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 Stumbling on Happiness

A History of Happiness Essay

We all like to control our destiny and we think we are leading ourselves to future happiness. Reality is different.

Because of the way the brain works the future is almost certainly different than it appears to us now. In truth we find it very difficult to imagine correctly what the future will be like because we make universal and systematic errors or illusions of foresight.

Our imagination suffers from three short-comings that give rise to common errors.

Firstly, it works so quickly, quietly, and effectively that we are insufficiently sceptical of its products.

Secondly, it relies too much on what it knows about the present.

Thirdly, it has a hard time telling how we will think about the future when we get there.


Filling In

The brain is an amazing organ. It works to help us keep memories of everything that has happened in our life. But it can’t remember everything we’ve seen heard, smelt and read, minute by minute hour by hour. So it does a little trick of remembering little bits, fragments from here and there.  When we recall a memory it then fills in the gaps.

Moreover, it does so in a way that what we recall is a small fragment of what actually happened. These fragments have a rose tinted afterglow. We generally cannot tell when we are doing this because the filling in happens quickly and unconsciously.

This powerful and undetectable filling in suffuses our remembrance of things. It also pervades our perceptions of the present and our imaginations of the future. When we think about the future we are filling in lots of blanks.

We are automatically assuming that everything we are imagining is based on an accurate representation of all the facts. 


Leaving Out

Not only do we fill things in when we imagine the future, but we also leave out a lot. And what we leave out is much more important than we realise.

Any future event that we imagine thus brings to mind only a fraction of what reality will contain.

Wouldn’t we be happy living in California?

Because we bring to mind good weather, beaches and the sort of frivolity portrayed in shows such as Baywatch we think so. But are Californian’s any happier than other American’s?

It turns out not.

What we forgot to bring to mind when we imagined California was high house prices, traffic, and earthquakes. And that climate is just one of many things that determine a person’s happiness.

We left out a lot.

The problem with the filling-in-trick and the leaving-out-trick is not that brains do it, but that they do it so well.

So well that we aren’t aware it is happening. We tend to accept the brains products uncritically and expect the future to unfold with the details – and with only the details – that the brain has imagined.


Imagining a tomorrow

On to the second point.

Most of us have a have a tough time imagining a tomorrow that is different than today.

Each of us is born into a place, a time and a circumstance, and our attempts to imagine different worlds can be difficult. This applies with particular regard to feelings. Because our brains are so focused on responding to current events we conclude that that we will feel tomorrow as we feel today, when in reality we have no idea what our future self will feel.

Because predictions about the future are made in the present, they are inevitably influenced by the present. This is not to say we are trapped by our circumstances, but we are certainly influenced by them. The future you are imagining now probably looks and feels remarkably like the present does today.

Mountain sunrise

Harm protector

Which brings us to our third point.

The brain goes out of its way to make us feel good and protect us from harm. Hence, for example, it may exaggerate the threat of negative events to steer us away from them, but then reduce the significance should they actually happen less we dwell on them too much.

Because we do all this unconsciously, however, we tend not to realise that we do it at all. Blithely assuming the dreadful view we have when we look forward to an event is the dreadful view we’ll have when we look back on it.

In short, we do not realise that our views will change because we are unaware of the processes that change them. This can make in quite difficult to predict one’s emotional future.



Given all the errors the brain makes in predicting the future, how can we better understand what will make us happy?

Dr. Gilbert advocates using surrogates.

Look around at what other people are doing that makes them happy. It’s a cheap effective way to predict ones emotions. How you would feel if you were in that situation.

Look at the law of numbers, don’t just take one example, take thousands. Want to know how you’ll feel about a career in law working in London; try to find out what all those working in a career in law in London actually feel. Are they happy?

We rely on others, news broadcaster’s, teachers, friends, Facebook, for so much information, why not rely on others experiences to inform our own?

The main reason is that we feel and understand ourselves as unique. This is understandable and natural after all only we truly understand ourselves. And we are unique. But are we really that different from others?

So different that we can’t use them as proxies to at least try to understand what might make us happy.

It’s an interesting exercise and may help guide your decisions. But you are also an individual and responsible for your own happiness. What others do and feel may help guide your decisions. What you do and how you feel about it afterward are up to you.

stumbling on happiness

This Essay draws on work by the psychologist Daniel Gilbert, particularly his award wining book Stumbling on Happiness. If you’re interested in learning more click here.

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