Review: Stumbling on Happiness

Each Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal productivity or personal development book.

stumblingOne of the most profound challenges in my life – and in the lives of a lot of people caught up with what seems like an endless list of demands – is staying happy. For the most part, I do a solid job of it, but there are times when I feel overwhelmed and disheartened by all of the demands crunching down on me.

Stumbling on Happiness argues that much of our own happiness comes from our personal ability to imagine our future, and our evaluations of that future do quite a bit to determine whether we’re happy or not. This holds true from the big things (what will I be doing a year from now?) to the little things (I don’t want to order the same food Jenny is ordering – even though that’s what I intended to order – so I’m going to order something else).

Does this book make valuable points about the general state of being happy that we can apply to our own lives? Let’s dig in and find out.

Wandering Through Stumbling on Happiness

1. Journey to Elsewhen
The book opens by addressing the fact that much of our thinking involves predicting the future. This goes from thinking things like “I wonder where he’s going with this paragraph…” to “if I continue to accelerate, I will get ahead of that car next to me.” Much of this thinking comes down to two elements: next, which is short term prediction like that person in the car I just mentioned, and later, which is when a person tries to envision their future a year from now.

Like many people, I spend some significant time planning my future. I imagine myself watching my children grow up and eventually moving deep into the country. I imagine growing old with my wife. I imagine buying a van in a couple of years. These are all things I envision when I think about the future, and I spend a lot of time trying to steer my boat in that direction. The only problem is that life isn’t that simple. Likely, somewhere between here and there, something will change and that’s not what I’ll wind up doing. Maybe my wife’s transmission will fall out of her car tomorrow. Maybe I’ll get a book deal with a $500,000 advance. The point is that I’m steering my ship down a river and trying to pull it in one direction, but the current is far more powerful than my boat.

2. The View from in Here
Happiness is far too broad and intense to be easily defined in words – we often think of it as one of those things that is just understood rather than described. Yet happiness is different for different people. Gilbert uses the example of conjoined twins named Lori and Reba. If you think about being a conjoined twin, it seems like a miserable existence, but Lori and Reba are actually quite happy being conjoined and they wouldn’t have it any other way. Why?

Take a set of experiences in your life and put them on a scale of 1 to 10, where the 10 is the greatest happiness you’ve ever experienced. For most people, experiences above a 2 or a 3 put them in a positive mood. Now, imagine a piece of your favorite kind of cake. Where does it rank on that scale? For some people, it might rank a 3, or a 5 – it depends on a lot of different factors. For Lori and Reba, it might rank an 8. Why? Their definition of a “10” on the happiness scale is quite a bit different than your definition of “10” on the happiness scale. Because of that, the positive attributes of being conjoined – the aspects of that intense kind of physical and emotional closeness with someone – rank very high on their personal happiness scales, and they are loathe to give that up.

3. Outside Looking In
Happiness (and other emotions) are purely subjective – it’s impossible for us to know how happy an event makes someone else because it varies so much from person to person. Thus, emotions are notoriously difficult to actually study. However, accepting three premises takes the edge off of the difficulty. The first premise is that all measuring tools are imperfect, and that if you expect perfection from any instrument, you’re going to be disappointed. The second premise is that real time reports of an individual aren’t as subjective as you might think, as consistent language goes a long way towards minimizing distractions. The third premise is that by realizing that it’s imperfect and accounting for that, you can go a long way towards making studies more accurate.

These ideas make it possible for people to study human emotions even though their variety from person to person can be great. We can learn about common triggers for happiness, chemical reactions in the mind, and so on, making something as subjective as human emotion a somewhat objective thing to study. In other words, one actually can study human emotion, as varied as it is, with some basis in fact.

4. In the Blind Spot of the Mind’s Eye
The story opens with the tales of Adolph Fischer (an anarchist executed for his cursory involvement with the Haymarket riot) and George Eastman (founder of Eastman-Kodak). Adolph lived a rather depressing life, but appeared to be elated when executed. Eastman lived a truly great life in many ways, but committed suicide alone. Why?

The difference is that emotions are often merely the influence of a lifetime of experience. In the case of Adolph, he was dying as a martyr for a cause he believed in – and he may have realized this as he was about to be hung. Eastman was on the downward slide of a great life and was suffering from a great deal of physical pain. The point is that the moment of death, a common experience for the two, was prefaced by very different feelings and reflections from the people involved. The chapter illustrates that our mind does this in all sorts of different ways, most interestingly in the case of short term memorization (of which the book gives a few examples you can try yourself).

5. The Hound of Silence
Here, Stumbling on Happiness states that it is much easier to notice the presence of something than to notice the absence of it. This seems like common sense, but there are a lot of interesting applications of this effect. For example, when you imagine the future, there are a lot of details thaht you never even consider, and that the further off the future that is imagined, the less detail you use when you imagine it.

I found this point to be profound when thinking about planning and personal finance – and it makes a lot of sense. It’s much easier to visualize your life one year from now than it is to visualize your life fifteen years from now. Because of that, it’s much easier to plan financially in detail for that one year destination than for that fifteen year one. That’s why people often just put money into their retirement account and don’t really even think about it until it gets close – it’s far enough off that it seems vague and grey.

