, we will know it was clearly the best choice.” Lo and behold, we bought one of the houses and now we can’t understand why we even considered the other one. That gives you a certain kind of courage, to know that whichever house you choose, it’ll be the right one.

Shambhala Sun: Happiness research seems to indicate that people place more value on events in the future than those in the past. Why is that?

Daniel Gilbert: We don’t know the answer to that yet. We have a lot of speculations, but the research you’re talking about is quite new. The reason for this may be pretty fundamental: We’re facing forward. We’re looking toward the future, and the past is in back of us. It makes sense that future events would arouse more emotion than past ones. When I tell you that two days ago four children were killed in Haifa or Beirut, it makes you feel bad. If I tell you that later this afternoon four children will be killed, you feel horrible. Why is it more terrible four hours from now than four hours ago?

Shambhala Sun: You also suggest that we can watch our experience and learn from it, and so, perhaps, not stumble quite so often. What stands in the way of our being self-aware?

Daniel Gilbert: To really be self-aware, one would have to do a number of things. First, one would have to see one’s experience clearly at the time of the experience. Many of us have experiences, and then a moment later we can’t really recount what happened. Second, we would have to remember correctly. Even if we’re observing ourselves having an experience, it’s possible that a week from now we’ll misremember what actually happened.

We also would have to remember what we projected would happen. If you know what you thought would happen when you moved to Cleveland, and you know what did happen when you moved to Cleveland, you’re in a position to take note of whether you made a mistake and how you might revise your forecast in the future.

Life conspires against our collecting data, in the way that a scientist would collect it, and it also conspires to have us make the same mistakes over and over again. Very few of us walk through life collecting data on ourselves objectively. Memory also plays lots of tricks on us, and we make the biggest mistakes in remembering what we felt. Feelings aren’t as tangible as words and deeds. It’s very hard to remember exactly what you were feeling thirty minutes ago, much less thirty years ago.



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