Psychologists typically aim to make a notable discovery about humans within their career. In this regard Dan Gilbert proposes his: the human being is the only animal that thinks about the future. That we are the only animal with the power of imagination, the only animal that thinks of things that do not exist. Why do we look to the future? Because we want to control it with the hope of ensuring that we get the best possible version of it. We love the power that comes with control. However, we are not good at predicting what will make our future selves happy. Neither are we good at remembering our past happiness nor judging our present happiness and he tells us why.

It is a witty book with thought evoking questions on the subject of happiness. What is happiness by the way? Is it an experience or the actions that give rise to the experience? How can it be described and is this description unanimous? Is happiness the same for everyone? (You may want to stop reading and take a moment to define happiness in your own words.) If each one of us described happiness to someone who knew nothing about it, will they be able to figure it out? Will they be able to know we were each describing the same thing, given how subjective each of our descriptions surely are? How is it different to be happy, versus to be happy about something? Or is the emotion same? Happiness is also often associated with virtue, as a feeling resulting from being or doing good. So is happiness then a moral or emotional concept?

Alongside such questions, the author demonstrates psychological experiments to shed light on happiness, the processes involved, and where it comes from; the brain. Notably he shares interesting discussions on aspects wherein our brains function different than we expect, where our brains often act in ways that are beyond our control even when we are aware that they do.

A few illustrations of this in different timelines:

i) In the past: Memory

When we remember, we often think and expect that we are retrieving information that was carefully stored in memory. However, our brains typically retrieve key information and fabricate much of the rest. This fabrication however is done so effortlessly that we do not notice it is in fact happening. Another situation that demonstrates further this phenomenon - how good our brains are at fabrication without us noticing - is happening to you right now. We, all humans, all vertebrates, have a physiological blind spot. This is a part of the eye which lacks cells to detect light, hence is incapable of seeing. So when looking at objects, there is always a spot which we cannot see. However, our brains guess and interpolate what should be in this blind spot and fill it in so smoothly that we do not notice this blind spot hence perceive an unaltered image. This is the same manœuvre the brain performs almost effortlessly when we have items in memory that we cannot recall. It fabricates.

“Memory is not a dutiful scribe that keeps a complete transcript of our experiences. But a sophisticated editor that clips and saves key elements of an experience and then uses these elements to rewrite the story each time we ask to reread it. “
“...memory is a reconstructive process that uses every piece of information at its disposal to build the mental images that come trippingly to mind when we engage in an act of remembering.”

Human memory is flawed. We must therefore remember this and beware how much we trust our memories. Not only do our brains fill in information when we recall, new experiences and events affect and change the memories we have of events without us knowing. How we feel, think, and what we believe at this moment affects our reconstruction of how we felt or thought and what we experienced in the past.

ii) In the present - Perception

When we look at anything in the world, our brains do not only get what we see. Rather they get a combination of what our eyes see and what we already think and feel, know, want, and believe. This combination is what we perceive as reality - which of course, is distorted. We are seeing an interpretation of the world though we do not realize it. A version of events filtered through our past.

"We don't see things as they are, we see them as we are" - Anaïs Nin .

iii) In the future - Imagination

Our brains give priority to what we experience (sensory perceptions) over what we imagine (mental imagery). Both kinds of experiences (sensory experiences and mental imagery) are produced in the same part of the brain, the visual cortex. So when thinking of the future or past, we tend unintentionally infuse our imagination with what we are currently feeling. Because of the reality-first policy of the brain, what we feel at the moment, influences our imagination of events in the future. So after we have just had lunch, our current feeling of being full makes it harder to imagine what we want for dinner. Another situation is when we ask a child what they want to be when they grow up. It is not uncommon to hear such answers as unlikely to come to fruition as "a princess" or "a tree-climber". When they grow up however, the answer typically changes - even for the answers that were otherwise realistic . They, just like us when thinking of what we want for the future, rather provide answers to what we want now.

We are bad at predicting what our future selves will want. The book explains why despite everyone being unique and different, other people’s experiences of a particular situation are one of our best resources when evaluating how happy we will be in the given situation, hence understanding better what we might want then.

“The emotional experience that results from a flow of information that originates in the world is called feeling; the emotional experience that results from a flow of information that originates in memory is called pre-feeling; and mixing them up is one of the world's most popular sports.”

These and other mind-catching psychological phenomena are discussed such as:

  • There is a threshold of pain or suffering which when crossed, our brains trigger a defensive mechanism that makes us try to see the positive side of the event that caused the pain. However, mild suffering or pain does not trigger this defense.
  • We tend to regret inaction more than action, one of the reasons being that we can console ourselves with what we learnt from the experience when we take action, but we cannot do this with inaction.
  • We make wrong estimations about our capacity to be happy while living with a disability or health condition. People who can see are willing to pay more not to go blind than people who are blind are willing to pay to regain their sight. A set of twins, conjoined at birth, vowed that they will not want to be separated to live what we might patronizingly assume a normal life. We think we will feel much worse than research on the happiness levels of people in these conditions have proven. We underestimate how happy we would be if bad things happened to us and overestimate how happy we will be when good things happen to us.

Stumbling on Happiness is a well-written piece that explains several misconceptions and weaknesses in memory, perception and imagination using state of the art scientific research in psychology, cognitive neuroscience, philosophy and behavioural economics. It brilliantly explains cognitive mistakes we make when trying to predict what future versions of ourselves will like. It shows us that with respect to our happiness, we fool ourselves in many ways that are detrimental to our happiness and tries to show us some ways to control a few of them.