books - self development

Stumbling on Happiness

by Daniel Gilbert

from the cover… “Think you know what makes you happy? This absolutely fantastic book will shatter your most deeply held convictions about how the mind works.” – Steven D. Levitt, author of Freakonomics

This book was recommended by a fabulously brilliant man, and it proved to be a most interesting read. Shattering convictions indeed!

my flags…

pg 23 … 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 that it appears… just as we experience illusions of eyesight (“Isn’t it strange how one line looks longer than the other even though it isn’t?”) and illusions of hindsight (“Isn’t it strange how I can’t remember taking out the garbage even though I did?”), so too do we experience illusions of foresight – and all three types of illusions are explained by the same basic principles of human psychology.

pg 25 By the time you finish these chapters, I hope you will understand why most of us spend so much of our lives turning rudders and hoisting sails, only to find that Shangri-la isn’t what and where we thought it would be.

pg 53 Once we have an experience, we are thereafter unable to see the world as we did before. Our innocence is lost and we cannot go home again. We may remember what we thought or said (though not necessarily), and we may remember what we did (though not necessarily that either), but the likelihood is depressingly slim that we can resurrect our experience then evaluate it as we would have back then. … The separated twins may be able to tell us how they now feel about having been conjoined, but they cannot tell us how conjoined twins who have never been experienced separation felt about it.

pg 81 The eyeball cannot register an image at the point at which the optic nerve attaches, and hence that point is known as the blind spot. No one can see an object that appears in the blind spot because there are no visual receptors there. And yet, if you look out into your living room, you do not notice a black hole… Why? Because your brain uses information from the areas around the blind spot to make a reasonable guess about what the blind spot would see if only it weren’t blind, and then your brain fills in the scene with this information. That’s right, it invents things, creates things, makes stuff up! (magician and earth trick)

pg 94 The point is that just as there are parties and pastas you like and parties and pastas you don’t, there are ways of being rich and ways of being executed that make the former less marvelous and the latter less awful than we might otherwise expect. One reason why you found Fischer’s and Eastman’s reactions so perverse is that you almost certainly misimagined the details of their situations. And yet, without a second thought, your behaved like an unrepentant realist and confidently based your predictions about how you would feel on details that your brain had invented while you weren’t watching. Your mistake was not in imagining things you could not know – that is, after all, what imagination is for. Rather, your mistake was in unthinkingly treating what you imagined as though it were an accurate representation of the facts. You are a very fine person, I’m sure. But you are a very bad wizard.

pg 94 If you’d been given a choice of brains at the moment of conception, you probably wouldn’t have chosen the tricky one. Good thing no one asked you. Without the filling-in trick you would have sketchy memories, an empty imagination, and a small black hole following you wherever you went. … But that smoothness and normality come at a price. Even though we are aware in some vaguely academic sense that our brains are doing the filling-in trick, we can’t help but expect the future to unfold with the details we imagine. As we are about to see, the details that the brain puts in are not nearly as troubling as the details it leaves out.

pg 123 In a related study, researchers asked people who were working out at a local gym to predict how they would feel if they became lost while hiking and had to spend the night in the woods with neither food nor water. Specifically, they were asked to predict whether their hunger or their thirst would be more unpleasant. Some people made this prediction just after they had worked out on a treadmill (thirsty group), and some made this prediction before they worked out on a treadmill (nonthirsty group). The results showed that 92% of the people in the thirsty group predicted that if they were lost in the woods, thirst would be more unpleasant than hunger, but only 61% of the people in the nonthirsty group made that prediction. …. 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.

pg 125 We assume that what we feel as we imagine the future is what we’ll feel when we get there, but in fact, what we feel as we imagine the future is often a response to what’s happening in the present.

pg 130 Among life’s cruelest truth’s is this one: Wonderful things are especially wonderful the first time they happen, but their wonderfulness wanes with repetition. 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. … The point here is that time and variety are two ways to avoid habituation, and if you have one, then you don’t need the other. In fact (and this is the really critical point, so please put down your fork and listen), when episodes are sufficiently separated in time, variety is not only unnecessary – it can actually be costly.

pg 138 Economists shake their heads at this kind of behaviour and will correctly tell you that your bank account contains absolute dollars and not “percentages off”. If it is worth driving across town to save $50, then it doesn’t matter which item you’re saving it on because when you spend these dollars on gas and groceries, the dollars won’t know where they came from. But these economical arguments fall on deaf ears because human beings don’t think in absolute dollars. They think in relative dollars, and fifty is or isn’t a lot of dollars depending on what it is relative to (which is why people don’t worry about whether their mutual fund manager is keeping 0.5 or 0.6 percent of their investment will nonetheless spend hours scouring the Sunday paper for a coupon that gives them 40 percent off a tube of toothpaste).

