Summer Book Club : Stumbling on Happiness

[Book Cover]

Stumbling on Happiness

: by Daniel Todd Gilbert was voted our book club choice for this summer.

Blurb from goodreads:

Why are lovers quicker to forgive their partners for infidelity than for leaving dirty dishes in the sink? • Why will sighted people pay more to avoid going blind than blind people will pay to regain their sight? • Why do dining companions insist on ordering different meals instead of getting what they really want? • Why do pigeons seem to have such excellent aim; why can’t we remember one song while listening to another; and why does the line at the grocery store always slow down the moment we join it? In this brilliant, witty, and accessible book, renowned Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert describes the foibles of imagination and illusions of foresight that cause each of us to misconceive our tomorrows and misestimate our satisfactions. Vividly bringing to life the latest scientific research in psychology, cognitive neuroscience, philosophy, and behavioral economics, Gilbert reveals what scientists have discovered about the uniquely human ability to imagine the future, and about our capacity to predict how much we will like it when we get there. With penetrating insight and sparkling prose, Gilbert explains why we seem to know so little about the hearts and minds of the people we are about to become.

Lab members can download the digital version of the book from our internal forum.

Page with Comments

  1. The author opens with a bold statement, “The human being is the only animal that thinks about the future,” and spends the rest of the book explaining why this is true. The first chapter discusses the role that the frontal lobe plays in thinking about the future. One anecdote within the novel discusses the famous case of Phineas Gage. Gage was a man who had a rod go through his frontal lobe yet, experienced no major brain damage, except in his ability to think about the future. As seen with other cases of frontal lobe damage, these people were noticeably calmer but could not plan for the future similarly to those who did not have damage. The author then makes the point connecting anxiety and planning for the future through the use of the frontal lobe. It would be interesting to explore if there are alterations in the frontal lobe (size, neural function, etc) of those with severe anxiety compared to those who do not. Additionally, the author states that 12% of our daily thoughts are about the future. I am curious if that is higher for those who have anxiety as well. If anxiety is a likely reaction from planning the future, then do those with anxiety think more about the future than those who do not? Additionally the first chapter discusses how daydreaming is a pleasurable activity and those given the option to experience an exciting event immediately or to delay it, choose to delay it since daydreaming about the event increases the enjoyment of the event itself. If daydreaming is a way of projecting ourselves into the future by picturing positive outcomes, do those with anxiety also project themselves into the future but, rather than picturing positive outcomes picture more negative outcomes and therefore have more negative emotions associated with daydreaming?

    Another theme of the book is the overestimation of the accuracy of our memories which then informs poor decision making. In the second chapter, the author presents a study where people were asked to give directions to a stranger. During the conversation with the stranger, their view was obstructed and the stranger changed appearance. Those who were giving directions rarely noticed the change. When asked if they would notice these differences all participants answered that they would. So even with visual changes people overestimate their own accuracy and the same can be said for memories. Our experiences either past or present change our perception of our memories and therefore affect how we predict our futures. The author describes how our memories are small snippets of a total experience and therefore we usually fill in those small snippets with fabrications unconsciously. Additionally, those small snippets that we do store are usually pieces of the event that made us feel very good or very bad. We seldom remember mediocre pieces of events and therefore whether a very good or very bad piece of the memory was stored then informs what fabrications are invoked and ultimately influences our future decisions.

    Overall, this book provided a lot of insight regarding how to critically evaluate your perception of happiness (as well as your emotions generally). It draws attention to the inability to recognize the faults in our own memories and how we tend to rely on our past and current experiences when imagining our futures, which ultimately may not be an accurate representation. The book concludes by advising those who are making decisions to look to those who have been in similar situations and follow their advice. It is difficult to imagine ourselves as similar enough to another individual to feel confident that their decisions would be the same as ours but, given the flaws in our logic due to poor memory recall and inability to imagine our futures accurately and without any previous biases, asking other may provide more insight into how our future selves would feel about our decisions.

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