Book Summary of Stumbling on Happiness

Recently, I summarized ‘The Happiness Advantage’. Reading that book lead to raising some questions that I wanted to seek answers for. The question of “Why are we so bad at managing and understanding happiness?” lead me to this book – Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert.

In this summary, I attempt to better identify and understand the shortcomings of our brian (and ourselves) that result in us being bad at understanding managing happiness.

Contents hide

Lesson 1 – Our minds are capable of filling in missing details without us knowing about it

Everyone’s field of vision contains a literal blindspot, a place where the eye cannot see. Yet, wherever we look, we see the whole image. This is because the brain fills in the missing details automatically.

We assume that we visually see is a true reflection of the world, yet it is not. It is a partly our imagination – construction of our mind.

This brain’s ability to fill in the details goes beyond our vision. It also influences how we remember the past – only storing key details and emotions.

How should we prevent our mind from altering the past or the future?

  • View the past event or memory holistically and not just for it’s outcome – For example, if a relationship ended badly, don’t view the whole relationship as a bad experience. Instead, appreciate the good times and note the not so pleasant times.
  • Prevent falling for the outcome bias or hindsight bias when thinking about the past or the future

Lesson 2 – We trust that we know the future predictions. Yet, we disregard that it is just a single scenario among many other possibilities.

In many situations, we construct a future prediction and “pre-feel” it. For example, when waiting for food at the restaurant or playing lottery.

Unfortunately, this applies to many of our predictions about the future. So, when we put our faith into them we are often disappointed. What if the restaurant ran out of food or we didn’t win the lottery?

How should we prevent getting fixated on an outcome?

  • Don’t attach yourself (too much) to an ideal outcome – when at a restaurant, working on creative projects, or playing games. Maintain a healthy balance between acknowledging things outside of your control while still trying to achieve your goals.

Lesson 3 – Our emotional state influences how we think about the future. This leads to mistakes.

If you go grocery shopping hungry, you will likely end up buying more food than you need. Similarly, we often let our current emotional state (hungry, angry, upset, or very optimistic) influence how we think about the future.

If we are feeling upset or sad, we will paint the future pessimistically, when in all likelihood the future is just fine.

How should we prevent (unhealthy) emotional influence in thinking about the future?

  • Prevent Making Decisions in Peak Emotional State – If you got fired from one job or let go in a relationship, don’t instantly assume that you are not worth another job or relationship.
  • Re-visit Decisions or Predictions You Make of the Future – Making decisions with heavy emotions is okay. One can say that it is impossible to make decisions without emotion. However, the key is to re-visit them at a later (more relaxed) mental state to iterate on the decision.

Lesson 4 – Value purchases for satisfaction – not for their “sale” price

We end up buying products or services based on their “sale” price and not if they satisfy us. For example, on big sale event like black friday, we might end up spending money on “nice to have (but don’t really need)” products. Instead, if we spent that money on things we value (regardless of if they are on sale or not), we will be much more satisfied.

How can we better use money for satisfaction?

  • Spend money on things of satisfaction and value – Have a personal sense of what products you value and what satisfaction it can bring to you. For example, a good cup of coffee or tea.
  • Avoid getting distracted by “on sale” products – Limit your purchases that are driven my external “sale” or discounted prices. This will result in you not sure as to why you bought some products.
  • Spend money on experiences rather than just purchases – For more details, refer to “Action Items for the Happiness Advantage”.

Lesson 5 – Don’t trust your memories. We remember strange and unique details over normal details.

Imagine you found a $100 note while camping. This unexpected surprise would dominate your memories over the insects, sleeping discomfort, or cold weather of the camp.

Our mind recalls strange and unique details strategically as it cannot (and isn’t worth it to) remember all the details of the event. Furthermore, our mind naturally assumes that the things we recall easily must happen more often. These two factors lead us to remember the past events incorrectly.

How can we better handle recalling past memories?

  • Increase self-awareness of events by journaling – Journaling can help you holistically understand the situation so that you don’t store a biased view of it in your memory.
  • Critically assess your past memories by what you can recall – If you find yourself only being able to recall the strange and unique events, ask yourself if the whole experience was worth it?

Lesson 6 – False believe that money makes us happy spreads because it benefits society.

We spread around myths (and information) that is beneficial for the whole society – even if they are not beneficial for us. For example, it is generally viewed as more money you have the more “successful” you are. However, individually, we do not feel more happy after a certain level of income.

How can we better handle accumulating money?

  • Understand that society as a whole benefits from you earning (and spending) more – This will help you understand how you should evaluation other people’s opinion about your future. For example, getting a new car, bigger house, better job, or working long hours.
  • Separate what society (or others) deem valuable from your personal values – Society is made up of many different cultures (some value accumulating money over everything else whereas some value a balance approach). Surround yourself with people like-minded so you don’t feel like you are driven my what society, family, friends, or others want you to be like.