6. The Future Is Now
Even more interesting, people tend to imagine the future as being as similar as possible to their lives right now. Stumbling on Happiness offers a great example of this from the “World of Tomorrow”-esque books of the 1950s, in which the world seemed like a mix of a 1950s sitcom and The Jetsons. In other words, when you imagine the future in fifteen years, most of the details are filled in based on the world around you right now.

For example, when I imagine the future, I imagine it with my children in it, period. Sure, they’re older than they are now, but they’re always a presence. I imagine them doing things like I see children doing now: reading, playing outside, even playing on the Wii. But is this exactly how their later childhood will be? Probably not – there are likely to be some changes that I don’t foresee, both in society and in my own personal life, between now and then.

7. Time Bombs
Similarly, people tend to constantly compare the present to the past and the future to the present, as though what has already gone before is an absolute arbiter of whether what is to come is good or not. For example, people would prefer to take a lower paying job that continually gets small raises than a higher paying job that gets small pay cuts, even when the total pay from the higher paying job is far higher than the lower paying one. Why? The lower paying job looks better compared to the past of that job.

It’s a comparison trick, really – a quick way for our minds to find what seems like the best deal. That’s why a wine seller will often stock a few bottles of extremely expensive wine that they don’t intend to actually sell – it makes the other wine look like a great deal by comparison, whether it is or not. Look around the next time you’re at a luxury shop – there are usually a couple items that are quite expensive highlighted, while a lot of items are at a much more palatable price point. The store doesn’t really intend to sell the expensive item at all, instead just intending for the less expensive items to seem more reasonable in price.

8. Paradise Glossed
Here, Stumbling on Happiness makes an interesting case for limited optimism in most people. In other words, almost everyone views the neutral world as being generally good, but not overly great. It’s essentially another trick our minds play on us, because if we viewed the world as it actually is, most of us would never get out of bed in the morning, but if we succumbed to how we’d like to believe the world is, we’d all be daydreamers and have a difficult time functioning in life.

Most of us are somewhere in between those two extremes, with variations in both directions. In fact, the phrase “rose colored glasses” is actually pretty apt: they shade the world, but don’t prevent us from seeing the world.

9. Immune to Reality
In fact, we use a lot of tricks to delude our thinking, and quite often these tricks add up to a misrepresentation of the way things actually are; instead, we see things as we would like to see them. This is often why a flower from an unknown suitor is a lot more fascinating and memorable than a flower from a known suitor – we can add whatever details we like to the unknown one and can spend time imagining all sorts of things.

This is also why people try so hard to explain away bad things that happen to them, like a job loss. They’ve built up a picture of how things are in their mind using a lot of tricks, and this picture is hard to let go of, even when reality intervenes. In fact, explaining things away is the normal reaction for people, and it often takes significant “work” to not just try to explain away negative events and seek out the root cause.

10. Once Bitten
This portion of Stumbling on Happiness focuses on how we remember events, including a thorough look at

the peak-end rule. In a nutshell, the chapter concludes that people often remember the peaks and valleys of an experience most vividly, and these peaks and valleys sometimes overrule the remainder of the experience.

I liked the movie example, and I found that this was true for my wife. She claimed for quite a long time to absolutely despise the movie Pleasantville, while I largely recalled her liking it. When we rewatched it later, we found out that we were both right – she liked almost the entire movie except for the closing five seconds of the final scene, which she felt let down the whole movie. This one peak negative experience overshadowed the positive of the other two hours of the movie for her.

11. Reporting Live from Tomorrow
Stumbling on Happiness concludes with a chapter that argues that one final major factor of happiness is other people, but not necessarily in the way you might think.

For example, Gilbert argues that some ideas that are useful for the perpetuation of the human race are not entirely accurate. For example, the idea that children are great. I’ll be the first to say that my children are a very central part in my life, but I’ll also admit that many parenting tasks are drudgery: discipline, changing diapers, and so on. Even more interesting, parents often show up on psychological tests as being personally rather unhappy during the period where children are in the home, from the birth of the first child to the departure of the last. Yet many people reflect on parenting as being great. Why? This belief is needed for the perpetuation of humanity, but may not necessarily be true for many individual people.

Buy or Don’t Buy?

I found Stumbling on Happiness to be an interesting read. If you’re looking for an interesting bedtime book to read, one that can be digested a few pages at a time and also provide some interesting insights, Stumbling on Happiness is probably a great book to pick up.

However, aside from the last two chapters, there’s not a whole lot in Stumbling on Happiness that is deeply applicable to one’s life. If you’re looking for a book that will explain to you how to be happy, this isn’t it.

For me, Stumbling on Happiness was largely what I expected – and a little more. There are many life situations that I take for granted that adjust the things I view as joyous – I have had a blessed life, and that has often led me to have a higher threshold for happiness than many people. Does this affect how I should raise my children, or how I should live my own life? There are a lot of things to reflect on in this book, and for that, I found it to be quite a worthwhile read, even if it didn’t give me a lot of answers.

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