Stumbling on Happiness

Are we just too stupid to be happy? Daniel Gilbert, Psychologist and author of Stumbling on Happiness, reveals some of the common mental mistakes that defeat our search for happiness.

Illustration by Andre Slob

Daniel Gilbert

Dan Gilbert says we get in the way of our own happiness because we don’t understand how our mind works and the tricks it plays on us. The Harvard psychologist is author of the best-selling Stumbling on Happiness. His research shows that most of us look at both the past and the future through rose-colored glasses, downplaying painful times of the past and overestimating experiences in the future. He says this is just one of the ways that faulty thinking defeats our attempts to achieve happiness.

Gilbert is in the growing field of happiness studies, which tries to determine what makes us happy and why. Some of its findings seem obvious but others may surprise you. In this interview Daniel Gilbert offers insights to make you think—and think about your thinking.

Why do we stumble on happiness instead of going there directly?

“Stumbling on happiness” has two meanings—to find something by accident or to trip over something like a child’s bike in the garage—and I intended them both. The book is much more about the second meaning, though: how we make mistakes as we pursue happiness. When we try to make plans to discover happiness, we’re likely to find ourselves facedown in the mud.

Even though it’s about happiness, your book seems to have a negative message—that we’re not in control of our minds and that we’re fooling ourselves all the time.

It is a book about pitfalls and errors, but I don’t think learning about our mistakes sends a negative message. Only good comes of knowing the truth, even when that truth is not the truth you wanted to know. The book describes, as best I could, the truth about the human mind and its pursuit of happiness. Now, some of the things it describes aren’t what we want to hear, but I think we’re better off hearing them than not.

I want my book to invite people to have a healthy skepticism about their own intuitions. When they look forward, thinking that winning the lottery will make them happy, perhaps they will rethink that. In addition to being skeptical, I would encourage people to observe. If you think winning the lottery is going to make you really happy, for a long time, check out some lottery winners. What you’ll find is that some of them are really happy, and some of them are really unhappy. If you look at enough of them, you’ll find that on average, they are exactly as happy as the people who didn’t win the lottery. So distrust your brain, and trust your eyes a little bit more. Ultimately, the way to overcome the foibles of imagination is to circumvent imagination entirely. Instead of closing your eyes, open them.

Do you use the findings of your work to make yourself happier?

Most of the errors and mistakes I describe in my book almost have the status of optical illusions; that is, you can know all about them, but that doesn’t mean they still don’t fool you. So I think I make all the same mistakes everybody makes when they’re prospecting, looking forward in time, making decisions, pursuing happiness. The difference is, when I’m making them, I know their Latin names!

With that said, I do think the work has had some effect on me. For example, I’ve been involved in work on “impact bias,” research that shows that negative events don’t have the pervasive, long-term, powerful effects people think they do. Knowing that has made me braver in my life. I take more risks because I’m much more confident that no matter how things turn out, I’ll probably do pretty well. Even if I get the bad outcome, there will be a way in which it turns out to be the good outcome.

A year ago, for example, my wife and I were house hunting. We were asking ourselves which of two houses would work: the bigger one far out of the city or the smaller one in town. I turned to her and said, “It doesn’t matter. We could take either house, and a year from now, we will know it was clearly the best choice.” Lo and behold, we bought one of the houses and now we can’t understand why we even considered the other one. That gives you a certain kind of courage, to know that whichever house you choose, it’ll be the right one.

Happiness research seems to indicate that people place more value on events in the future than those in the past. Why is that?

We don’t know the answer to that yet. We have a lot of speculations, but the research you’re talking about is quite new. The reason for this may be pretty fundamental: we’re facing forward. We’re looking toward the future, and the past is in back of us. It makes sense that future events would arouse more emotion than past ones. When I tell you that two days ago four children were killed in Haifa or Beirut, it makes you feel bad. If I tell you that later this afternoon four children will be killed, you feel horrible. Why is it more terrible four hours from now than four hours ago?

You also suggest that we can watch our experience and learn from it, and so, perhaps, not stumble quite so often. What stands in the way of our being self-aware?

To really be self-aware, one would have to do a number of things. First, one would have to see one’s experience clearly at the time of the experience. Many of us have experiences, and then a moment later we can’t really recount what happened. Second, we would have to remember correctly. Even if we’re observing ourselves having an experience, it’s possible that a week from now we’ll misremember what actually happened.

We also would have to remember what we projected would happen. If you know what you thought would happen when you moved to Cleveland, and you know what did happen when you moved to Cleveland, you’re in a position to take note of whether you made a mistake and how you might revise your forecast in the future.

