Stumbling on Happiness – Daniel Gilbert

Daniel Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard, manages to make a book on cognitive science approachable and readable, for most people.

This is the book you read that, as you go through it, you think to yourself, “Oh. My. God! I should totally give this to who would stop making bad decisions and screwing up their lives if only they understood that what they think will make them happy, won’t!” And then you don’t, because you know that even if you tried to give this book to that person, they wouldn’t read it. And if they read it, they wouldn’t understand it. And if they understood it, they wouldn’t take any of the advice the author offers and would commit all the mistakes he so painstakingly outlines. Because we are all basically incapable of accurately imagining what will make us happy. We trick ourselves, in many ways, to ignore reality to make ourselves happier than we ought to me.

We misperceive reality, and make decisions that are not in our rational, happiness-maximizing interest. Gilbert wrote that we may find ourselves unhappy after making a minor decision, but we are going to refuse to admit we made a mistake, so we justify our unhappy choice by putting down all the alternatives that we didn’t choose (rather than changing our choice).

For example, I stood in a long line Tim Horton’s line at a highway service station, shortly after reading this book, and listened to the people in front of me criticize all the other food offerings. They did not like the overpriced and burnt coffee of Starbucks. They didn’t like the greasy New York Fries (not that Timmy’s serves fries). They wanted Tim Horton’s, but were unhappy with their choice because it was taking a long time (like, 15 minutes to get through a line of 30 people – in T.O. that would take about 5 minutes).

A Tim Horton's cup in a Starbucks' sleeve, at a highway service station
A blurry Tim Horton’s cup in a Starbucks’ sleeve, at a highway service station – sometimes I suck at taking photos. Taking blurry photos does not matter all that much to me. Clearly.


So they were trying to justify their decision to wait 15 minutes for shitty but familiar coffee by convincing themselves it was the best choice, the choice that would make them happy. Me? I just wanted Timbits and didn’t need to convince myself of anything since I wasn’t counting on the Timbits to make me happy (although they did, which is another example of not being able to imagine what will make us happy- I underestimated my happiness, based on the photo below!). But it was amazing to see the author’s observations first hand, in real life, and pretty much real time.

Me eating a chocolate Timbit at a highway services station
Me eating a chocolate Timbit at a highway services station – still blurry

Another example of the book’s insight coming to life: Gilbert explains why people vote for politicians who are absolutely the wrong freaking choice.

Here in the Big Smoke, we were looking at a mayoral election. Take one of Toronto’s most notorious mayors, Rob Ford. But why did people vote for him, and why could this racist, sexist, homophobic, crack smoking drunkard get in as mayor? According to Gilbert’s theories, the committed voter will focus on the politicians’ virtues and ignore the vices because they can’t take that vote back. And since they will focus on the virtues and not the vices time and time again over the course of the 4 year term, they basically convince themselves that Ford has only virtues and no vices, he is just like them and they become convinced he’s a worthwhile mayor. Gilbert goes into detail about how our memories play tricks on us expressly to maximize the good things about a decision we have made (like voting for Ford) and minimizes the bad things about that decision (like everything wrong he did). Since most people are unaware it’s happening, they just go ahead and believe what they believe, and cast their vote.

Gilbert’s book is an awesome read for those who have a level of self-awareness, but his theory is, we will probably just make the same mistakes anyway.

So the gauntlet has been thrown down. Which kind of people are you?

Me smiling, but at least it isn't so blurry this time
Me smiling, but at least it isn’t so blurry this time. And yes, I am a pretty happy person. According to Gilbert that makes sense: I am a three-time cancer survivor. Basic theory is, I have readjusted my outlook on life to make it more pleasurable given the adversity I’ve been through.


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