by Daniel Gilbert

Book Cover


We are bad at predicting what makes us happy for various reasons: not being in touch with our emotions, misrepresenting the future, generalizing a current situation, over-estimating the near future, misinterpreting intent and significance, and more.

We have a conviction that we are different, we’re always looking for the things that are unique to us and the people we surround ourselves with. But in fact, we’re mostly similar to other people. Culture and behaviors are vastly more similar around the world than they are different.

→ So the best way to predict if an experience will make us happy is to ask people currently living the experience are happy.

Reading notes

  • There is no single definition of happiness
  • Having control on the future gives happiness, although it’s a bit fallacious since people tend not to know what they want
  • Projecting into the future is part of the happiness - e.g. If going to a fancy restaurant, imagining what it’s going to be is part of it. Sometimes people prefer to delay to be able to fantasize the future longer. Sometimes they delay it forever
  • Happiness depends on the current, individual context. What makes everyone happy depends on what they know they are missing or not. e.g. If you’ve never had a cigar, then you might be happy not to have one. But once you’ve had one and have liked it, then you’ll be sad not to have one. Happiness is ‘stretching’ with experience - what makes you happy when starting an activity (e.g. First notes on a Piano) might not make you happy anymore when you’re better at it.
  • What we experience and what we are aware of are two distinct things. E.g reading a page and realizing that we weren’t paying attention, but when re-reading it seems familiar.
  • Similarly, it’s hard to be in touch with how we feel. Some people have a condition that prevent them from understanding their feelings. You can be angry and don’t be aware of it. In some situations you might misinterpret what you are feeling, such as being aroused from a scary experience, but crossing a woman and thinking it’s sexual arousal
  • Feelings, and happiness vary greatly from one person to the next and it’s hard for an external observer to actually guess what people are feeling
  • Thus it is very hard to measure happiness, and the only salvation is in the numbers by hoping the errors cancel out.

  • The brain is filling in missing details all the time
  • When predicting the future that’s also what’s happening

  • Humans (like flying rats) are very bad at noticing the absence of something
  • Therefore when imagining the future it’s very hard to see the things that are missing in the prediction. When asked about what it would be like to live without sight, or without a loved one, we focus on emotions coming from that scenario (absence of sight or loved one) but don’t notice the things missing, like emotions coming from other aspects of our lives (other loved ones, friendships, experiences, etc.)
  • We’re particularly bad at imagining how others can feel (e.g. people with disabilities feel better than what people usually think they feel).
  • We’re also bad a imagining how we’d feel based on certain situations.

  • To predict the future the brain is “filling in the blanks”.
  • The brain is using a lot of details from the present.
  • This makes us tend to imagine how we’ll feel in the future much more like the present than it actually will be.

  • We don’t understand temporal distance well, so we tend to project time on physical representations - looking forward/backward, etc. The problem is that this is not a perfect projection.
  • We value more things that are raising ; things taken away are a disgrace (e.g. pay cut, or overvaluation of houses/cars being sold).
  • We value things based on contrast. If comparing what we have vs. what we’re acquiring, contrast can be positive with a good option. But that option can be seen negatively if contrasted with other options that have features we weren’t even thinking off/don’t matter. This is the technique used in shops.

  • Things can have multiple meanings. We have to interpret. There are multiple ways of interpreting based on context.
  • The brain tends to interpret things in a way that rewards it. So we interpret things in way that are favorable to us
    • Require higher standard of justification for things we don’t agree on
    • Pick methods that have higher chance to yield results we want.
  • Changing
    • Changing requires to learn, but learning is hard
    • The mind is trying to post-rationalize what is happening to us:
      • When stuck with something (committed, can’t be changed, etc.) we tend to be happier with it than when we can change it.
      • Our memory of how we predicted we’d feel is changing towards how we feel today
    • We disregard what really makes us happy in favor of what we think might make us happy
      • we think having the possibility to change later is making us happier when in fact we’re happier when we can’t change
      • We prefer knowing the explanation behind something that makes us happy when in fact we keep that thing in mind longer when we don’t know
    • Like genes, some ideas are “super replicators”: they survive because they self-replicate themselves.
      • Capitalism requires that everyone keeps buying stuff and so people try to make money beyond the level that is enough to give them happiness ; whereas pay has diminishing marginal utility.
      • Kids aren’t just joy. Parent’s level of happiness tends to be lower than the rest, but since people get kids and have some joy, they replicate the idea.
  • The best way to know how we’ll feel about something is actually simply to ask other people who live the experience right now rather than imagine it
    • We are all mostly like most people
    • But we are looking for individuality and thus overestimate how much difference there is

About Reading Notes

These are my takes on this book. See other reading notes. Most of the time I stop taking notes on books I don't enjoy, and these end up not being in the list. This is why average ratings tend to be high.