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Book Summary: Stumbling on Happiness by Dan Gilbert

My Personal Summary

Humans have a tendency to fall victim to a wide range of biases that cause many of our predictions about the future and even memories of the past to be inaccurate. This makes it surprisingly difficult to predict what will make us feel happy.

Book Notes

  • Humans are the only animal that think about the future.
  • “Two or three million years ago our ancestors began a great escape from the here and now, and their getaway vehicle was a highly specialized mass of grey tissue, fragile, wrinkled and appended. This frontal lobe–the last part of the human brain to evolve, the slowest to mature and the first to deteriorate in old age–is a time machine that allows each of us to vacate the present and experience the future before it happens. No other animal has a frontal lobe quite like ours, which is why we are the only animal that thinks about the future as we do.”
  • The human brain makes predictions about the future constantly. When our prediction doesn’t match what actually happens, we feel surprised.
  • As one philosopher noted, the human brain is an “anticipation machine,” and “making future” is the most important thing it does.
  • The human brain is surprisingly bad at remembering past events. For example, you may enjoy an entire night at a party but right before leaving, someone pukes on your shoes. Your brain will likely recall this night as a bad experience despite the fact that the majority of the night went well.
  • “The fact that we often judge the pleasure of an experience by its ending can cause us to make some curious choices.”
  • Nobody knows what happiness feels like for others, so we can’t accurately predict if someone is more or less happy than us purely based off their situation. 
  • “Experience is unobservable to everyone except the person who it happens to.”
  • “One of the hallmarks of depression is that when depressed people think of future events they can’t imagine liking them very much.”
  • Once you know something exists and have found pleasure in it, then your definition of happiness changes based off that experience.
  • “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.”
  • We tend to remember what did happen, but not what didn’t happen.
  • When we imagine the distant future, we imagine it in a general sense. When we imagine the near future, we imagine it in detail.
  • “When we imagine future circumstances, we fill in details that won’t really come to pass and leave out details that will. When we imagine future feelings, we find it impossible to ignore what we are feeling now and impossible to recognize how we will think about the things that happen later.”
  • “We treat our future selves as though they were our children, spending most of the hours of most of our days constructing tomorrows that we hope will make them happy.”
  • Experts tend to be no better at predicting the future than ordinary people.
  • “When scientists make erroneous predictions they almost always err by predicting that the future will be too much like the present.”
  • Most people overestimate just how traumatic bad events will be. For example, most people who are victims in earthquakes or car accidents tend to return to their original baseline level of happiness surprisingly quickly.
  • “The fact is that human beings come into the world with a passion for control, they go out of the world the same way, and research suggests that if they lose their ability to control things at any point between their entrance and their exit, they become unhappy, helpless, hopeless, and depressed. And occasionally dead.”
  • “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.”
  • Freedom can be a two-edged sword. Being able to spend your time however you want has the ability to make you happy, but if you constantly think you could be doing something better, living somewhere better, being in a relationship with someone better, then freedom will actually cripple your happiness.
  • “In the long run, people of every age and in every walk of life seem to regret “not” having
    done things much more than they regret things they “did”, which is why the most popular regrets include not going to college, not grasping profitable business opportunities, and not spending enough time with family and friends.”
  • Money will make you much happier when it takes you out of poverty, but each additional dollar tends to bring less and less additional happiness.
  • Our brain reacts to relative quantities more than absolute quantities. We tend to compare ourselves to our neighbors, not our ancestors. 
  • “As the philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote, “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are a different opinion, it is because they know only their own side of the question.”

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