Stumbling on Happiness

Daniel Gilbert

Rating 10/10

Best Line #1: Wealth doesn’t matter; utility does. We don’t care about money or promotions or beach vacations per se; we care about the goodness or pleasure that these forms of wealth may (or may not) induce. Wise choices are those that maximize our pleasure, not our dollars, and if we are to have any hope of choosing wisely, then we must correctly anticipate how much pleasure those dollars will buy us.

Best Line #2: The human being is the only animal that thinks about the future.

Happiness Is Still Our North Star

I’ve heard many wise people, including Nobel-winning psychologists, say that their principle desire in life is to pursue satisfaction. Or contentment. Or tranquility. And as much as I like these ideas and the people who espouse them, the simplest and probably most honest truth is that they … and I … and you are still ultimately locked in the pursuit of happiness. Our minds might try to convince us otherwise but our hearts stubbornly persist in that direction.

Is this good? Maybe not. After all, happiness is a temporary feeling. It’s vague, too. We tend to define it poorly. We often take it for granted. And as Daniel Gilbert writes in this fantastic book, we have a hard time figuring out reliable ways to achieve it.

Contentment is easier. With practice, we can diminish desires, detach ourselves from the habit of constant internalization, and achieve what Tara Brach calls Radical Acceptance.

Satisfaction is easier, too. This feeling is aligned with contentment but it embraces more deliberate efforts for change, wherein we strive for what William Irvine described as our grand goal of life. I think it also holds a deeper connection to other ideals, like fairness.

Yet, in these and other core ideas that surround our motivations, I still find myself coming back to happiness. Contentment is a way of finding happiness with all that we currently experience. Satisfaction is a way of finding happiness amidst the struggle, the imperfections, the constant effort to do our best. These ideas, all of them, are not endpoints themselves but pathways to that single destination which always remains: happiness.

That said, the useful part about this distinction is that it helps us clarify the ways in which some paths are actually just dead-ends. The search for contentment is a legitimate strategy for happiness. Same with the search for satisfaction. Also, the adherence to any number of classic moral codes is good, too.

But virtually every book I’ve ever read on self-help, psychology, and philosophy has declared hedonism and indulgence as dead-ends. Consumerism is a dead-end. External prestige is a dead-end. Social approval is a dead-end. The relentless fixation on base desires is a dead-end.

You get the idea. It feels so obvious and yet we all still pursue those dead-ends on occasion.

Why?

Gilbert’s book provides my favorite answer. We pursue these dead-ends because we are unique creatures who think about our future, predict what will make us happy, and choose in accordance to those predictions. This behavior helps us a great deal.  

But our predictions are often faulty. The things we predict will make us happy often don’t really make us happy. Hence our regular trips down dead-end paths.

This act of predicting happiness and acting on those predictions, even when they’re wrong, feels like the most simple, coherent explanation for the way we behave. It all comes down to affective forecasting. True to the title, this isn’t just a behavior. It is (or can be) a skill. One that directly improves our outcomes in the grand pursuit of happiness.

Outside the realm of forecasting, there are other ways we can improve our odds for finding happiness. This week’s articles feature a few of those techniques, all inspired by the Gilbert’s work:

Monday: Happiness Is Understanding Your Three Selves

Tuesday: Short-Term Planning, Long-Term Happiness

Wednesday: One Dangerous Way Our Imagination Tricks Us

Thursday: A Simple Trick For Emotional Resiliency

I’ll feature a few more notable ideas and politely urge you to pick up a copy of the book. It’s one of the finest examples of pop psychology I’ve come across. The entertainment value alone is worth the price. The sheer density of information in its sub-300 pages is impressive.

Go With Your Gut

Rational decision-making is a swell idea. Its methods, techniques, and processes are the wellspring of science and industry. In fact, it might be the single most important component of management, business, government, and education. But anyone working in those fields will tell you that it probably isn’t the best tool for pursuing happiness.

