Stumbling on Happiness

Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard University professor in the College of Psychology, analyzes numerous research studies and theories of human behavior to create an entertaining look at how people can and do foster happiness in their future lives. Stumbling on Happiness pulls together some of Gilbert’s research on what is now known as affective forecasting to explain how people make choicesand more specifically, how they feel about those choices afterward. His key research question is “Why do we so often fail to know what will make us happy in the future?”

His work is highly entertaining and at times comical, but then so is human behavior. Gilbert highlights the human tendency to make predications on how one will feel in the future regarding the choices one makes today. He cleverly notes that when people are saddled with the choices they have made in the past, they may not be as happy as they initially would have predicted, for a multitude of reasons which remain largely in the unconscious brain.

Gilbert goes on to explain that not only is one relying on present circumstances when one makes decisions but also that the brain secretly fills in or imagines details about the future which may or may not have an impact on what will really happen. In other words, people concoct illusions about their future, with the magnificent brains filling in the unknown with fabricated details. This leads some to make some wild predictions and choices about what will make them happy. When someone makes a decision today about what to do tomorrow, he or she really does not have all the facts required to make an accurate assessment. Imagining the possible outcomes, a person selects the one he or she thinks will bring the most happiness and acts accordingly. Surprisingly, when people reach this future destination, they may find that they are not as happy with the choice as initially imagined, because the details that were imagined did not come true.

Gilbert’s theories about affective forecasting appear to fit with old clichéslike believing the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. When one has imagined something that he thinks will bring himself to a personal state of nirvana, he often finds only that when he gets it, it is less than fulfilling. Why? Because the brain does not have the ability to know all the details associated with future events. Instead, the brain fools its owner into believing it can predict the future by constructing elaborate scenarios, filling in missing details with previous knowledge and present circumstances.

Gilbert sets the stage in explaining this mental process with a light analysis of brain physiology. He notes that humans are the only creatures capable of imagination. Daydreaming about the future is enjoyable and, as Gilbert notes with supporting research, something people do on a regular basis, with a tendency to daydream about good things happening. As a result, one tends to overestimate the likelihood of positive outcomes, making one overly optimistic about the future. Gilbert also notes that imagining negative consequences can serve as a motivator in changing present behavior, such as to quit smoking in order to elicit a positive outcome. He goes on to explain that the ultimate goal of the brain is to predict what will happen in order to gain some control over the outcome. This desire to exert control over the future is a fundamental need, a source of mental well-being.

Gilbert offers a thorough, at times humorous, explanation of the limits of the human imagination in predicting future happiness; these limits he characterizes as realism, presentism, and rationalization. In describing realism, Gilbert summarizes recent research on memory and perception to show that the brain, in constructing memories, tends to fill in details that may or may not have been at the scene, while not paying any attention to details missing from the initial picture or view. Realism is a subjective process in that what is perceived and remembered is what the mind wants to see and remember. The end result is a false recollection or skewed picture, lacking in details. Presentism describes the overriding mental tendency to remember the past or predict the future based on present events, circumstances, and feelings. Rationalization is the tendency to view events differently after they have occurred, with a positive spin.

Feelings of regret at not having done things differently is also a compounding factor, as one tends to make choices, such as getting married or having children, that one anticipates will eliminate, or at least minimize, future regret. Interestingly enough, the human...

(The entire section is 1901 words.)