Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert

Perhaps we should give up on remembering and imagining entirely and use other people as surrogates for our future selves.
— Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness

If you are looking for a self-help book on happiness, this is not it. Daniel Gilbert makes that very clear from the onset of Stumbling on Happiness. This book is instead about people's preoccupation with happiness through our frontal lobe's unique ability, singular to humankind, to project ourselves into the future due to our ability to imagine.

And, indeed, this ability to imagine is something miraculous, but it is also flawed. And every time we ask ourselves if we would be happier in California than here, or happier if we lost those five pounds, or happier if we slept with so-and-so or got such-and-such promotion, we are victim to these flaws because we have no way of determining how we will actually feel when these events take place. In fact, we are hardly able to explain happiness when we do grasp it in our thoughts and reactions. For instance, the sun shined here briefly today. I felt happy. But suddenly, happiness is a hollow word. Because what I mean by happy could be something very different than your understanding of happy. And I would not be able to describe it accurately enough to replicate the experience for you or myself. I only know to note it as happy so that the next time the sun is shining, my brain will know well enough to motivate myself outside to experience that feeling again. But, of course, by then, I will not be able to determine whether or not it is the same feeling after all.

Ha! Yes, this book was one of those reads. It explores prospection, subjectivity, realism, presentism, rationalization and corrigibility, and underlines again and again how our imagination fails to determine accurate previews of our emotional futures.

I’ve claimed that when we imagine our futures we tend to fill in, leave out, and take little account of how differently we will think about the future once we actually get there. I’ve claimed that neither personal experience nor cultural wisdom compensates for imagination’s shortcomings. I’ve so thoroughly marinated you in the foibles, biases, errors, and mistakes of the human mind... There is a simple method by which anyone can make strikingly accurate predictions about how they will feel in the future. But you may be disheartened to learn that, by and large, no one wants to use it.
— Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness

Essentially, after 200+ pages that break down how our brain works in its flawed way, Gilbert puts forward that to get the most accurate idea of what we might feel if we do X or achieve Y in the future is by asking someone who has already experienced it how they felt. It still won't be perfectly on point, but it is more reliable than what we are capable of imagining. But, no one will ever really do this because we like to become absorbed by our imagination and we think we are distinct from others, even though science proves our imagination is limited and we are all pretty much... human.

It also makes a well-known but always powerful economic case. Chances are, no matter what we do, our happiness will not be that changed. The pursuit of happiness is weirdly intwined with the pursuit of wealth, despite the fact that wealth does not dramatically impact happiness. We are only drastically happier if we have climbed out of abject poverty. But whether you earn $50,000 per year of $5,000,000 per year, you are likely just as happy. Society has to perpetuate the message linking happiness with wealth because the entire globe is based on this paradigm. Aren't we easily fooled, by our imagination and our imagined economic reality?

I read this book with heavy questions on my mind. Should I be here, or move there? Should I stay in my field of work, or pursue something new? From this book, I have two immediate thoughts. 1) I could ask others who have had the same thoughts and taken action how they feel to simulate how I would feel in the future and 2) Whether I stay or go, continue in this job or another, I probably won't feel dramatically different. Or rather, no matter what I will do, my brain will trick me into defending my choice, and will quickly forget the previous reality. I am, we are, incapable of comparing the two realities accurately because we cannot experience them simultaneously.