Book Shelf: Stumbling on Happiness by Dan Gilbert


You, like most people, have probably made poor decisions regarding the future. For proof of human folly, you have only to look at the large number of divorces, jobs walked away from, failed start-up businesses and attics filled with junk someone "had to buy." Families regret their goofy vacations – then take the same awful trips the following year. And the observers who ask, "What could they possibly have been thinking?" make the same sorts of mistakes in their own lives. As a Yiddish proverb says, "Mann tracht und Gott lacht" – "Man plans and God laughs." So what's going on? Why are people such poor prognosticators? Psychologist Daniel Gilbert explains, with great wit, that the human imagination, along with the other cognitive abilities people use to forecast happiness, are fatally flawed. Based on extensive psychological research, his book posits that, regarding life's future milestones, most people would do better asking someone else what to do rather than making their own decisions.

3 Key Points

  • Why people have such a difficult time planning for their future happiness
  • How perception, imagination, memory and the brain's cognitive faculties often play tricks on you as you try to decide what will make you happy
  • Why asking the advice of someone with experience may be the best way to make a choice; and
  • Why most people don't do this.


  • Human beings are unique because they think constantly about the future. No other creature can perform this cognitive feat.
  • Planning for the future takes place in the frontal lobe of the brain. People with serious injuries to this area live strictly in the present.
  • Most people don't predict their future needs and desires accurately.
  • Instead, they make numerous cognitive errors.
  • They unthinkingly treat what they imagine as if it accurately represents what is to come.
  • They invent details – yet don't take the facts into account.
  • People think concretely about recent events and those in the near future, and abstractly about events in the distant past or distant future.
  • The first time you experience a pleasure is the best. The good feelings diminish the more often you repeat the experience.
  • Your brain employs a "psychological immune system" to ward off unhappiness.
  • People routinely reimagine the facts of their lives to see themselves as they prefer.


"Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow"

Human beings are the only creatures that truly plan for the future. The squirrel burying nuts in anticipation of winter is mindlessly following a survival script that is hard-wired into its brain. This is also the case for other animals whose actions suggest they are making plans. The ability to think about the future is central to the operation only of the human brain. Humans alone can imagine something that does not exist in the present. In fact, one philosopher called the human brain an "anticipation machine." Mature humans understand the concept of "later."Studies show that people spend approximately 12% of their time thinking about the future. People devote a lot of time trying to imagine or anticipate what will happen – in particular, how happy (or unhappy) they will be with their choices. This is because to feel happy and mentally stable, people need to feel in control of their lives. The need to have an effect on the world is fundamental to humans – which is why babies enjoy knocking over piles of blocks, and why elderly people become depressed when they cannot care for themselves. People anticipate the future because they want to do something about it.

“When people daydream about the future, they tend to imagine themselves achieving and succeeding rather than fumbling or failing.”

People interpret the past, deal with the present and plan for the future based on their experiences. But their experiences, including those of happiness, are subjective, and their brains distort reality. Happiness is an extremely important emotion. Just about everyone attempts to plan to enhance it. Nevertheless, it's impossible to define. It is a subjective state, and it does not correspond to anything in the real world. Individuals can point out things that make them happy, and neurologists can see patterns in the brain activity of happy people, but you can never know whether what you feel when you say you are happy is the same as what other people feel. You can say only that it is what it is, or, as the poet Alexander Pope wrote, "Who thus define it, say they more or less / Than this, that happiness is happiness?"

“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.”

People are extremely poor prognosticators of their own happiness. They use their imaginations to estimate their future happiness. However, the imagination is a terrible happiness-planning tool, for these three reasons:

  1. "Realism"
  2. "Presentism"
  3. "Rationalization"

“The frontal lobe – the last part of the human brain to evolve...and the first to deteriorate in old age – is a time machine that allows each of us to...experience the future before it happens.”


When people plan for the future, they use their imaginations to accomplish two goals:

“Experiences instantly become part of the lens through which we view our entire past, present and future, and like any lens, they shape and distort what we see.”

  1. Foresee the future – "I'll live year-round in Miami."
  2. Determine how they'll feel about it – "I'll love going to the beach every day!"

Unfortunately, the imagination often comes up short regarding the second point. This is due primarily to inherent problems with human memory and perception.

“Awareness can be thought of as experience of our own experience.”

Memories are not always realistic. The brain must store so many memories that it ends up using shaky shortcuts to do so. Sometimes, it retains only a portion of an event and fabricates the details as necessary. Yet the fabrications seem as real in the mind's eye as the actual events.

“Perceptions are portraits, not photographs, and their forms reveal the artist's hand every bit as much as [they] reflect the things portrayed.”

Perception operates similarly. The brain combines sensory stimuli – images, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile impressions – with feelings, thoughts and beliefs to create perceptions. In fact, in many cases, the feelings precede the perception, as counterintuitive as this may seem. The human brain evolved in the midst of a world full of dangerous situations. Responding quickly was more important than correctly identifying the danger. So, in retrospect, people may misidentify the cause of their feeling. For example, in an experiment, researchers had a woman approach men as they were crossing a narrow, swaying suspension bridge and ask them if she could conduct a survey. After the survey, she gave the men her phone number. She asked another group if she could conduct her survey after they had crossed the bridge. The men she'd questioned on the bridge were more likely to call her. They had been in a state of physiological arousal caused by fear – but they attributed their feelings to the woman, and concluded they had been attracted to her.In addition, as with memories, the brain fills in perceptual details. Although everyone's eye has a blind spot, people do not see a black hole in the middle of their field of vision. The brain fills in the missing part of the image.

“The brain and the eye may have a contractual relationship in which the brain has agreed to believe what the eye sees, but in return the eye has agreed to look for what the brain wants.”

