Stumbling on Happiness

happiness by Christopher Serra

Stumbling on Happiness is a 2006 non-fiction book by Daniel Gilbert, the central thesis of which is that, through perception and cognitive biases, people imagine the future poorly, in particular what will make them happy. He argues that imagination fails in three ways: Imagination tends to add and remove details, but people do not realize that key details may be fabricated or missing from the imagined scenario. Imagined futures (and pasts) are more like the present than they actually will be (or were). And imagination fails to realize that things will feel differently once they actually happen — most notably, the psychological immune system will make bad things feel not so bad as they are imagined to feel.

The advice Gilbert offers is to use other people’s experiences to predict the future, instead of imagining it. It is surprising how similar people are in much of their experiences, he says. He does not expect too many people to heed this advice, as our culture, accompanied by various thinking tendencies, is against this method of decision making. Also, Gilbert covers the topic of ‘filling in’or the frequent use of patterns, by the mind, to connect events which we do actually recall with other events we expect or anticipate fit into the expected experience. This ‘filling in’ is also used by our eyes and optic nerves to remove our blind spot or scotoma, and instead substitute what our mind expects to be present in the blind spot.


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