This article was originally published on November 21st, 2011. It still comes up in conversations with friends, clients, and colleagues. Good stuff (even if Dan is now schilling financial services…good on him for making a few bucks!).
Happiness is the ever-elusive holy grail that we keep chasing – and it seems after all of our efforts, we’re not getting any closer to achieving it. The problem, as Daniel Gilbert points out in the beginning of Stumbling on Happiness, is that we even struggle to even define what happiness is! Stumbling on Happiness is one of the few books that I’ve read that tackles the question of our happiness from a common-sense, almost rational, point of view. If all of us want it, and are willing to work for it, why do we live so much of our lives in unhappiness. Daniel tackles this question with using a variety of disciplines, including psychology, neurobiology, behavioral economics, and luckily, a good deal of humor.
Human beings are really bad at predicting what they need to do now to feel happy in the future. But if we understand why we’re bad at predicting our future needs, we can start to make different decisions in the present.
Ideas, Implications, and Questions
- The implications of Stumbling on Happiness are quite far-reaching, but the biggest impact it made was on my own decision-making process. Unfortunately, it didn’t necessarily help me make better decisions, but it helped illuminate how my own process worked, and gave me a reason to slow down and consider other alternatives. In this way, it actually reinforces the Buddhist practice of desirelessness, because it gave me another tool to realize that doing something now (eating a doughnut, buying a DVD, sleeping late) wasn’t necessarily going to create happiness for my future self.
- “The surprisingly right answer is that people find it gratifying to exercise control – not just for the futures it buys them, but for the exercise itself. Being effective – changing things, influencing things, making things happen – is one of the fundamental human needs…” (pg 22). I’ve seen this over and over in myself and in the people I work with. If you want to make someone happier, give them ownership and control over how they use their time. People love the feeling of control, even if it’s just an illusion.
- “Not only do we select favorable facts from magazines, we also select them from memory.” (pg 181). This reminds me of the Zanders’ “it’s all invented” from The Art of Possibility. If we are going to be subjective in finding support for our beliefs, why not find support for the beliefs that help us. On a negative side, it also illustrates why arguing politics with someone is usually futile – we tend to pick the facts that agree with our viewpoint and ignore the contrary facts.
- “The tendency to recall and rely on unusual instances is one of the reasons why we so often repeat mistakes.” (pg 221). The availability heuristic defines how exceptions stand out in our minds and therefore seem the norm. This has a huge impact in business when professionals “manage to the exception”. As examples, managers will often put policies into place based on the behaviors of a few employees versus the norm or salespeople will put phrases into their sales presentation based on the response from just a few customers. The more conscious you can be of this tendency, the less likely you are to manage your activities based on the “anecdotes” that you can remember easily.
Should you read this book?
Yes. Yesterday. While not a handbook on how to live your life, I think that everyone can use a glimpse into the processes we all use on a daily basis to make decisions. It will help explicate the decisions that those you live and work with make, and you won’t have to wonder, “What were they thinking when they made that decision?” And maybe more importantly, it will help you understand how you got to where you are with the decisions you make.