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Stumbling on Happiness

Daniel Gilbert (2006)


This is the part of the book in which the author typically claims that nobody writes a book by himself and then names all the people who presumably wrote the book for him. It must be nice to have friends like that. Alas, all the people who wrote this book are me, so let me instead thank those who by their gifts enabled me to write a book without them. (xi)

There's really one 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. (5)

Pigeons have no trouble figuring out that the presence of a light signals an opportunity for eating, but they cannot learn the same thing about the absence of a light. Research suggests that human beings are a bit like pigeons in this regard. For example, volunteers in one study played a deduction game in which they were shown a set of trigrams (i.e., three-letter combinations such as SXY, GTR, BCG, AND EVX). The experimenter then pointed to one of the trigrams and told the volunteers that this trigram was special. The volunteers' job was to figure out what made the trigram special—that is, to figure out which features of the special trigram distinguished it from the others. Volunteers saw set after set, and each time the experimenter pointed out the special one. How many sets did volunteers have to see before they deduced the distinctive feature of the special trigram? For half the volunteers, the special trigram was distinguished by the fact that it and only it contained the letter T, and these volunteers needed to see about thirty-four sets of trigrams before they figured out that the presence of T is what made a trigram special. For the other half of the volunteers, the special trigram was always distinguished by the fact that it and only it lacked the letter T. The results were astounding. No matter how many sets of trigrams they saw, none of the volunteers ever figured this out. (97-8)

Sir Francis Bacon wrote about the ways in which the mind errs, and he considered the failure to consider absences among the most serious. . . . Bacon illustrated his point with a story (which, it turns out, he borrowed from Cicero, who told it seventeen centuries earlier) about a visitor to a Roman temple. To impress the visitor with the power of the gods, the Roman showed him a portrait of several pious sailors whose faith had presumably allowed them to survive a recent shipwreck. When pressed to accept this as evidence of a miracle, the visitor astutely inquired, "But where are the pictures of those who perished after taking their vows?" Scientific research suggests that ordinary folks like us rarely ask to see pictures of the missing sailors. (99-100)

When we are selecting, we consider the positive attributes of our alternatives, and when we are rejecting, we consider the negative attributes. (100)

About fifty years ago a Pygmy named Kenge took his first trip out of the dense, tropical forests of Africa and onto the open plains in the company of an anthropologist. Buffalo appeared in the distance—small black specks against a bleached sky—and the Pygmy surveyed them curiously. Finally, he turned to the anthropologist and asked what kind of insects they were. "When I told Kenge that the insects were buffalo, he roared with laughter and told me not to tell such stupid lies." The anthropologist wasn't stupid and he hadn't lied. Rather, because Kenge had lived his entire life in a dense jungle that offered no views of the horizon, he had failed to learn what most of us take for granted, namely, that things look different when they are far away. You and I don't mix up our insects and our ungulates because we are used to looking out across vast expanses, and we learned early on that objects make smaller images on our retinas when they are distant than when they are nearby. (104)

Seeing in time is like seeing in space. But there is one important difference between spatial and temporal horizons. When we perceive a distant buffalo, our brains are aware of the fact that the buffalo looks smooth, vague, and lacking in detail because it is far away, and they do not mistakenly conclude that the buffalo itself is smooth and vague. But when we remember or imagine a temporally distant event, our brains seem to overlook the fact that details vanish with temporal distance, and they conclude instead that the distant events actually are smooth and vague as we are imagining and remember them. (105)

Economists and psychologists have shown that people expect losing a dollar to have more impact than gaining a dollar, which is why most of us would refuse a bet that gives us an 85 percent chance of doubling our life savings and a 15 percent chance of losing it. The likely prospect of a big gain just doesn't compensate for the unlikely prospect of a big loss because we think losses are more powerful than equal-sized gains. (145)

If we were to experience the world exactly as it is, we'd be too depressed to get out of bed in the morning, but if we were to experience the world exactly as we want it to be, we'd be too deluded to find our slippers. We may see the world through rose-colored glasses, but rose-colored glasses are neither opaque nor clear. They can't be opaque because we need to see the world clearly enough to participate in it—to pilot helicopters, harvest corn, diaper babies, and all the other stuff that smart mammals need to do in order to survive and thrive. But they can't be clear because we need their rosy tint to motivate us to design the helicopters ("I'm sure this thing will fly"), plant the corn ("This year will be a banner crop"), and tolerate the babies ("What a bundle of joy!"). We cannot do without reality and we cannot do without illusion. Each serves a purpose, each imposes a limit on the influence of the other, and our experience of the world is the artful compromise that these tough competitors negotiate. (161-2)

["'What are the stars? They are bits of fire a few kilometers away. We could reach them if we wanted to. Or we could blot them out. The earth is the center of the universe. The sun and the stars go round it. . . . For certain purposes, of course, that is not true. When we navigate the ocean, or when we predict an eclipse, we often find it convenient to assume that the earth goes round the sun and that the stars are millions upon millions of kilometers away. But what of it?'"
"To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which canceled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it. . . . It was quite simple. All that was needed was an unending series of victories over your own memory. 'Reality control,' they called it; in Newspeak, 'doublethink.'" (Nineteen Eighty-Four)]