It can help but it cannot stand alone. We won’t let it. There is a stubborn, innately human component of our decision-making that holds greater sway. We often call it “the heart.” Some happen to call it “their gut.” Psychologists recognize it as an vague, subconscious blend of preference, intuition, motivation, and emotion that manifests in prefeeling.

True to the label, prefeeling is the sensation you get before the sensation. It’s the internal reaction that whispers an answer to a question before you’ve spun up the logic machine. It’s the stuff of System 1 in the Kahneman parlance. Again, the best association I can think of is your “gut” or your “heart.” As Gilbert writes,

Prefeeling often allows us to predict our emotions better than logical thinking does.

The important aspect of prefeeling is that it can often run counter to rationality and logic. In the pursuit of happiness, Gilbert reports many instances where this is a good thing. One such example involves an experiment with art selection.

As many already know, art is a tricky subject. The very definition of the term escapes us. What is art? What is good art? What is bad art? The answers are purely individual. We all like different things. Yet, the uninitiated can often feel the pressure to conform to other people’s taste in art since, again, it is a tricky subject. Or worse, the uninitiated can second-guess themselves based on what they think they should like regardless of direct external pressure.

I like Rembrandt. No, I like Van Gogh. No, maybe I like Monet. Oh, what should I tell people?

To explore this notion further, researchers offered a simple choice to two volunteer groups. The choice was the same for both groups. They had to choose a piece of art that they would enjoy taking home. One piece was a more classic, arguably more tasteful, work. The other piece was a humorous cartoon image that you might say was less refined.

The first group of volunteers were given no time to consider their options. They had to go with their initial reactions or, rather, their prefeeling.

The other group was given ample time to consider both options before making a decision.

Researchers later checked to see which group was more satisfied with their choices. As Gilbert explains (emphasis added),

Career counselors and financial advisors always tell us that we should think long and hard if we wish to make sound decisions, but when researchers phoned the volunteers later and asked how much they liked their new object d’ art, the thinkers were the least satisfied. Rather than choosing the poster that had made them feel happy when they imagined hanging it in their homes, thinkers had ignored their prefeelings and had instead chosen posted that possessed the qualities of which a career counselor or financial advisor would approve.

We do this all the time. Which is why the best advice on the big decisions of life often invoke the phrase “listen to your heart.” And when I think about this advice and our careers, I remember the great words of Paul Graham in his important essay on prestige.

He doesn’t like prestige.

I don’t either. Not anymore. Prestige, as a thing, is the encapsulation of all the advice every career counselor or financial advisor has ever offered. Prestige is the embodiment of a very rational, logical, career track. And for those of us who foster vague prefeelings about what work would make us happy, prestige offers the sweet, shallow relief of a prebaked answer. As Graham writes,

A comparatively safe and prosperous career with some automatic baseline prestige is dangerously tempting to someone young, who hasn’t thought much about what they really like.

The point here, I think, is that a career should support an individual’s grand pursuit of happiness. So often, though, we’re not sure what that means and so we choose whatever is most prestigious instead. Graham writes beautifully on the pitfalls of this approach and helps us reorient our thinking.

That said, there are times when prefeeling is dulled by several factors. We don’t have the best prefeeling when we are depressed, severely stressed, or distracted by noise, hunger, or exhaustion. So in the pursuit of happiness, remember to go with your gut whenever you can. But remember, too, that your gut can only serve you when the stress is low, your mood is calm, and the setting is comfortable.  

Faulty Comparisons

If you wear glasses like me, the annual eye exam is a fascinating experience. It starts with a seat in a comfortable chair and an eye chart projected onto a screen. Then comes the phoropter. With this machine and its many interchangeable lenses, the optometrist offers up a long series of A/B tests with many different lenses that usually start off too blurry, then too sharp, and then less blurry, then less sharp. Back and forth the exercise goes through a series of continual comparisons that eventually lead to a final set of lenses that produce 20/20 vision.

No matter how skilled the optometrist, they always seem to conduct this exercise with a very thorough string of many comparisons. Why? Because they don’t trust our initial impressions. We may be the seer of our own sights but we regularly fail to optimize our vision if we only have two or three views to choose from.

