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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

A smart and funny book by a prominent Harvard psychologist, which uses groundbreaking research and (often hilarious) anecdotes to show us why we’re so lousy at predicting what will make us happy – and what we can do about it.

Most of us spend our lives steering ourselves toward the best of all possible futures, only to find that tomorrow rarely turns out as we had expected. Why? As Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert explains, when people try to imagine what the future will hold, they make some basic and consistent mistakes. Just as memory plays tricks on us when we try to look backward in time, so does imagination play tricks when we try to look forward.

Using cutting-edge research, much of it original, Gilbert shakes, cajoles, persuades, tricks and jokes us into accepting the fact that happiness is not really what or where we thought it was. Among the unexpected questions he poses: Why are conjoined twins no less happy than the general population? When you go out to eat, is it better to order your favourite dish every time, or to try something new? If Ingrid Bergman hadn’t gotten on the plane at the end of Casablanca, would she and Bogey have been better off?

Smart, witty, accessible and laugh-out-loud funny, Stumbling on Happiness brilliantly describes all that science has to tell us about the uniquely human ability to envision the future, and how likely we are to enjoy it when we get there.


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

Journey to Elsewhen

O, that a man might know The end of this day’s business ere it come! Shakespeare, Julius Caesar Priests vow to remain celibate, physicians vow to do no harm, and letter carriers vow to swiftly complete their appointed rounds despite snow, sleet, and split infinitives. Few people realize that psychologists also take a vow, promising that at some point in their professional lives they will publish a book, a chapter, or at least an article that contains this sentence: “The human being is the only animal that . . .” We are allowed to finish the sentence any way we like, of course, but it has to start with those eight words. Most of us wait until relatively late in our careers to fulfill this solemn obligation because we know that successive generations of psychologists will ignore all the other words that we managed to pack into a lifetime of well-intentioned scholarship and remem- ber us mainly for how we finished The Sentence. We also know that the worse we do, the better we will be remembered. For instance, those psychologists who finished The Sentence with “can use language” were particularly well remembered when chimpanzees were taught to communicate with hand signs. And when researchers discovered that chimps in the wild use sticks to extract tasty ter- mites from their mounds (and to bash one another over the head now and then), the world suddenly remembered the full name and mailing address of every psychologist who had ever finished The Sentence with “uses tools.” So it is for good reason that most psychologists put off completing The Sentence for as long as they can, hoping that if they wait long enough, they just might die in time to avoid being publicly humiliated by a monkey.

I have never before written The Sentence, but I’d like to do so now, with you as my witness. The human being is the only animal that thinks about the future. Now, let me say up front that I’ve had cats, I’ve had dogs, I’ve had gerbils, mice, goldfish, and crabs (no, not that kind), and I do recognize that nonhuman animals often act as though they have the capacity to think about the future. But as bald men with cheap hairpieces always seem to forget, act- ing as though you have something and actually having it are not the same thing, and anyone who looks closely can tell the difference. For example, I live in an urban neighborhood, and every autumn the squirrels in my yard (which is approximately the size of two squirrels) act as though they know that they will be unable to eat later unless they bury some food now. My city has a relatively well-educated citizenry, but as far as anyone can tell its squirrels are not particularly distinguished. Rather, they have regular squirrel brains that run food-burying programs when the amount of sun- light that enters their regular squirrel eyes decreases by a critical amount. Shortened days trigger burying behavior with no intervening contemplation of tomorrow, and the squirrel that stashes a nut in my yard “knows” about the future in approximately the same way that a falling rock “knows” about the law of gravity—which is to say, not really. Until a chimp weeps at the thought of growing old alone, or smiles as it contemplates its summer vacation, or turns down a taffy apple because it already looks too fat in shorts, I will stand by my version of The Sentence. We think about the future in a way that no other animal can, does, or ever has, and this simple, ubiquitous, ordinary act is a defining feature of our humanity.