Life conspires against our collecting data, in the way that a scientist would collect it, and it also conspires to have us make the same mistakes over and over again. Very few of us walk through life collecting data on ourselves objectively. Memory also plays lots of tricks on us, and we make the biggest mistakes in remembering what we felt. Feelings aren’t as tangible as words and deeds. It’s very hard to remember exactly what you were feeling thirty minutes ago, much less thirty years ago.

Most Buddhists think that twenty-five centuries ago, long before modern psychology, the Buddha identified the process that distorts cognition. He said that our view bends perception to agree with our view, then perceptions form the evidence for our thoughts, and the thoughts argue in support of our view, and that the whole thing is a self-justifying cycle of delusion. Does this agree with your view of things?

That Buddha was one smart cookie! If you listen to Buddhists talk about Buddhist psychology, you learn that 2,500 years before there was psychology, there were smart people paying very careful attention to how the mind works and coming to some wonderful insights, which I think are the insights that science verifies today. That doesn’t mean that there is 100 percent agreement. I don’t know Buddhist psychology well enough to say what that percentage is. I’d be very surprised if everything the Buddha said is upheld by scientific psychology. I’d be very surprised if everything was disconfirmed. My guess is that a great deal of what Buddhists consider their core psychology would fit very nicely with modern psychology. I was at a conference with the Dalai Lama in which his main interest was precisely in finding the areas of disagreements between Buddhist and Western psychology. Because of his enormous respect for science, he was willing to consider areas where Buddhism might be wrong. You can’t help but admire that kind of spirit.

A few hundred years ago, Sir Francis Bacon wrote quite articulately about how we find evidence to confirm our view. It’s a fundamental truth about the human mind. We have beliefs, ideas, and perceptions, and the brain gets to work very quickly trying to find evidence to substantiate them. What it counts as evidence differs between people and across centuries and across cultures, but indeed the entire process kind of justifies itself.

You said that the most surprising finding in your work is that people are happier for a longer time if they don’t fully understand why the event that made them happy happened. Do we know why that is?

I think we do. It’s not surprising that the mind tends to focus on that which it doesn’t understand. Think of the human brain like Pac-Man: it’s looking for things that aren’t understood. It’s scanning its environment constantly for mysteries that it can solve. And once it solves them, it packs them away in its file drawer and looks for another.

Your brain is very good at that. Bless it for doing that; that’s exactly what it ought to do. But there’s a catch: once things are understood, they tend to have less emotional consequence than when they’re not understood. That’s why most psychotherapy tries to help people understand their suffering, because understanding it somewhat diminishes it. By the same token, once we understand good things, they’re not quite as good as when they were just delicious mysteries.

While most of us uncritically accept information that makes us happy, you say that some people cannot reason their way to happiness. Does that mean that depression can be a more accurate reaction to life?

Well, yes it can in some way. We know that if depressed and non-depressed people are both exposed to what we call “uncertain contingencies,” depressed people will provide more accurate responses. For example, I can bring people into my laboratory and say, “Here are two buttons, and when you press them, lights may or may not go on. Sometimes they will. Sometimes they won’t. You’ve got to decide if the buttons are hooked up. Play with this apparatus, press the buttons, and see if you think your presses correspond to the lights going on and off well enough for you to say that you are in control of the lights.” Depressed people will do that task more accurately. Non-depressed people will tend to err in the direction of saying, “I think my presses are controlling the lights.” Depressed people will correctly say, “These things aren’t even hooked up.”

In certain circumscribed circumstances, then, depressed people are more accurate. At the same time, depressed people are ridiculously inaccurate about some very important matters, such as what kind of good and bad things will happen to them in the future or how much others like them.

Overall, then, you regard it as a good thing that we have this ingrained habit of uncritically accepting information that makes us happy?

I do. My view of it is that there are many different ways to see the same thing, all of which are equally right. There is not a single fact of the matter most of the time. If you lose your job tomorrow, is that a good or a bad thing? One could make a case for dozens of different shades of interpretation of that event, all of which are equally true. The question is which one your brain most wants to believe. If you are like most people, your brain will find the most sanguine of the alternatives, the one that makes you the happiest. I’m not sure your brain is making a mistake. I’m not sure that finding the happiest of all the reasonable alternatives is unreasonable. There is only a problem when the brain goes shopping beyond the latitude of reason to put an unreasonable spin on events.

