Book Review: Dan Gilbert’s Stumbling On Happiness

Stumbling On Happiness

My Thoughts On Dan Gilbert’s Stumbling On Happiness

If you haven’t already seen it, head over to YouTube and watch Dan Gilbert’s short Ted Talk: The Surprising Science of Happiness. Dan is a Harvard psychologist and speaker. This book, Stumbling On happiness was written in 2006, and it after reading it, I still can’t grasp why it too me so long to find it.

So what did I get from this book? Well I’ll start by saying that one of my favourite parts of the book talks about exactly what I’m doing now. Getting another persons perspective. receiving advice, or another’s opinion on something that which they have experienced, is so much more valuable than trying to think, or imagine it ourselves. Yet, most of the population prefer to imagine.

The book is essentially about the mind, psychology and yes, happiness. But it’s not your average happiness book. There is no mediation, prayer or nutritional hacks. This is an in-depth look at our imagination, and how this imagi-nation is, is really the only nation. In essence, this little gem is all about feeling.

The beginning of the book is very similar to Dan’s ted Talk on the science of happiness. There is a detailed look with studies, showing how the more choice we have, the less happier we will be after making a decision. But as the complicated, unique and largely unexplainable creatures that we are, we think the more choice the better. We get excited by a new range of clothes, a large menu or a buffet selection. The truth is though, if we want to feel better, this is a fallacy.

One of my preferred parts of the book, was this brief look at facts and how we like to ‘cook’ them. In fact it is this cooking of facts that has led to many world issues, not only of the past century, but probably since man spoke. Take the US invasion of Iraq in 2004. The US apparently received ‘intelligence’ that Iraq where carrying, and making huge advances with nuclear weapons. This turned out to be untrue, but it didn’t stop the inevitable devastation. What is cooking the facts? Essentially, it is taking a piece of advice, text or a specific event. And focusing purely on that and nothing else. It means not taking in to consideration other factors. It means not taking what I like to call a ‘fly in the room perspective”. Say for instance, you wanted to be a standout cook amongst your friends and family. Well, the common take on this is that you would have to do a 3 month intense cooking course, be able to fillet 10 salmon to sushi-like precision in 1 hour, or win Masterchef. But the reality is, you are just cooking the ‘facts’. All you need to do, is just be better than the average person. The tables will then be turned and they will cook the facts. They will see you as a great chef, without taking in to consideration the other, the many other factors!

chef tossing pizzaDan splits the book generally into 3 parts. But the anchor of the book is a look tat the 3 major flaws of our imagination. The first one,being that our brains fill in the gaps of our memory. Imagine a specific memory as a horizontal line of dashes across a sheet of paper. These dashes represent your REAL memories; they things that you remember quite clearly. And they are almost always correct. Now, the dashes, or ‘gaps’, are where the issues start to rise. When you are recalling a memory today, these ‘gaps’ are subconsciously filled with ‘guesses’. These guesses are made by our imagination and and the worst thing is, we almost never notice it. Furthermore, these guesses are hugely influenced by how we feel when we make them. In other words, our present state of mind and circumstances has a large say on the gaps that are filled.

This is easy to see and even the most skeptical people reading this book, will resonate some way or another with it. For example, when most adults talk of their school days, they say “Ahh, it was the best time of my life. The jokes, the play, the freedom, the lack of responsibility, the romance. It was ‘different’ back then.” Well, what these adults fail to recognise, is that we as humans always remember the best parts, or certain distinct things about past times. And these aren’t the whole of the story. In reality, if these adults were to actually put themselves back into their school shoes and oversized blazers, and think hard about each day at school, not only the best bits, they would probably see that they in fact hated school. Back then, they would likely have said, “I hate school. There’s too much work, it’s boring and there is no freedom. The food is the same, the teachers are nasty and I just can’t wait to be an adult and be ‘free’!” – If you can see the similarity, I give you permission to have a little ironic chuckle to yourself. You may have also noticed that the two statements are different in that one is referring to the past, and the other the future. This links nicely in to the second flaw of imagination.

Our future predictions are even more influenced by how we feel in the present. And yes, whether we admit it or not, we do predict. Like the dashes I mentioned above, imagine future predictions like a very largely spaces out dot-to-dot picture. The dots represent the future certainties, like “On that day it will be my birthday” or “That is the start of the summer holidays”. The joining lines are the guesses that we make. And they can be fatal. They are so often incorrect. Like the example above, when you ask the kid at school what they think about school. You’ll soon get something like, “It’s boring, I can’t wait to be an adult and be free”. Now, the kids makes this prediction because they are not enjoying their current circumstances. They base it on their current feeling. So, in moonshot fashion, they predict they will be better of in they can just get what they want.kids doing homework

Dan reiterates this second flaw throughout the book, and for some readers it can get annoyingly repetitive. I certainly skim read some of the constant references to studies and examples. However if you’re an academic, aspiring psychologist, or just a very fast reader, this may be no problem for you. I think is it a clever move from the Author to get the idea’s etched into the reader’s brain, albeit with a slight headache and maybe a glass of wine.

The third and final flaw that he gives emphasis to, is the way our imagination fails to see how things will change when certain things happen. When we make these guesses or refer to past experiences, we very rarely take in to account what will happen when X, or if Y happens. Of course, we can’t do this to any degree of correctness, because we don’t know what X and Y is! Again taking the example above, when we think of school days past, we say conclusively that they were ‘great days’. If something happens in the near or far future, our thinking about those times may change. So we cannot really say anything conclusive about memories, without taking into account that our thinking about our memories may change! Analogously, if we try to consider how we will feel, our imagination paints a picture in our mind. What it fails to imagine is how them feelings will change with time, and after certain happenings. So what do our brains do, they make up, they guess, they cheat.

Complicated stuff in parts, and you may think, how is this convenient or reasonable? Well it isn’t and it isn’t meant to be. As you will read if you pick up the book, things are the way they are because that is how they need to be for us to have an economic world, money, riches, wealth and houses.

I will just finish with a few of my favourite outtakes from the book.

“But as bald men with cheap hairpieces always seem to forget, acting as though you have something and actually having it are not the same thing.”

When referring to the largely misused and overcooked word ‘happiness’, Dan dishes out “As readers quickly learn, this is approximately the equivalent to beginning a pilgrimage by marching directly into the first available tar pit, because happiness really is nothing more or less than a word that we word makers can use to indicate anything we please.”

“But don’t worry, because business gets better, it gets a whole lot thornier.”

“There are 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?’ ”

“Experience comes rom the latin word: to try.”

“Don’t try to imagine the taste of marshmallows whilst chewing liver.”

mentor meeting studentAnd finally, probably one of the best lines in the book, “Alas, we think of ourselves as unique entities – minds unlike any others – and thus we often reject the lessons that the emotional experience others has to teach us.”

A great book and a must read for any one who is interested in how the mind works. You’ll learn why you feel what you feel, and potentially how to change it. You’ll learn how many guesses we actually make (It’s a whole lot more than you think). And you’ll likely leave with a deeper understanding of yourself and not only the people, but about the world around you.

What are your favourite books on the mind, feeling or imagination? Have you read anything by Dan Gilbert? Let us know below.

Pick up the book here.

Another 2 books which i think resonate a lot with this Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari and The Black Swan by Nassim Taleb.

I have done reviews of each of these books and you can find them by searching “book reviews” in the top right search box. Also, if you liked this, check out my top 7 books post.

Until next time, feel great and prosper…

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