The Joy of Next

If you were asked to name the human brain’s greatest achievement, you might think first of the impressive artifacts it has produced—the Great Pyramid of Giza, the International Space Station, or perhaps the Golden Gate Bridge. These are great achievements indeed, and our brains deserve their very own ticker-tape parade for producing them. But they are not the greatest. A sophisticated machine could design and build any one of these things because designing and building require knowledge, logic, and patience, of which sophisticated machines have plenty. In fact, there’s really only one achievement so remarkable that even the most sophisticated machine cannot pretend to have accomplished it, and that achievement is conscious experience. Seeing the Great Pyramid or remembering the Golden Gate or imagining the Space Station are far more remarkable acts than is building any one of them. What’s more, one of these remarkable acts is even more remarkable than the others. To see is to experience the world as it is, to remember is to experience the world as it was, but to imagine—ah, to imagine is to experience the world as it isn’t and has never been, but as it might be. The greatest achievement of the human brain is its ability to imagine objects and episodes that do not exist in the realm of the real, and it is this ability that allows us to think about the future. As one philosopher noted, the human brain is an “anticipation machine,” and “making future” is the most important thing it does.

But what exactly does “making future” mean? There are at least two ways in which brains might be said to make future, one of which we share with many other animals, the other of which we share with none. All brains—human brains, chimpanzee brains, even regular food-burying squirrel brains—make predictions about the immediate, local, personal, future. They do this by using information about current events (“I smell something”) and past events (“Last time I smelled this smell, a big thing tried to eat me”) to anticipate the event that is most likely to happen to them next (“A big thing is about to ———”). ut notice two features of this so-called prediction. First, despite the comic quips inside the parentheses, predictions such as these do not require the brain making them to have anything even remotely resembling a conscious thought. Just as an abacus can put two and two together to produce four without having thoughts about arithmetic, so brains can add past to present to make future without ever thinking about any of them. In fact, it doesn’t even require a brain to make predictions such as these. With just a little bit of training, the giant sea slug known as Aplysia parvula can learn to predict and avoid an electric shock to its gill, and as anyone with a scalpel can easily demonstrate, sea slugs are inarguably brainless. Computers are also brainless, but they use precisely the same trick the sea slug does when they turn down your credit card because you were trying to buy dinner in Paris after buying lunch in Hoboken. In short, machines and invertebrates prove that it doesn’t take a smart, self-aware, conscious, brain to make simple predictions about the future.

The second thing to notice is that predictions such as these are not particularly far-reaching. They are not predictions in the same sense that we might predict the annual rate of inflation, the intellectual impact of postmodernism, the heat death of the universe, or Madonna’s next hair color. Rather, these are predictions about what will happen in precisely this spot, precisely next, to precisely me, and we call them predictions only because there is no better word for them in the English language. But the use of that term—with its inescapable connotations of calculated, thoughtful reflection about events that may occur anywhere, to anyone, at any time—risks ob- scuring the fact that brains are continuously making predictions about the immediate, local, personal, future of their owners without their owners’ awareness. Rather than saying that such brains are predicting, let’s say that they are nexting.

Yours is nexting right now. For example, at this moment you may be consciously thinking about the sentence you just read, or about the key ring in your pocket that is jammed uncomfortably against your thigh, or about whether the War of 1812 really deserves its own overture. Whatever you are thinking, your thoughts are surely about something other than the word with which this sentence will end. But even as you hear these very words echoing in your very head, and think whatever thoughts they inspire, your brain is using the word it is reading right now and the words it read just before to make a reasonable guess about the identity of the word it will read next, which is what allows you to read so fluently. Any brain that has been raised on a steady diet of film noir and cheap detective novels fully expects the word night to follow the phrase It was a dark and stormy, and thus when it does encounter the word night, it is especially well prepared to digest it. As long as your brain’s guess about the next word turns out to be right, you cruise along happily, left to right, left to right, turning black squiggles into ideas, scenes, characters, and concepts, blissfully unaware that your nexting brain is predicting the future of the sentence at a fantastic rate. It is only when your brain predicts badly that you suddenly feel avocado.

That is, surprised. See?