What do you think of the fact that the idea of happiness is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution?

The Constitution promises three things: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That’s interesting—it’s not the pursuit of liberty. Liberty you’re given, but all you’re given about happiness is the right to try to find it. And there’s a lot of wisdom in that, because, of course, nobody can guarantee you happiness. They can only guarantee that you are alive and free to pursue it.

My synonym for the pursuit of happiness is “living.” I really think that’s what life is all about. Some people will object, because to them “happiness” stands for a kind of bovine contentment, the pleasures of the flesh. Surely, life must be about something more than happiness! Well, I don’t think it is, because we can achieve happiness through some of the most sublime things, the things that we admire and cherish, rather than things we indulge in, like chocolate and a good orgasm. Those are sources of happiness too, but we know from data that altruistic acts, for example, are more powerful sources of happiness.

That raises the interesting question about the role of science in this. What does science have to tell us about happiness?

Well, how do we figure out what makes us happy? Grandma told us a lot of things about happiness, and culture tells us a lot of things about happiness. Charlie Brown says happiness is a warm puppy. The Beatles say it’s a warm gun. Everybody has an idea about what happiness is. What science can do for us is help separate the wheat from the chaff, the truth from the myth—as dispassionately as possible. I would have been delighted to discover that money brings happiness, because I have money. On the other hand, that’s not what the data says. By the same token, I wasn’t pleased to see that children don’t bring happiness, because I have a child.

When we separate truth from myth, what do we find? We find that Grandma was right about some things. For example, when Grandma said friendships and a good marriage are keys to happiness, she was right. Probably the single best predictor of a person’s happiness is the quality and extent of their social relationships. People with solid friendships, and people with healthy romantic relationships, are usually quite happy, regardless of almost anything else that happens in their lives. Social relationships are a better predictor of happiness than your physical health. If you had to choose between being paralyzed from the waist down and having no friends whatsoever, you would probably be better off being paraplegic than friendless.

Why does caring for others make us so happy?

Altruism is a social act, an interpersonal act. It makes people feel good about their place in the world, good about others, and it makes others esteem them. It has everything we want as social animals. It isn’t surprising, then, that when people give of themselves to others, and are recognized for it, they experience lots of happiness and an increase in self-esteem.

Interestingly, though, we’ve just done a study that shows that when people are offered the opportunity to do something selfish or something altruistic, they take the selfish option by and large. Culture has told them this is what they should do to be happy, but if you force them to take the altruistic option, they’re much happier. It’s a case of people not really knowing what will make them happy, not knowing what’s good for them. Altruism is a thing you might resist kicking and screaming—“I want to keep my money; I don’t want to give it away”—but if you give it away, it will probably make you happier than most of the things you could spend it on.

Buddhists hold that the first truth of life is suffering, and that the attempt to deny this itself makes us unhappy. Do you think the way to happiness is to accept the pervasive nature of suffering?

The possibility of a life free of suffering is as close to zero as I can imagine. It’s hard to imagine what that would be like. If we think about what emotions do for us—why the brain evolved feelings like happiness and unhappiness—it becomes perfectly clear that having positive feelings all the time is neither possible nor desirable.

What are feelings for? From the psychological and biological point of view, emotions constitute a primitive signaling system. They are your brain’s way of telling you when you are doing things that are or are not in your best interest. It’s no coincidence that fat, sugar, salt, and sex tend to make people happy. These things are, by and large, very good for mammals. They keep them alive and reproducing. It’s no surprise that a whack on the head or a scary face make people unhappy. They are dangerous. Your emotions, then, are a very rough, but not bad, guide to what’s good or bad for you in the world, a compass as it were.

What good is a compass always stuck on north? A compass needle has to be free to fluctuate. Similarly, an emotional system, substantiated in the human brain, has to be free to go from happy to unhappy. It can’t get stuck on endlessly blissful, or else it approaches everything or avoids everything equally. We are meant to be happy, and we are meant to suffer. We’re supposed to suffer when we are encountering circumstances that aren’t good for us.

Do you believe that happiness can come from returning to a state of grace from which we have all strayed?

No. Many people have a kind of Luddite notion: “Let’s go back to the meadow, back to the Garden of Eden. It will be wonderful. It will all be like it used to be.” Well, it all used to suck. Women were oppressed, children were used like cattle, people raped, pillaged, and plundered, everybody lived to about the age of twenty-seven and had bad teeth! Who would want to go back? What we have right now is marvelous. It’s far from perfect, but our job is to make it better—not to go backward, but to go forward.