Lesson 7 – We think we are unique so we don’t ask for advice. Getting advice could benefit us.

If everyone thinks they are above above, who is at or below average then? We end up making our decisions alone and without advice or guidance from others. This leads us to sometimes make decisions that we are then disappointed with.

For example, if you are thinking of traveling around the world and quitting your day-job or if you are wanting to move to a developing country. Studies have shown that we can make accurate predictions about our future based on a report from someone who has been through that experience.

How can we better handle our uniqueness and considering advice?

  • Develop humility and lower your ego – This will allow you to view yourself as equal (in some regards) to others around you. Only then will you be able to learn from the common wisdom and experiences.
  • Find other people who have made your decision or done what you are about to do – Listening to their experience and reflections will help you better understand yourself and the decision. This will also prevent you from romanticizing about the decision or event.

Lesson 8 – Always take action. We can learn from mistakes but regret inaction.

Why are most common regrets of NOT doing something? Things like starting a business, not traveling, not going to college etc. We regret inaction because our minds have a harder time coming up with positive views of the event. Without doing it, our brian constantly contemplates how it could have been (almost like fear of missing out).

How can we take more action and not regret inaction?

  • Take more Action – Try new things or chances that are given to you. Even if you are hesitant, and it is the best option at the moment, do it. You won’t regret doing it but may regret inaction.
  • For inaction, justify why you don’t want to – It is impossible to do everything, thus, make sure to justify to yourself as to why you decided not to do it. When your brain knows the “why”, it is less likely to regret that inaction.

Lesson 9 – We feel worse of small misfortune over more traumatic experiences.

Have you ever been surprised by your ability to handle a traumatic experience? A breakup, accident, or getting fired from your job. This is because when an experience is traumatic enough, our mind puts up psychological defense to ensure we are not mentally paralyzed by the event.

Now,  have you also experienced that annoying headache or cold that “was the worst!”? This is because, for small misfortune, your brain does not defend itself. This can result in us being more upset about small events when compared to traumatic experiences.

How can we prevent getting upset over small misfortune?

  • Acknowledge the working of your brain where it might highlight small misfortunes – so that you take a step back and regulate yourself.
  • Realize that you are likely to handle traumatic events much better than you think – therefore, don’t fear tough decisions and be confident in yourself to handle it.

Lesson 10 – We want freedom and choice. Yet, we are happier when we can’t change things.

Most people think that, in any situation, it is better to have more options. Yet, this is often false reasoning. This is because when we have more options we start wondering about which one would be a better choice. This contemplation and comparison can often lead to more stress and worries in the short-term than necessary.

How can we limit our choices to be happier?

  • Seek to make decisive decisions – Make decisions that cannot be undone or have alternatives, as this will only make you worry more.
  • Eliminate options in your life – Have many of options to eat, watch, and do something in your spare time? Eliminate these to increase your chances of happiness and satisfaction (and reduce contemplation).

Lesson 11 – Explanation to an unexplained event reduces its mystery and emotional impact.

Unexplained events (like a secret admirer or a rumor) holds a special allure for us for two reasons. First, we feel emotional connection to the event as they are rare. Second, we think about these for longer as they are a mystery.

Explanation to unexplained events can help in negative situations like a car crash. This is because it helps the victim from understanding and concluding the situation. However, for positive events, it can have the opposite effect. As soon as you find out who sent you those flowers or a gift, the mystery and emotional impact disappears.

How can we create positive mystery and emotional impact?

  • Create events filled with surprises and mystery – For people you care about, give them surprises about gifts, events, or situations. This fills them with joy thinking about the surprise!
  • Reduce mystery and emotional impact for negative events – For people handling negative unexplained events such as a car accident or job termination, help them by eliminating the mystery of the unexplained.

Lesson 12 – Our friends are not unbiased. They are just like ourselves.

We like to be around people that are like us. This means that when we ask the for advice, they often say what we wanted to hear. Furthermore, we “cheat” in asking good questions. We ask things like “What do you like about me?” instead of asking a broader question like “Do you think I am a good person?”.

The risk of surrounding ourselves with such people is that we may not find fault or areas of improvement without ourselves. Also, we might find ourselves stuck with people whose values you no longer resonate with.

How can we better handle people we surround ourselves with?

  • Critically evaluate your friends’ influence on you – Are they making you a better person? Giving you critical feedback? Are you doing the same to them? If not, explore changing your friends.
  • Explore ways to reduce “bias” from your friends – Ask them questions and look for a critical response. Understand their values system and compare it against yours.

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