Stumbling on Happiness, by Daniel Gilbert

“We treat our future selves as though they were our children, spending most of the hours of most days constructing tomorrows that we hope will make them happy.”

Stumbling on Happiness, by Daniel Gilbert

Stumbling on Happiness, by Daniel Gilbert

All our actions at the present moment are determined by what we believe will make us happy tomorrow. As a result, we make a constant effort to satisfy our perceived future needs and desires. But are we really capable of predicting what we will enjoy in the future? In Stumbling on Happiness, Harvard’s Psychology Professor Daniel Gilbert writes about the inherent human tendency to make inaccurate predictions based on distorted perceptions and memories.

Why We Fail At Predicting The Future?

According to Gilbert, the most important aspect that distinguishes humans from other living creatures is the ability to plan ahead. We are capable of imagining future events and their consequences, and we do so instinctively, without even noticing it. When faced with choices, we imagine possible outcomes, and we assume we can tell whichof the possible future scenarios is more desirable. When planning what to do in order to get the results we want, we fall into a trap of believing that our imagination will provide us with accurate information about the future. But we are not aware that our imagination “fills in” many details that do not correspond to the future reality and “leaves out” many others that will actually be part of that reality.

“When we want to remember our experience, our brains quickly reweave the tapestry by fabricating –not by actually retrieving- the bulk of the information that we experience as memory. This fabrication happens so quickly and effortlessly that we have the illusion (…) that the entire thing was in our heads the entire time.”

“We tend to forget that our brains are talented forgers, weaving a tapestry of memory and perception whose detail is so compelling that its inauthenticity is rarely detected.”

“When imagination paints a picture of the future, many of the details are necessarily missing, and imagination solves this problem by filling in the gaps with details that it borrows from the present.”

The circumstances that surround us today affect our perception of tomorrow: how we feel now conditions how we think we will feel tomorrow. You probably have experienced this while shopping for groceries on an empty stomach, or making a promise to a loved one during an emotional moment only to regret it later.

“Because predictions about the future are made in the present, they are inevitably influenced by the present. The way we feel right now (‘I’m so hungry’) and the way we think right now (‘The big speakers sound better than the little ones’) exert an unusually strong influence on the way we think we’ll feel later. Because time is such a slippery concept, we tend to imagine the future as the present with a twist, thus our imagined tomorrows inevitably look like slightly twisted versions of today.”

Gilbert argues that while we imagine our future selves, we blissfully ignore the grainy details, and tend to paint a rosy picture. It’s only when we get closer to the imagined future, the painful practicalities of the situations become apparent.

“When we think of events in the distant past or distant future we tend to think abstractly about why they happened or will happen, but when we think of events in the near past or near future we tend to think concretely about how they happened or will happen. (…) For example, have you ever wondered why you often make commitments that you deeply regret when the moment to fulfill them arrives? (…) when we said yes we were thinking about babysitting in terms of why instead of how, in terms of causes and consequences instead of execution, and we failed to consider the fact that the detail-free babysitting we were imagining would not be the detail-laden babysitting we would ultimately experience. Babysitting next month is an ‘act of love’, and expressing affection is spiritually rewarding (…)”

We Are Stronger Than We Think

When we imagine ourselves facing a difficult situation, we expect to feel a lot worse than we actually will, because we underestimate the power of our psychological immune system’s defenses. Our brains are biased towards finding the positive in every situation once it becomes a reality.

“For at least a century, psychologists have assumed that terrible events –such as having a loved one die or becoming the victim of a violent crime- must have a powerful, devastating and enduring impact on those who experience them. (…) But recent research suggests that the conventional wisdom is wrong, that the absence of grief is quite normal, and that rather than being the fragile flowers that a century of psychologists have made us out to be, most of the people are surprisingly resilient in the face of a trauma.”

How Can We Become Better At Predicting Our Future?

Gilbert explains that even though our perceptions may misguide us, and our imagination may be sloppy, there is a way to more accurately predict how we will feel tomorrow. This predictive method is based around the idea that there is probably someone out there who is actually going through a similar situation to the one we have imagined for our future. But to be able to use this method, we need to be able to look at our “sense of uniqueness” straight in the face and question its validity. According to the author, we not only overestimate how different we are from others, but we also overestimate the differences among people around us.

“(…) if you are like most people, then like most people, you don’t know you’re like most people.”

“If you believe (as I do) that people can generally say how they are feeling at the moment they are asked, then one way to make predictions about our own emotional futures is to find someone who is having the experience we are contemplating and ask them how they feel.”

Stumbling on Happiness helps us acknowledge the errors we tend to make when attempting to predict our tomorrow. If you want to know more about why you make decisions the way you do, don’t hesitate to read this insightful and entertaining piece of writing that describes our ability to imagine the future and its pitfalls.

If you are interested in hearing more about Dan Gilbert’s perspective on building a happy future, you can listen to his 20-minute TED Talk in our video-article Wired To Be Happy!.

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