Now, consider the meaning of that brief moment of surprise. Surprise is an emotion we feel when we encounter the unexpected—for example, thirty-four acquaintances in paper hats standing in our living room yelling “Happy birthday!” as we walk through the front door with a bag of groceries and a full bladder—and thus the occurrence of surprise reveals the nature of our expectations. The surprise you felt at the end of the last paragraph reveals that as you were reading the phrase it is only when your brain predicts badly that you suddenly feel . . . , your brain was simultaneously making a reasonable prediction about what would happen next. It predicted that sometime in the next few milliseconds your eyes would come across a set of black squiggles that encoded an English word that described a feeling, such as sad or nauseous or even surprised. Instead, it encountered a fruit, which woke you from your dogmatic slumbers and revealed the nature of your expectations to anyone who was watching. Surprise tells us that we were expecting something other than what we got, even when we didn’t know we were expecting anything at all.

Because feelings of surprise are generally accompanied by reactions that can be observed and measured—such as eyebrow arch- ing, eye widening, jaw dropping, and noises followed by a series of exclamation marks—psychologists can use surprise to tell them when a brain is nexting. For example, when monkeys see a researcher drop a ball down one of several chutes, they quickly look to the bottom of that chute and wait for the ball to reemerge. When some experimental trickery causes the ball to emerge from a different chute than the one in which it was deposited, the monkeys display surprise, presumably because their brains were nexting. Human babies have similar responses to weird physics. For example, when babies are shown a video of a big red block smashing into a little yellow block, they react with indifference when the little yellow block instantly goes careening off the screen. But when the little yellow block hesitates for just a moment or two before careening away, babies stare like bystanders at a train wreck—as though the delayed careening had violated some prediction made by their nexting brains. Studies such as these tell us that monkey brains “know” about gravity (objects fall down, not sideways) and that baby human brains “know” about kinetics (moving objects transfer energy to stationary objects at precisely the moment they contact them and not a few seconds later). But more important, they tell us that monkey brains and baby human brains add what they already know (the past) to what they currently see (the present) to predict what will happen next (the future). When the actual next thing is different from the predicted next thing, monkeys and babies experience surprise.

Our brains were made for nexting, and that’s just what they’ll do. When we take a stroll on the beach, our brains predict how stable the sand will be when our foot hits it, and then adjust the tension in our knee accordingly. When we leap to catch a Frisbee, our brains predict where the disc will be when we cross its flight path, and then bring our hands to precisely that point. When we see a sand crab scurry behind a bit of driftwood on its way to the water, our brains predict when and where the critter will reappear, and then direct our eyes to the precise point of its reemergence. These predictions are remarkable in both the speed and accuracy with which they are made, and it is difficult to imagine what our lives would be like if our brains quit making them, leaving us completely “in the moment” and unable to take our next step. But while these automatic, continuous, nonconscious predictions of the immediate, local, personal, future are both amazing and ubiquitous, they are not the sorts of predictions that got our species out of the trees and into dress slacks. In fact, these are the kinds of predictions that frogs make without ever leaving their lily pads, and hence not the sort that The Sentence was meant to describe. No, the variety of future that we human beings manufacture—and that only we manufacture—is of another sort entirely.


From the Hardcover edition.
Daniel Gilbert|Author Q&A

About Daniel Gilbert

Daniel Gilbert - Stumbling on Happiness

Photo © Marilyn Oliphant

Daniel Gilbert is the Harvard College Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. He has won numerous awards for his teaching and research, and his scientific research has been covered by The New York Times Magazine, Forbes, Money, CNN, U.S. News & World Report, The New Yorker, Scientific American, Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, Psychology Today and others. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Author Q&A

What is your definition of affective forecasting?  You like to say you study happinesshow are the two related?

People make mistakes when they try to predict what will make them happy in the future—a process that Tim Wilson and I have called “affective forecasting.” Anyone who has ever said “I think I’d prefer chocolate to vanilla” or “I’d rather be a lawyer than a banjo player” has made an affective forecast. And anyone who has made an affective forecast has found out the hard way that sometimes they are wrong. Stumbling on Happiness is an attempt to explain how and why our brains are structured to make these mistakes, and what we can do about it.

How did you come to study affective forecasting?  What do you find to be most exciting about the field?