People do not so much see, hear or understand the world as interpret it. Thus, while they think they are experiencing reality, in fact they are experiencing an extremely good facsimile of it. The psychologist George Miller wrote, "The crowning intellectual accomplishment of the brain is the real world."

“People misremember their own pasts by recalling that they once thought, did and said what they now think, do and say.”

Because memories and perceptions are in part fabrications, they are often unreliable guides to future feelings. Yet, people uncritically accept the images their brains provide as true, even when their brains make up or leave out important details. In computer language, the problem is the old one of "garbage in, garbage out." The data on which people base their decisions is, unfortunately, seriously flawed "garbage."


The brain derives the details it uses to enhance memories and perceptions from current experience. Thus, people assume that what they do, say, perceive or feel now is the same as it would have been in the past, and they imagine that it will also be the same in the future. A boy has no doubt that he will cherish into his seventies the purple and black Demon Hunter tattoo he has just lavishly inscribed across his back. When researchers ask people who have eaten recently what they will eat the following week, the people always underestimate their appetites – because they are not hungry at the moment.

“We fail to recognize that our future selves won't see the world the way we see it now.”

The imagination activates the visual cortex exactly as the eyes do when you actually see something. It provides the associated emotions as well. Thus, if you conjure up the image of someone you dislike, your pupils dilate and your blood pressure rises – you get angry. This applies to all of your senses and emotions.

“We cannot do without reality and we cannot do without illusion.”

What happens if you're imagining the future – as people spend so much of their time doing – yet at the same time you're feeling bad about something in the present? Because your brain uses the same areas for real memories as it does for imaginary ones, and because you assume your feelings are consistent in the past, present and future, the bad feelings color – often dramatically – your predictions of events and your feelings about them.When the brain must choose between a real image and an imaginary one to fire up a specific sensory area, it chooses the real image. The brain operates on a policy of "reality first." For that reason, if you're trying to conjure up an image in your brain, you close your eyes – so the objects around you won't interfere with your imagination. And if you're imagining a future event and your emotional response to it, your current positive or negative perceptions of the real world will take precedence over what your mind's eye creates. This may distort your feelings about future events. In effect, you are trapped in the present as you try to predict the future.

“Uncertainty can preserve and prolong our happiness, thus we might expect people to cherish it. In fact, the opposite is generally the case.”


Reality is often ambiguous. Optical illusions that confuse the senses illustrate this phenomenon. For example, in one well-known drawing, the foreground and background keep changing places. Are you viewing a goblet or two faces in profile? You can view the picture either way with equal accuracy. However, if you have a reason to interpret an ambiguous perception one way rather than another, the "flickering" will no longer be random. Instead, your brain will choose the image you prefer. Thus, if experimenters reward their subjects for seeing one image in the drawing rather than the other, the subjects will hold on to the image for which they receive the reward. This choice happens quite unconsciously.

“Foresight is a fragile talent that often leaves us squinting, straining to see what it would be like to have this, go there or do that.”

People desire an unambiguous, logical world. Consider this experiment: Researchers asked test subjects to watch a computer monitor on which they flashed negative words such as "hate," "vicious" and "horrid" for milliseconds – viewers perceived them subliminally. Later, when they asked the subjects to rate each other, they did so negatively. When the researchers flashed words such as "dumb" and "retarded" on the screen, the test subjects did poorly on intelligence tests. When they flashed words such as "old" and "infirm," the subjects acted lethargic. Later, when the researchers asked the subjects why they reacted as they did, none said, "I don't know." Instead, they manufactured answers and, for example, claimed they felt tired. The test subjects, confronted with their meaningless or ambiguous behavior, immediately provided a rationalization.The brain inherently leans toward positive, clear, rational interpretations of events – past, present and future. It provides "psychological immune systems" that keep people's spirits buoyant. Thus, even if an experience is negative – living next to a polluted river, for example – the brain will try to provide a positive perception of it – "It sure is pretty watching the lights reflect off the river's oil slicks at night!" The French enlightenment writer Voltaire made fun of this human tendency with his character the philosopher Dr. Pangloss, who maintains that "things cannot be other than the way they are; for as all things have been created for some end, they must necessarily be created for the best end. For instance, noses were made to support spectacles, hence we wear spectacles."You may not realize you have unconsciously developed a faulty but emotionally satisfying positive response to a current bad situation. Obviously, however, any judgments you make based on such distorted feelings will be quite flawed. You could easily repeat your mistakes.


Since memory, perception and imagination are often so faulty, how can you make choices that will make you happy? Studies indicate that you should ask others – "surrogates" – what they did in circumstances similar to yours. If your surrogate is happy about a particular choice, then you probably will be too. Asking an experienced surrogate is the most reliable and credible predictor of happiness and emotional satisfaction.Most people, however, refuse to use this surrogate approach. The reason is simple: They are convinced of their individual uniqueness and special qualities. This is especially true regarding the emotions – past, present and future. Thus, most people find it illogical to ask surrogates about their experiences in order to predict their own. They believe that, since they are unique, an outsider's suggestions will not be relevant. They assume the surrogate's emotions and ideas will be different from their own. In fact, however, the surrogate method works, because most human beings are alike.

Making the Same Cognitive Errors in the Future

Because most people, when it comes to their future happiness, do not want to ask anyone else what to do, they rely instead on their own, faulty cognitive powers. They turn to their cooked-up memories and shaky perceptions to try to predict future events and how they will feel about them. Thus, they will continue to repeat errors in judgment over and over. In all likelihood, they will continue to be unhappy with their poor choices.

About the Author

Daniel Gilbert teaches psychology at Harvard. He is a pioneer in the research of "affective forecasting" – the forecasting of one's emotional state in the future.