“Stumbling on Happiness” Highlights its Elusive Nature

What makes you happy? What’s likely to make you happy in the future? The answers may seem obvious to you, but Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness will show you that they’re actually anything but.


This lively book is not a self-help manual, but a work of psychology written for a popular audience. It’s a book I’ve read more than once, recommended to countless friends, and have continued to think about and reference for years. It will change the way you think – and, more importantly, it will change the way you think about the way you think.

Hopefully, too, it will get you closer to an answer for this critical question: “Why do we so often fail to know what will make us happy in the future?” Anyone who has made a decision or choice only to find that it didn’t make us as happy as we thought it would can relate. (I’d wager that’s everyone, at one time or another.)

There’s no one, single solution for this most basic of problems. Instead, the book describes the many ways that our memories and our imagination work together to, in essence, help us make decisions about the future based on faulty information.

For instance, our memories are not generated by some internal recording device, faithfully taking down each and every bit of info. Instead, and by necessity, memory is a “sophisticated editor that clips and saves key elements of an experience and then uses these elements to rewrite the story each time we ask to reread it.”

Think about a time that you experienced something and later shared your memories of it with another person who was also there. While overall you may both remember the event in a similar way, you each have specific memories of it that the other does not. Memory’s subject to suggestion, as well. If the other person points something out from that event that you don’t actually remember, you’re likely to add it to your story of the event anyway, without even realizing it.

The catch for predicting future happiness, then, is that our imagination relies on memory to consider how we’re likely to feel about something down the road, assuming that how we felt about something in the past is how we’ll feel in the future. But for many reasons, we often misremember how we actually felt. Our imaginations also assume, often incorrectly, that our future selves will feel the same as our current selves.

It’s a fascinating subject, and one that will make you reexamine how you make decisions.

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/blog/2014/07/18/book-biz-digging-reasons-happy/)