…or is it? “Stumbling on Happiness” by Daniel Gilbert is a book about a long pondered puzzle-what happiness is, and how best to pursue it. Humans have many illusions about happiness, and the author sets out to explain the reasons for the regular mistakes we make in the pursuit of it. In the forward, he says: “No one can say how you will feel when you get to the end of this book, and that includes the you who is about to start it. But if your future self is not satisfied when it arrives at the last page it will at least understand why you mistakenly thought it would be.”
The author is a professor of psychology at Harvard, and in the first chapter, proposes that the human being is the only animal that thinks about the future. Imagination is the most important achievement of the human brain. While living completely for the future might not be best, neither is living completely in the present, as anyone with damage to the frontal lobe could tell you. Imagining pleasant future events is pleasurable, and imagining unpleasant future events can minimize their impact.
We want to know what is likely to happen so that we can do something about it. Making things happen is a source of joy and a fundamental need. We want to steer the direction of our boat toward the future that looks better. The truth is that when we arrive at the future it will look different than the future we think we see now. There are illusions of eyesight, of hindsight, and also foresight-and all are explained by the same basic principles of human psychology. Just as memory fills in details that didn’t happen and leaves out details that did, imagination fills in details that won’t happen, and leaves out details that will. Finally, he offers a remedy that is not acceptable for most of us.
Happiness is not easy to define, as different people have different reactions to events. However, by the conclusion of the book, the author proposes that we are not as unique after all as we think we are. The best way to predict our own happiness is to get information from someone who has had the experience we are contemplating. But we almost never choose to rely on this method.
We are always busily predicting the future at least a little bit. It’s a pity we aren’t better at it. We generally have the welfare of our future selves in mind when we make choices in the present. If we deny ourselves a donut now, it is with the belief that we will appreciate being in better shape tomorrow. However, our future selves are quite likely to be critical of our present choices.
Our brains make errors in logic that lead us to continually predict incorrectly what will make us happy. While we are stuffed with mashed potatoes and turkey it is impossible to imagine ever being hungry again, even though we know it will surely happen. After childbirth, the memory of pain is quickly forgotten, misplaced by the joy of parenthood. When events do not go the way we had hoped, we are adept at rationalizing our view to make it less painful. On the other hand, the things we think will make us happy, often fail to meet expectations. Adversity often comes complete with positive as well as negative outcomes.
Does awareness of the faulty logic we employ make us any happier? Unfortunately, no. It seems we are incapable of imagining accurately, and unwilling to be guided by the opinions of others.