Every philosopher, prophet, and cult-leader has published a book about happiness. At this point there are literally thousands of these books, many of which promise to act as a cure-all for your woes through some spiritual insight or new scientific breakthrough (for example, ‘the scientific’ strategy of tapping your face with your index and middle finger to gain happiness from the emotional freedom technique). Harvard Psychologist Daniel Gilbert’s entry for the suspiciously flourishing happiness genre (isn’t it odd that there are so many books that reveal ‘the secret’ of happiness?), does the opposite.
Gilbert’s book, Stumbling on Happiness won’t teach you five simple steps to become happy, it won’t show you how to materialize a yacht using the law of attraction, and it won’t tell you that understanding an ancient alien civilization can lead to your future well-being (unlike Scientology)1
Stumbling on Happiness’ existence is an insult to most books about happiness. Instead of helping you seek happiness, Daniel Gilbert illuminates the reasons our attempts at earning happiness tend not to end in success. In fact, he suggests that our ability to predict what will make ourselves happy in the future is questionable at best. As a result, all those happiness books might be resting on a faulty premise.
Daniel Gilbert asks us to doubt deeply entrenched assumptions about happiness, and he backs up his extreme claims with well-designed scientific studies. In this article, I’m going to show you that our future happiness isn’t what we think it is.
Daniel Gilbert compares our attitude towards our future happiness with our attitude towards our children. We spend countless hours and dollars building what we hope will be a good future for our children. We treat our future selves similarly, spending most of the hours of most of our days constructing a tomorrow that we hope will make them happy, Gilbert writes, “Just about any time we want something-a promotion, a marriage, an automobile, a cheeseburger- we are expecting that if we get it, then the person who has our fingerprints a second, minute, day, or decade from now will enjoy the world they inherit from us, honoring our sacrifices as they reap the harvest of our shrewd investment decisions and dietary forbearance.
Yet, years later our future selves often resent our hard work more than they appreciate it, “We toil and sweat to give them just what they think they will like, and they quit their jobs, grow their hair, move to or from San Francisco, and wonder how we could ever have been stupid enough to think they’d like that.”- Stumbling on Happiness.
We feel like we know what will make us happy, we have an idea of the X that marks the spot for our future well-being, but oftentimes in our quest for happiness, instead of treasure, we find fool’s gold.
We have distorted opinions about how future events will affect our happiness. In Stumbling On Happiness, Daniel Gilbert mentions a study whose participants were students at the University of Virginia. They were asked to imagine how happy they would be several days after their team won or lost a game of football. The students claimed the game would have a notable impact on their well-being even several days after the victory or defeat. But they were wrong, it didn’t.
Yes, you might be ecstatic when your team wins a football game, but that ecstasy will vanish when you wake up with a hangover the next morning. If your team loses, you might be right to think this will be upsetting, but after the loss you might go to the local pub, and five drinks in, the feeling of loss will fade away.
A football win might feel good, and a loss might feel bad, but when we imagine the future our mind has an extremely limited perspective. You can’t simultaneously imagine all the many other life-events that are going to happen in those three days, events that are going to have an impact on your emotions.
We are not only inaccurate at predicting our emotional reactions to small events, but to major life events too. When we imagine how winning the lottery will make us feel, we tend to think it will have a long-term positive impact on our well-being. When we lose a family member, we imagine we will never feel good again. But in both cases, we are wrong. Research has found that even life-changing events don’t permanently affect our well-being, after some months pass by, research has shown that we consistently bounce back to the same happiness level we were at before the event.
Although we like to think our major decisions, where to live, what career to study for, or who to marry, are based on sound logical decision making, several years later you may find yourself fed up with the traffic in your city, tired of your career’s long hours, or sick of being forced to sleep on the couch because of another argument about who is supposed to do the dishes. Our plans for future happiness are formed by a mind that can manufacture a satisfying image, but is unable to look at the many details that determine if that satisfying image is going to correlate with an equally satisfying life.
We feel like we know what will make us happy, our goals are exciting, and we pursue them in hopes of a brighter future. But for the most part, we ignore the staggering differences between our imagination and reality. Maybe we can’t make our future selves happy, but maybe that isn’t such a bad thing. If we realize that nothing in the future is going to fix how we feel, we might learn to accept our current circumstances. If you stop chasing happiness, maybe you’ll finally be able to stumble on it
1. Sappell, Joel; Robert W. Welkos (June 24, 1990). “The Scientology Story”. Los Angeles Times. pp. A36:1. Archived from the original on January 11, 2008.- “75 million years ago, Xenu brought billions of people to Earth in spacecraft resembling Douglas DC-8 airliners. “