Home a blog which contains reading notes of some of the books I've read.

27. Stumbling On Happiness - Daniel Gilbert (📱)

Stumbling On Happiness - Daniel Gilbert

Reading Notes:

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. As one philosopher noted, the human brain is an “anticipation machine,” and “making future” is the most important thing it does.

The key to happiness, fulfillment, and enlightenment, the ex-professor argued, was to stop thinking so much about the future.

as anyone who has ever tried to learn meditation knows, not thinking about the future is much more challenging than being a psychology professor.

anticipating unpleasant events can minimize their impact.

The second reason why we take such pains to imagine unpleasant events is that fear, worry, and anxiety have useful roles to play in our lives.

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.

The fact is that human beings come into the world with a passion for control, they go out of the world the same way, and research suggests that if they lose their ability to control things at any point between their entrance and their exit, they become unhappy, helpless, hopeless, and depressed.

Apparently, gaining control can have a positive impact on one’s health and well-being, but losing control can be worse than never having had any at all.

We use our eyes to look into space and our imaginations to look into time. Just as our eyes sometimes lead us to see things as they are not, our imaginations sometimes lead us to foresee things as they will not be.

Happiness, then, is the you-know-what-I-mean feeling.

The question of the purpose of human life has been raised countless times; it has never yet received a satisfactory answer and perhaps does not admit of one. . . . We will therefore turn to the less ambitious question of what men show by their behavior to be the purpose and intention of their lives. What do they demand of life and wish to achieve in it? The answer to this can hardly be in doubt. They strive after happiness; they want to become happy and to remain so.

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.”

You might be tempted to conclude that the word happiness does not indicate a good feeling but rather that it indicates a very special good feeling that can only be produced by very special means—for example, by living one’s life in a proper, moral, meaningful, deep, rich, Socratic, and non-piglike way. Now that would be the kind of feeling one wouldn’t be ashamed to strive for. In fact, the Greeks had a word for this kind of happiness—eudaimonia—which translates literally as “good spirit” but which probably means something more like “human flourishing” or “life well lived.”

The problem is that people sometimes use the word happy to express their beliefs about the merits of things, such as when they say, “I’m happy they caught the little bastard who broke my windshield,” and they say things like this even when they are not feeling anything vaguely resembling pleasure. How do we know when a person is expressing a point of view rather than making a claim about her subjective experience? When the word happy is followed by the words that or about, speakers are usually trying to tell us that we ought to take the word happy as an indication not of their feelings but rather of their stances.

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.

Once we have an experience, we are thereafter unable to see the world as we did before.

happiness is a subjective experience that is difficult to describe to ourselves and to others.

THERE AREN’T MANY JOKES about psychology professors, so we tend to cherish the few we have. Here’s one. What do psychology professors say when they pass each other in the hallway? “Hi, you’re fine, how am I?” I know, I know. The joke isn’t that funny. But the reason it’s supposed to be funny is that people shouldn’t know how others are feeling but they should know how they’re feeling themselves.

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 and very simple decision: “Is this object an important thing to which I ought to respond right now?”

our brains are designed to decide first whether objects count and to decide later what those objects are. This means that when you turn your head to the left, there is a fraction of a second during which your brain does not know that it is seeing a wolverine but does know that it is seeing something scary.

Similarly, the identification of a wolverine at your elbow progresses over time—albeit just a few milliseconds—and it too progresses from the general to the specific. Research demonstrates that there is enough information in the very early, very general stages of this identification process to decide whether an object is scary, but not enough information to know what the object is. Once our brains decide that they are in the presence of something scary, they instruct our glands to produce hormones that create a state of heightened physiological arousal—blood pressure rises, heart rate increases, pupils contract, muscles tense—which prepares us to spring into action. Before our brains have finished the full-scale analysis that will allow us to know that the object is a wolverine, they have already put our bodies into their ready-to-run-away modes—all pumped up and raring to go.

research shows that physiological arousal can be interpreted in a variety of ways, and our interpretation of our arousal depends on what we believe caused it. It is possible to mistake fear for lust, apprehension for guilt, shame for anxiety.

Experience implies participation in an event, whereas awareness implies observation of an event. One gives us the sense of being engaged, whereas the other gives us the sense of being cognizant of that engagement. One denotes reflection while the other denotes the thing being reflected. In fact, awareness can be thought of as a kind of experience of our own experience.

alexithymia, which literally means “absence of words to describe emotional states.”

when we say with moderate precision what we mean by words such as happiness, we still can’t be sure that two people who claim to be happy are having the same experience, or that our current experience of happiness is really different from our past experience of happiness, or that we are having an experience of happiness at all.

if a thing cannot be measured, then it cannot be studied scientifically.

As we have seen, it is extremely difficult to measure an individual’s happiness and feel completely confident in the validity and reliability of that measurement.

feelings don’t just matter—they are what mattering means.

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.

Research suggests that when people make predictions about their reactions to future events, they tend to neglect the fact that their brains have performed the filling-in trick as an integral part of the act of imagination. As we are about to see, when the rest of humankind imagines the future, it rarely notices what imagination has missed—and the missing pieces are much more important than we realize.

just as we tend to treat the details of future events that we do imagine as though they were actually going to happen, we have an equally troubling tendency to treat the details of future events that we don’t imagine as though they were not going to happen.

It is difficult to escape the focus of our own attention—difficult to consider what it is we may not be considering—and this is one of the reasons why we so often mispredict our emotional responses to future events.

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.

most people would rather receive $20 in a year than $19 in 364 days because a one-day delay that takes place in the far future looks (from here) to be a minor inconvenience. On the other hand, most people would rather receive $19 today than $20 tomorrow because a one-day delay that takes place in the near future looks (from here) to be an unbearable torment.

lacked imagination but that he trusted it. Any brain that does the filling-in trick is bound to do the leaving-out trick as well, and thus the futures we imagine contain some details that our brains invented and lack some details that our brains ignored. The problem isn’t that our brains fill in and leave out. God help us if they didn’t.

Curiosity is a powerful urge, but when you aren’t smack-dab in the middle of feeling it, it’s hard to imagine just how far and fast it can drive you.

We cannot feel good about an imaginary future when we are busy feeling bad about an actual present.

Wonderful things are especially wonderful the first time they happen, but their wonderfulness wanes with repetition.

watching the sun set from a particular window of a particular room—on successive occasions, we quickly begin to adapt to it, and the experience yields less pleasure each time. 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

Another way to beat habituation is to increase the amount of time that separates repetitions of the experience.

and if you have one, then you don’t need the other.