In fact, I can think of several times where I’ve seen through one lens, then another, and failed to determine which was better.

The point? Comparison is easy but not always effective. It leads to the following from Gilbert:  

In short, the comparisons we make have a profound impact on our feelings, and when we fail to recognize that the comparisons we are making today are not the comparisons we will make tomorrow, we predictably underestimate how differently we will feel in the future.

Optometry aside, the idea that our vision changes as we view things through different lenses is a deliberate metaphor illustrating what Gilbert writes above. If you want to feel happier, you can easily compare your current state to some previous inferior state. But if you want to feel less happy, go ahead and compare yourself to some unachieved state on the horizon. Mission accomplished.

The real idea, I think, is that our comparisons are for us to choose. If you always ratchet up your comparison to the next thing that you think is better, you’ll surely diminish today’s happiness. Such is the fuel that powers the hedonic treadmill.

I can’t say what your comparisons should be. But you should choose them mindfully.

Psychological Immune System

There is a tremendous body of work outlining the ways in which we humans seek to maintain the status quo. Why is that? Well, for one thing, we dislike loss and value it more than we value gain. Also, status quo is a known quantity. Anything outside of the status quo carries some degree of uncertainty and that scares us.

That scary feeling is not just some primitive relic of our caveman past. It is a protective device. Or rather, a proverbial White Blood Cell produced by our psychological immune system. This system, similar to its physiological counterpart, is a preventative entity within our mind that seeks to eradicate any potential trauma that threatens our mental wellbeing.   

I never considered this fantastic concept until reading Gilbert’s book. It is a very useful model of people’s mindsets and attitudes. Particularly because an immune system can occasionally go awry. A hyperactive psychological immune system will produce strong protections to any potential threat, no matter how minor, leaving a person more rigid and fearful and close-minded. A hypoactive psychological immune system will not produce enough reactions and thus leave a person too sensitive, too suggestive, or perhaps complacent.

But a well-balanced system captures something that Gilbert articulates nicely below:

A healthy psychological immune system strikes a balance that allows us to feel good enough to cope with our situation but bad enough to do something about it.

Such is the pursuit of happiness: a blend of acceptance for our situation and a desire to improve it. It begs the question, of course: how do we improve it? How do we find more happiness?

Gilbert doesn’t say. That’s not the point of the book. But he does conclude with an important observation for us all to keep in mind.

Conclusion

For the very first time, our happiness is in our hands.

It’s true. Virtually all of our pre-modern ancestors were dealt with a single, inescapable lot in life. Born a peasant? Die a peasant. Such a life wasn’t always grim but make no mistake: we are the lucky ones. We hold more knowledge than ever before on the topic. We have more resources, too. We can be happy. Every single one of us.

Of course, no one said it was easy.

Gilbert’s book is written to explain why. One major thesis involves our thoughts of the future. How we think about the future, and how often we think of it, carries real cost to our happiness. Better thinking can help. In that way, the real challenge is for us to develop greater skill in the art of affective forecasting. That’s the way forward for deciding how we live the good life.

We face choices every day. Door #1 or Door #2? Which will make you happier? Understanding how to answer this, and the pitfalls of each technique for doing so, is vital. Gilbert’s book is the best one I’ve found for doing so. His premise is the most profound. His collected research is the most helpful. And his wise choice to forgo specific recipes for success gives us freedom to use his insights more broadly. I like that.

One other note: this is one of the wittiest books I’ve ever read. Truly. It’s on par with Barry, Sedaris, and any other humor writer you can think of. The audio version, read by the author, is a really great experience. The snappy jokes come in rapid-fire succession and yet it never gets overbearing. Instead, it makes for a very breezy read and shows how Gilbert’s is a distinct, welcome voice on these topics.

To get a better sense of it all, you can check out his TED talks. Then there is his 80-minute lecture at the Copernicus Center, which is even better.  Then there’s the book. There’s always the book. Here’s the link on Amazon. It’s worth every penny.