Ten or fifteen years ago I was getting divorced, my teenage son was in deep trouble, my mentor died unexpectedly, my best friend and I had a serious falling out, and I was…well, not too bad thank you. Now, if you’d asked me a year earlier how I would feel if any one of these events (much less all four) were to happen, I would have told you that I’d be devastated for a long, long time. But I wasn’t. I wasn’t euphoric, of course, but I wasn’t nearly as distraught as I would have imagined. And that made me wonder whether my mistaken predictions about the emotional consequences of events like these were unique to me or shared by others. So I teamed up with the psychologist Tim Wilson, and together we began to do surveys and experiments to find out. And what we found out amazed us: People dramatically and regularly mispredict the emotional consequences of future events, both large and small. This finding set me on a research trajectory that has not yet ended, and Stumbling on Happiness is a report on what I’ve learned so far. It took me 15 years to answer the question I had asked myself, and I wrote this book so that the next person who asks that question can get a somewhat quicker reply.

What do you hope to accomplish with your studies in the field?  Do you see humans, through the continued study of the subject, as eventually reaching a place where we can accurately predict the effect certain choices will have on us? 

I’d like to say that I am trying to understand errors in affective forecasting so that we can learn how best to overcome them. The trouble is that forecasting errors are not clearly a “disease” that requires a “cure.” Indeed, some people have suggested that inaccurate forecasts may play an important role in our lives. When we overestimate how good we’ll feel when things go right and how bad we’ll feel when things go wrong, we work harder to make sure the good things happen and the bad things don’t. Anxiety and fear are useful emotions that keep us from touching hot stoves, committing adultery, and sending our children to play on the freeway. Would it really be better if we all knew that in the long run, children and money don’t make us wildly happy and that illness and divorce don’t make us desperately sad? Perhaps, but perhaps not.

With that said, I’m willing to bet that on balance we are best served by accurate estimates of the emotional consequences of pains, tragedies, and embarrassments. If you were driving on a mountain road in a thunderstorm and your passenger asked whether there might be some benefit to turning off your wipers, you’d have to admit that there are some. For example, that horrible squeaking sound would stop. But you’d probably insist that the costs of turning off the wipers clearly outweigh the benefits because when you’re driving it is usually a good idea to see where you’re going. Well, we are all driving toward the future, and thus to my mind the same logic applies. If there are any hidden benefits of affective forecasting errors, I suspect they are offset by the costs.

You asked what I hope to accomplish with my research and I’ve mentioned one practical consequence that it might achieve. But I have to be honest with you: At heart I’m just a guy who is curious about human nature, and what I really want from my research is a deeper understanding of who we are and what we are doing here. If my research has a practical benefit, I’m happy about that. If it doesn’t, I’m not even slightly worried. What is the practical benefit of knowing how the universe began, or of understanding the evolution of the mealworm? I think we make a mistake when we judge the value of knowledge by the extent to which it provides an immediate material improvement to our lives. Knowledge is an end, not a means to an end.

Where do you see the field going in its next decade?  Any recent/new findings that you'd like to share with us?

The joy of science is that no one knows where it will take us next. It’s a bobsled with no one steering. If we could say what we were going to discover in the next decade then we would already have discovered it. The only thing I’m confident about is that neither I nor anyone else can accurately answer your question about the direction of the field. The story of science is always told in retrospect.

With regard to my own recent findings…well, I have a brilliant collaborator (Tim Wilson at the University of Virginia) and each of us has a lab full of brilliant graduate students, which means that every month we have some new finding that makes everyone excited. (Not as excited as we thought we’d be, of course, but pretty damned close). For example, we’ve just finished several studies that suggest that people value almost anything more when it is in the future than when it is in the past. So, for example, when jurors learn about an accident victim who underwent 6 months of pain and suffering they don't award her as much insurance money as they award to an accident victim who will be undergoing 6 months of pain and suffering in the future. Similarly, when people buy a bottle of wine to thank a friend for letting them use a vacation home, they buy a more expensive bottle if they intend to use the vacation home next week than if they used it last week. People want more compensation for work they will do in the future than for work they did in the past. And so on. This is a very strong and unusual “temporal asymmetry” and no one yet understands why it happens. But we have several hypotheses and we’re already exploring some of them. Stay tuned.