In short, we derive support for our preferred conclusions by listening to the words that we put in the mouths of people who have already been preselected for their willingness to say what we want to hear. (166)

We are more likely to generate a positive and credible view of an action than an inaction, of a painful experience than of an annoying experience, of an unpleasant situation that we cannot escape than of one we can. And yet, we rarely choose action over inaction, pain over annoyance, and commitment over freedom. (191)

The fact that the least likely experience is often the most likely memory can wreak havoc with our ability to predict future experiences. (199-200)

Economists and psychologists have spent decades studying the relation between wealth and happiness, and they have generally concluded that wealth increases human happiness when it lifts people out of abject poverty and into the middle class but that it does little to increase happiness thereafter. Americans who earn $50,000 per year are much happier than those who earn $10,000 per year, but Americans who earn $5 million per year are not much happier than those who earn $100,000 per year. People who live in poor nations are much less happy than people who live in moderately wealthy nations, but people who live in moderately wealthy nations are not much less happy than people who live in extremely wealthy nations. Economists explain that wealth has "declining marginal utility," which is a fancy way of saying that it hurts to be hungry, cold, sick, tired, and scared, but once you've bought your way out of these burdens, the rest of your money is an increasingly useless pile of paper. (217-18)

Economies thrive when individuals strive, but because individuals will only strive for their own happiness, it is essential that they mistakenly believe that producing and consuming are routes to personal well-being. Although words such as delusional may seem to suggest some sort of shadowy conspiracy orchestrated by a small group of men in dark suits, the belief-transmission game teaches us that the propagation of false beliefs does not require that anyone be trying to perpetrate a magnificent fraud on an innocent populace. There is no cabal at the top, no star chamber, no master manipulator whose clever program of indoctrination and propaganda has duped us all into believing that money can buy us love. Rather, this particular false belief is a super-replicator because holding it causes us to engage in the very activities that perpetuate it. (220)

When people are asked to identify their sources of joy, they do just what I do: They point to their kids. Yet if we measure the actual satisfaction of people who have children, a very different story emerges. . . . Couples generally start out quite happy in their marriages and then become progressively less satisfied over the course of their lives together, getting close to their original levels of satisfaction only when their children leave home. Despite what we read in the popular press, the only known symptom of "empty nest syndrome" is increased smiling. (221)

"Children bring happiness" is a super-replicator. The belief-transmission network of which we are a part cannot operate without a continuously replenished supply of people to do the transmitting, thus the belief that children are a source of happiness becomes a part of our cultural wisdom simply because the opposite belief unravels the fabric of any society that holds it. Indeed, people who believed that children bring misery and despair—and who thus stopped having them—would put their belief-transmission network out of business in around fifty years. (222; or possibly 250 years)

The belief-transmission game is rigged so that we must believe that children and money bring happiness, regardless of whether such beliefs are true. (222)

My friends tell me that I have a tendency to point out problems without offering solutions, but they never tell me what I should do about it. In one chapter after another, I've described the ways in which our imagination fails to provide us with accurate previews of our emotional futures. I've claimed that when we imagine our futures we tend to fill in, leave out, and take little account of how differently we will think about the future once we actually get there. I've claimed that neither personal experience nor cultural wisdom compensates for imagination's shortcomings. I've so thoroughly marinated you in the foibles, biases, errors, and mistakes of the human mind that you may wonder how anyone ever manages to make toast without buttering their kneecaps. If so, you will be heartened to learn that there is a simple method by which anyone can make strikingly accurate predictions about how they will feel in the future. But you may be disheartened to learn that, by and large, no one wants to use it.
Why do we rely on our imaginations in the first place? Imagination is the poor man's wormhole. We can't do what we'd really like to do—namely, travel through time, pay a visit to our future selves, and see how happy those selves are— and so we imagine the future instead of actually going there. But if we cannot travel in the dimension of time, we can travel in the dimensions of space, and the chances are pretty good that somewhere in those other three dimensions there is another human being who is actually experiencing the future event that we are merely thinking about. . . . For the most part, those who have already tried these things are more than willing to tell us about them. It is true that when people tell us about their past experiences . . . memory's peccadilloes may render their testimony unreliable. But it is also true that when people tell us about their current experiences . . . they are providing us with the kind of report about their subjective state that is considered the gold standard of happiness measures. If you believe (as I do) that people can generally say how they are feeling at the moment they are asked, then one way to make predictions about our own emotional futures is to find someone who is having the experience we are contemplating and ask them how they feel. Instead of remembering our past experience in order to simulate our future experience, perhaps we should simply ask other people to introspect on their inner states. Perhaps we should give up on remembering and imagining entirely and use other people as surrogates for our future selves. (223-4)

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