pg 141 We make mistakes when we compare with the past instead of the possible. When we do compare with the possible, we still make mistakes. … Rather than deciding whether to spend money, you were deciding how to spend money, and all the possible ways of spending your money were laid out for you by the nice folks who wanted it. These nice folks helped you overcome your natural tendency to compare with the past (“Is this television really that much better than my old one?”) by making it extremely easy for you to compare with the possible (“When you see them side by side here in the store, the Panasonic has a much sharper picture than the Sony”). Alas, we are all too easily fooled by such side-by-side comparisons, which is why retailers work so hard to ensure that we make them.

pg 161 The world is this way, we wish the world were that way, and our experience of the world – how we see it, remember it, and imagine it – is a mixture of stark reality and comforting illusion. We can’t spare either. If we were to experience the world exactly as it is, we’d be too depressed to get out of bed in the morning, but if we were to experience the world exactly as we want it to be, we’d be too deluded to find our slippers. We may see the world through rose-coloured glasses, the rose-coloured glasses are neither opaque or clear. They can’t be opaque because we need to see the world clearly enough to participate in it – to pilot helicopters, harvest corn, diaper babies, and all the other stuff that smart mammals need to do in order to survive and thrive. But they can’t be clear because we need their rosy tint to motivate us to design the helicopters (“I’m sure this thing will fly”), plant the corn (“This year will be a banner crop”), and tolerate the babies (“What a bundle of joy!”). We cannot do without a 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 the artful compromise that these though competitors negotiate.
pg 167 The bottom line is this: 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.

pg 181 Research shows that 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 the volunteers’ psychological defenses, but the mild shocks were not, hence the volunteers valued the club most when its initiation was most painful. If you’ve manged to forgive your spouse for some egregious transgression but still find yourself miffed about the dent in the garage door or the trail of dirty socks on the staircase, then you have experienced this paradox.

pg 202 Memory does not store a feature-length film of our experience but instead stores an idiosyncratic synopsis, and among memories is its obsession with final scenes. Whether we hear a series of sounds, read a series of letters, see a series of pictures, smell a series of odors, or meet a series of people, we show a pronounced tendency to recall the items at the end of the series far better than the items at the beginning or in the middle. As such, when we look back on the entire series, our impression is strongly influenced by its final items.

pg 217 Economists and psychologists have spent decades studying the relation between wealth and happiness, and they have generally concluded that wealth increases happiness when it lifts people out of abject poverty and into the middle class but that it does little to increase happiness thereafter. Economists explain that wealth has “declining marginal utility”, which is a fancy way of saying that it hurts to be hungry, cold, sick, tired, and scared, but once you’ve bought your way out of these burdens, the rest of your money is an increasingly useless pile of paper. … Market economies require that we all have an insatiable hunger for stuff, and if everyone were content with the stuff they had, then the economy would grind to a halt. .. So what motivates people to work hard every day to do things that will satisfy the economy but not their own? Like so many thinkers, Adam Smith believed that people want just one thing – happiness – hence economies can blossom and grow only if people are deluded into believing that the production of wealth will make them happy. In short, the production of wealth does not necessarily make individuals happy, but it does serve the needs of an economy, which serves the needs of a stable society, which serves as a network for the propagation of delusional beliefs about happiness and wealth.

pg 221 Yet if we measure the actual satisfaction of people who have children, a very different story emerges. Couples start out quite happy in their marriages and then become progressively less satisfied over the course of their lives together, getting close to their original levels of satisfaction only when their children leave home. Interestingly, this pattern of satisfaction over the life cycle describes women (who are usually the primary caretakers of children) better than men.

pg 222 The belief-transmission game is rigged so that we must believe that children and money bring happiness, regardless of whether such beliefs are true. This doesn’t mean that we should all now quit our jobs and abandon our families. Rather, it means that while we believe we are raising children and earning paycheques to increase our share of happiness, we are actually doing these things for reasons beyond our ken. … we continue to be surprised when we do not experience all the joy we so gullibly anticipated.

pg 224 If you believe (as I do) that people can generally say how they are feeling at the moment they are asked, then one way to make predictions about our own emotional futures is to find someone who is having the experience we are contemplating ad ask them how they feel.

last note: loved the term “onward” used at the end of each chapter!

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