Your studies are not only scientifically sound, but a lot of fun and seem to have a good sense of humor about them.  How do you go about designing your experiments?  Any special Gilbert methodology you're willing to share?

For every moment of delight and discovery in science, there are several thousand hours of sheer drudgery. That’s why you really have to love an idea to study it. My first methodological rule is that I won’t study something unless just thinking about it tickles me pink, leaves me breathless, and several other clichés. Once I’ve found something that I know I want to study, I then have to design a clever experiment that has just the right combination of analytic rigor and rhetorical panache. To do this I follow my second methodological rule: Call Tim Wilson.

Okay, let’s cut to the trillion-dollar question: how do I find happiness?

People have been writing books that promise to answer that question for roughly two thousand years, and the result has been a lot of unhappy people and a lot of dead trees. What makes my book different is that I don’t even try to answer that question. Stumbling on Happiness is not an instruction manual that tells you how to be happy in four easy steps and one hard one. It is not a self-help book that will transform you into the Dalai Lama with a better haircut. Rather, my book describes what modern science has to tell us about how and how well the human brain can imagine its own future, and about how and how well it can predict which of those futures it will most enjoy.

The main point of this book is to show just how bad we are at predicting what will make us happy in the future, and to explain how and why our brains are structured to make the mistakes they do. Modern people take the ability to imagine the future for granted, but it turns out that this is one of our species’ most recently acquired abilities—no more than three million years old. The part of our brain that enables us to think about the future is one of nature’s newest inventions, so it isn’t surprising that when we try to use this new ability to imagine our futures, we make some rookie errors. These errors come in three basic flavors, and that’s what the book is about. The book does end by describing an alternative method for predicting future happiness, but ironically, research shows that while this alternative method produces much more accurate predictions, people generally refuse to use it.

You show through the example of the twins how the experience of happiness is different for every individualbut then your research reveals that every individual makes the same misconceptions where happiness is concerned.  Doesn’t this seem like a strange paradox?

As I explain in the book, defining and measuring happiness is pretty tricky business, and I walk readers through all the problems, paradoxes, and pitfalls that any attempt to define and measure happiness must confront. Some of these are mind-bending, and I illustrate them with everything from sci-fi stories to card tricks. In the end I conclude that while we can’t define and measure happiness with great precision, we can define and measure it well enough to do scientific studies that teach us a lot. The common claim that you can’t measure a feeling is just plain wrong. You do it every time you ask your partner “How do you like it when I do this?” Scientists have slightly more sophisticated techniques, of course, but the essence of the enterprise is the same. People generally know how happy they are at the moment they are asked, and if you ask them, they will usually tell you. If you can quantify their answers (and we can), you can investigate happiness scientifically (and we do).

Being a cynic, as so many of us are these days, I imagine that everything that can go wrong in a situation will. What does your book have to say about the low-level anxiety most of us experience? 

You probably think it would be good if you could feel perfectly happy at every moment of your life. But we have a word for animals that cannot feel distress, anxiety, fear, and pain: The word is extinct. Negative thoughts and emotions have important roles to play in our lives because when people think about how terribly wrong things might go, they often take actions to make sure those things go terribly right. Just as we manipulate our children and our employees by threatening them with dire consequences, so too do we manipulate ourselves by imagining dire consequences. Sure, people can be so anxious that their anxiety is debilitating, but that’s the extreme case. For most of us, anxiety serves a purpose. It is what keeps you from sending your nine-year old to the rough part of town one night for a loaf of bread. If someone could offer you a pill that would make you permanently happy, you would be well advised to run fast and run far. Emotion is a compass that tells us what to do, and a compass that is perpetually stuck on NORTH is worthless.

What are the most common things people think will make them happy that really, at the end of the day, don’t?  Why do we continue to think these things are the root of happiness?

