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Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert - 3 Big Ideas

Hilarious, science-y and mind-blowing -- this book was a rollercoaster that weaved through the landscape of a Dr. Seuss book.


Welcome to the 3 Things Show, where Maddi and I characterize the world of knowledge, through books, three things at a time. This week's book is Stumbling on Happiness, by Daniel Gilbert.

This book is 336 pages paperback and 7 hours 26 minutes audible.

The book is described on Amazon as follows,

"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."

So... What are three things we can use from this book?

3 Things You Can Use

1. Experience Stretching

You've probably experienced this before.

So let's put experiential happiness on a 10 point scale. Experiential happiness being the feeling kind of happiness, not the large scale kind that you answer of when your psychiatrist asks.

Experiential happiness is limited because your brain can only release so much of a happiness hormone, without you exploding. So put the limit at 10.

To use the example that Daniel Gilbert uses, say that, sitting on the beach, watching the sunset, is a 10 out of 10 for you.

The author likes to smoke cigars. So when he ended up smoking a cigar on the beach while watching the sunset, suddenly that was his new 10 out of 10.

Now to hit his experiential 10, he will watch the sunset with a cigar. A drawback is that, when he watches the sunset without a cigar, he will now experience a 9.

The experiential happiness didn't increase when he added the cigar, it was replaced. It stretched, and thus pushed back the other related experiences.

This comparison principle really messes up our sense of happiness.

This reminds me of the luxury trap from the book, Sapiens. If you pay high prices for your food and you become used to a certain standard of quality, any other food will lose it's value. Like that spaghetti that you used to love when you were a kid, has lost so much value and is not worth eating to you unless you have your caviar sauce, your pine nuts and your christmas tree garnish.

This is standardization in the wrong direction.

The stoics were good at figuring these types of things out. They would train themselves to appreciate things by purposefully experiencing things that would typically be considered "less than enjoyable," for example, fasting for a couple days in order to appreciate food more.

If you want to beat experience stretching, train your appreciation and shoot yourself in the foot on occasion.

2. Pre-Feeling

Our brains are amazing. We are the only creatures, to our knowledge, who can use imagination. We can prospect into the future. We can approximate our feelings and then act in ways that will reward ourselves later. And unlike other animals, who do this because of genetics and habits, we do this because we consciously decide to.

But how well can we really imagine the future?

Our brains are good... but do we really think that they can figure out exactly how we will feel? What the circumstances will be in our situation? The other details influencing our feelings like that passive aggressive comment we got right before we won our award or the news that we were finally pregnant after weeks of trying?

No. There's no way we can actually know how we feel and out of the multitude of reasons why, one of the big ones is called pre-feeling.

Pre-feeling is what happens when how we are feeling now influences how we think we will feel later. Daniel Gilbert illustrates this by saying, it's like trying to imagine the taste of a marshmallow while chewing liver.

This is one of the reasons why depression can be so powerful. If you are feeling depressed and someone invites you to go out you will almost certainly say no. You couldn't imagine being happy and enjoying yourself. You couldn't imagine it because of what you are feeling now.

If you usually enjoy going out with your friend, you will probably have a good time if you go out with your friend. But you will choose not to because you feel bad and see yourself feeling bad while out with your friend. This ends up being a terrible, self-fulfilling prophecy cycle that keeps you from doing things that make you happy and therefore keeps you feeling down in the dumps.

To remedy this, go out with your friend. As Elliot Hulse says, "The opposite of depression is expression."

3. The Big Influencers

While we are deciding, what to do next or if we want to do something that we've done before, we like to draw from our previous experience. Our experience is unique to us and we can mentally relive something to decide if it or something similar is something that we would want to do again.

So we think back to the last time the family went camping.

That was great.

"Remember when we all got to the peak of that hill and looked out at the horizon? We all shared that moment and then had a great picnic at the top? What a great trip."

So you decide to go again.

Bad idea. Bugs everywhere. Cramped sleeping. Cold lake to clean off in.

How could you decide to go camping again? This is exactly what happened last year!

You decide to go because you only remembered the big influencer. The thing that outweighed the other experiences. Memories tend to be the things that had the most impact.

This is why, when you are at the grocery store, the line that you are in seems to always be the slower one. Because you become frustrated and have a higher caliber emotional response than the typical, these are the times that you remember. The normal days when your line goes at the same speed as the others elicit no emotion and therefore give your brain no incentive to remember them.

Wisdom and contemplation are the only remedies to these emotionally influenced factors. Think to yourself, am I really unlucky enough to always pick the slow line? Did that camping trip really measure up to that experience? Is my memory really the most reliable thing to use for deciding this?


Avoid experience stretching and get more for less by training your appreciation and avoiding the luxury trap.

When prospecting your future feelings in a situation, recognize that how you are feeling now is influencing how you think you will feel then. Put more faith in the typical response for a situation and generally distrust your approximation when already feeling strong feelings.

Know that when remembering back to a time, your memories will always more prominently include the times that were the most emotionally involved. Don't always rely on these memories in expectation a repeat.

This book, like Strangers to Ourselves, is one of those books that set a bomb off in your brain. I mean, I was already scrambling to put my brain back together after the first few chapters. And this guy has some sort of fast-loading grenade launcher that just keeps firing. So I'm scurrying around grabbing pieces of my brain and trying to fit them back and taping and gluing and stapling -- but this guy is relentlessly just popping off explosions in a back and forth motion across my whole cranial landscape.

At some points in the book it makes you think that the real ruler of the universe in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy had it right. Never trusting anything at all from experience to memory to prediction, and that the best way to live is to be exactly in the moment and disregard absolutely everything else.

So yeah, don't read this book unless you are sitting down.

I also was laughing the whole time. Daniel Gilbert is funny. From the names of his subchapters to his anecdotes to his relevant jokes throughout, this was a highly entertaining read.

You may also note that the author looks a bit like Walt from Breaking Bad, and you might recognize him from the Prudential retirement commercials.

So, if you wanna read this book, we got links!

And whether you do or not, either way, we hope you got something... or even three things... from this book.

Thanks for reading/watching!

Want to Read it?

Audible Free Trial (get this book for free!)

Stumbling on Happiness (Audible Version)

Stumbling on Happiness (Physical Copy)

(disclosure: ^^^ these links give me a commission -- at no extra cost to you! They just give me a little bump if you decide to use them. Thank you!)


Punching Sounds (in video) by: Mike Koenig

Reading Photo at end of video by: Marketa

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