Stumbling on Happiness

Why I enjoyed this book: If you’re like me you think a lot about how to maximize happiness and reduce sucky times in your life. This book shifted my perspective on what I THINK makes me happy, and showed me why I’m actually really bad at predicting what those things are. It also made it a bit easier to relax.

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. Rather than indulging in whatever strikes our momentary fancy, we take responsibility for the welfare of our future selves, squirrelling away portions of our paycheques each month so they can enjoy their retirements on a putting green, jogging and flossing with some regularity so they can avoid coronaries and gum grafts, enduring dirty nappies and mind-numbing repetitions of The Cat in the Hat so that someday they will have fat-cheeked grandchildren to bounce on their laps.

In this clever book, pulling lessons from philosophers and social psychologists, to examples of modern day strife of standing in line at the grocery store, Dan Gilbert breaks down the evolutionary and cultural history of our pursuit of happiness.

At the center of our happiness, he says, stems a need for control over our environment and our situation.

Apparently, gaining control can have a positive impact on one’s health and well-being, but losing control can be worse than never having had any at all.

Measuring our own happiness — let alone other people’s —  is a really tricky thing.

The nature of subjective experience suggests there will never be a happyometer–a perfectly reliable instrument that allows an observer to measure with complete accuracy the characteristics of another person’s subjective experience so that the measurement can be taken, recorded and compared with another.

There are, however, ways to reframe our understanding of happiness that can bring us more joy in our lives, including realizing the declining marginal utility of wealth and attaining material wealth. This ain’t news to most of us, but he drives the points home with style and plenty of compelling anecdotes.

Big topics and ideas from the book: 

How we’re wired

…running with great haste from rabid wolverines is much more important than knowing what they are. Indeed, actions such as running away are so vitally important to the survival of terrestrial mammals like the ones from whom we are descended that evolution took no chances and designed the brain to answer the ‘What should I do?’ question before the ‘What is it?’ question.1 Experiments have demonstrated that the moment we encounter an object, our brains instantly analyse just a few of its key features and then use the presence or absence of these features to make one very fast and very simple decision: ‘Is this object an important thing to which I ought to respond right now?’

The role of variety in satisfaction

When they measured the volunteers’ satisfaction over the course of the study, they found that volunteers in the no-variety group were more satisfied than were volunteers in the variety group. In other words, variety made people less happy, not more.

If you asked a child to count upward from zero and another child to count downward from a million, you could be pretty sure that when they finally got exhausted, gave up and went off in search of eggs to throw at your garage door, they would have reached very different numbers.

How comparison makes us less happy (another reason to get off of Facebook)

We compare the small, elegant speakers with the huge, boxy speakers, notice the acoustical difference, and buy the hulking leviathans. Alas, the acoustical difference is a difference we never notice again, because when we get the monster speakers home we do not compare their sound to the sound of some speaker we listened to a week earlier at the store, but we do compare their awful boxiness to the rest of our sleek, elegant and now-spoiled decor

Memory in happiness (citing research by Kahneman) 

When people are asked to name the single object they would try to save if their home caught fire, the most common answer (much to the chagrin of the family dog) is ‘My photo album’. We don’t just treasure our memories; we are our memories.

The fact that we often judge the pleasure of an experience by its ending can cause us to make some curious choices. For example, when the researchers who performed the cold-water study asked the volunteers which of the two trials they would prefer to repeat, 69 per cent of the volunteers chose to repeat the long one–that is, the one that entailed an extra thirty seconds of pain.

…And formulas for success

In 1738, a Dutch polymath named Daniel Bernoulli claimed he had the answer. He suggested that the wisdom of any decision could be calculated by multiplying the probability that the decision will give us what we want by the utility of getting what we want. By utility, Bernoulli meant something like goodness or pleasure.

Stumbling on Happiness Notebook


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