One of the ideas I discuss at some length in my book is that societies have a vested interest in deceiving their member about the sources of happiness. For a society to function, many things must happen. For example, people must buy each other’s goods and services, people must reproduce and raise their children, and so on. Of course, people won’t do these things for the good of their societies because people are typically interested in doing things for the good of themselves. So societies develop essential myths such as “Money will make you happy” and “Children will make you happy,” and these myths motivate their members to do what the societies need them to do. But research shows that neither of those things actually makes people particularly happy. Money has only minor and rapidly diminishing effects on happiness, and parents are generally happier watching TV or doing housework than interacting with their children. (Sorry, kids, but that’s what the data show). So that’s one answer to your question. But there are others. For instance, in my book I describe research showing that people tend to misremember how happy they were in the past. In one study, Democrats predicted they’d be devastated if Bush won the last presidential election, they were not nearly as devastated as they predicted (I know because I measured them myself), and yet several months later they remembered being just as devastated as they had expected to be. It turns out that this is a very common pattern of memory errors. So how can we learn from our mistaken predictions if we don’t even remember them?

Until I read your book, I thought variety was the spice of life.  Should I really have the glazed doughnut every time I go to the donut shop?  I think it’s my favoritebut what if I am missing something?

Glazed? Are you crazy? Those chocolate cake ones you can dunk are clearly the best. No wonder you aren’t happy!

But seriously, research shows that people do tend to seek more variety than they should. We all think we should try a different donut every time we go to the shop, but the fact is that people are measurably happier when they have their favorite on every visit—provided the visits are sufficiently separated in time. Those last four words are the important ones. If you had to eat 4 donuts in rapid succession, variety would indeed spice up your experience and you’d be wise to seek it. But if you had to eat 4 donuts on 4 separate days, variety would lower your overall enjoyment. As I describe in the book, the human brain has tremendous difficulty reasoning about time, and thus we tend to seek variety whether the donuts are separated by minutes or months.

Why all the Shakespeare quotes?  Are you suggesting that art can tell us more about ourselves than looking through a microscope?

I open every chapter with a Shakespeare quote, and I do this for two reasons. First, throughout history there have been wonderfully insightful people who have made shrewd guesses about how the mind works. Modern science allows us to decide which of these guesses was right and which was wrong. Shakespeare has a pretty good track record of being right, so I decided to let him kick off each chapter. The second reason is that I am an ordinary low-brow guy who prefers action movies to sonnets and Tater Tots to paté, but in my daily life I impersonate a Harvard professor, and I always have this nagging feeling that to play this role properly requires that I be a refined snob who sits around reading Shakespeare while eating little sandwiches without crusts. That’s not me, but the quotes will fool everyone—provided you don’t rat me out.

Are our lives so complicated with choices that we’ve lost some primal ignorance that would have kept us happy?  IS ignorance bliss?  And if so, will moving to a hut in the woods really help?

No, no, no. Did I mention no? Every generation has the illusion that things were easier and better in a simpler past. Dead wrong. Things are better today than at any time in human history. Our primal ignorance is what keeps us whacking each other over the head with sticks, and not what allows us to paint a Mona Lisa or design a space shuttle. We have great big brains that can foresee the future in a way that no other animal ever has, and in a way that our own species could not just a few million years ago. Foresight isn’t twenty-twenty, and sometimes it seems to be legally blind, but in general it allows us to glimpse the long-term consequences of our actions and to take measures to avoid the bad ones and promote the good ones. The “primal ignorance that keeps us happy” gives rise to obesity and global warming, not Miles Davis or the Magna Carta. If human kind flourishes rather than flounders over the next thousand years, it will be because we fully embraced learning and reason, and not because we surrendered to some fantasy about returning to a world that never really was.


From the Hardcover edition.

Praise | Awards

Praise

“Think you know what makes you happy? This absolutely fantastic book that will shatter your most deeply held convictions about how your own mind works.” —Steven D. Levitt, author of Freakonomics“A psychological detective story about one of the great mysteries of our lives . . . You ought to read it. Trust me.”—Malcolm Gladwell, author of Blink“A fascinating new book that explores our sometimes misguided attempts to find happiness.” —Time “A witty, insightful and superbly entertaining trek through the foibles of human imagination.” —New Scientist“Gilbert’s book has no subtitle, allowing you to invent your own. I’d call it ‘The Only Truly Useful Book on Psychology I’ve Ever Read.’” —James Pressley, Bloomberg News

Awards

WINNER 2007 Royal Society Prize for Science Books

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