The premise of Daniel Gilbert's Stumbling on Happiness is both simple and profound in its implications. Our ability to predict our future and remember our past experiences accurately are fundamentally flawed, and this causes us to often miss the target when we are aiming for happiness in our lives.
"We insist on steering our boats because we think we have a pretty good idea of where we should go, but the truth is that much of our steering is in vain - not because the boat won't respond, and not because we can't find our destination, but because the future is fundamentally different than it appears through the prospectiscope."
Gilbert helps redefine what happiness really is in the first few pages. Then, he demonstrates how our ability to recall previous experiences, and compare them to present experience is made complicated by the limited way our brains store memories. Rather than store an entire experience, our brain uses language to reduce experiences into short descriptors that we later reconstruct and use to extrapolate, however inaccurately, the details of our previous experience. When we try to recall the past, in other words, we never see the whole picture.
This fact would be troubling enough, but there is another reason to mistrust our past experiences. Not only are we failing to see the whole picture when recalling a past experience, but memories become increasingly less reliable because the lens through which we view them is constantly evolving.
"Studies . . . demonstrate that once we have an experience, we cannot simply set it aside and see the world as we would have seen it had the experience never happened. . . Our experiences instantly become part of the lens through which we view our entire past, present, and future, and like any lens, they shape and distort what we see."
Why is any of this something we should be aware of? Because when it comes to decision making, we often try to predict the future by going back in time and comparing our previous experiences with what we think the future will be like. If we know that the tools we are using to recall and evaluate those past experiences are broken, we have a better chance of avoiding poor choices.
So our ability to recall previous experience is flawed, but what about our understanding of present experience? Gilbert shows us that sometimes we cannot even accurately identify what our current in-the-moment feelings really are.
"Indeed, research shows that physiological arousal can be interpreted in a variety of ways, and our interpretation of our arousal depends on what we believe caused it. It is possible to mistake fear for lust, apprehension for guilt, shame for anxiety."
Despite this, our real-time perspective of subjective experience is the most accurate tool for measuring experience, and as long as we are aware of its flawed nature, we have a better chance of making any serious errors, for "imperfections in measurement are always a problem, but they are a devastating problem only when we don't recognize them."
These insights lead up to what may be the reason for so much stress and disappointment in modern society: when it comes to predicting how the future will affect our subjective experience, how it will affect our happiness, we are woefully ill-equipped for the task because "when we imagine the future, we often do so in the blind spot of our mind's eye, and this tendency can cause us to misimagine the future events whose emotional consequences we are attempting to weigh."
This can be explained in part by the way our brains treat distant temporal events, whether past or future.
"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 as smooth and vague as we are imagining and remembering them. . . Babysitting next month is 'an act of love,' whereas babysitting right now is 'an act of lunch,' and expressing affection is spiritually rewarding in a way that buying French fries simply isn't."
All this can be an eye-opening explanation for why, when trying to make decisions that will impact our future, we do not end up where we thought we would. But the story does not end there. These facts illuminated, Gilbert spends the next half of the book relating these ideas to the realities many of us may be faced with in our present lives, offering insight into depression, relationships, jobs, and more. He also offers an elegantly simple solution to closing the gap between our expectations and reality. Because real-time awareness is the most accurate tool available to evaluating subjective experience, we can talk to people who are experiencing what we hope to one day experience, using them as a surrogates for our future selves.
Gilbert's approach is witty and well-researched. For anyone interested in gaining a better grasp of their own psychology, and avoiding making mistakes in long-term decision making, Stumbling on Happiness is a must read.