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Happiness is an Illusion

Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert
What we think of as happiness is an illusion, at least according to Daniel Gilbert in his book, Stumbling on Happiness.

I read this tome thinking that a book with happiness in the title might provide some guidance on achieving happiness. In reality, this book is less about happiness than it is about how we think, how we perceive events and things, how we imagine our future and how we remember our past.

Stumbling on Happiness is a collection of interesting psychological facts and research with only a tenuous link to the science of happiness. The book offers some fascinating trivia about how we think, illustrated with witty anecdotes and scientific research on our metaphorical and physiological blind spots.

You will learn why being rich doesn’t make you happier and discover some of the elements of happiness.

When we have an experience – hearing a particular sonata, making love with a particular person, watching the sun set from a particular window or a particular room – on successive occasions, we quickly begin to adapt to it, and the experience yields less pleasure each time. Psychologists call this habituation, economists call it declining marginal utility, and the rest of us call it marriage.
Gilbert uses this principle of declining returns to explain why a lot of the things we expect to make us happy, don’t. People who have enough money to meet their basic needs for food, clothing and shelter, are only slightly less happy than multimillionaires.

However, most of the examples provided by Gilbert are only loosely related to happiness, and instead illustrate his point that our perceptions are often skewed. According to Gilbert, we have a poor grasp of reality, misremember the past and are frequently wrong in our predictions of the future. The bottom line? We are clueless when it comes to imagining what will make us happy, but we are happy about being deluded.

He comes up with some surprising statistics.
Despite what we read in the popular press, the only known symptom of “empty nest syndrome” is increased smiling.

Careful studies of how women feel as they go about their daily activities show that they are less happy when they’re taking care of their children than when eating, exercising, shopping, napping or watching television.
He believes that we convince ourselves that children bring happiness as a way of ensuring that we breed and stay around long enough to bring up the rug rats, rather than because the activity of childrearing is a source of joy.

The implication is that delusions and illusions are bad, and we should exist in reality. The counterargument to this is that if you believe you’re happy, then you are. After all, isn’t happiness a state of mind?

I don’t agree with all of Gilbert’s conclusions. For example, he suggests that people continue to choose romantic partners that are bad for them because they forget their negative characteristics and instead focus on the fond memories. I disagree. Forgetting the negative characteristics of past partners is only one possible explanation for seeking the same type of partner, over and over. It’s also possible that the individual has low self-esteem, is a poor judge of character, is attempting to avoid commitment or believes that they deserve exactly the partner they get.

Another flaw is that the book overlooks mental illness and emotional health issues. People with anxiety disorders and depression have negative cognitive distortions. Gilbert’s book focuses on positive cognitive distortions, ignoring an aspect of thinking that affects a large portion of the population at least some of the time.

Someone who has experienced a major trauma, may be haunted by this for the rest of their lives, experiencing nightmares, flashbacks and both physical and emotional signs of stress (PTSD). Gilbert glosses over this possibility, describing the resilience of humans and their ability to bounce back from tragedy, using examples such as Superman Chris Reeve. The reality is that some people are slow to recover, and a small number never recover from tragedy.

The solution
If we are lousy at imagining how we will feel in the future, how do we make decisions today that will make us happy tomorrow?

The only solution Gilbert puts forward is to find someone who is going through the exact situation we are anticipating and learn from their wisdom. Many of us learn from our parents, our teachers and other coaches who offer advice.

However, an equal number of us prefer the freedom to make our own choices and disregard perfectly good advice so we can find out for ourselves that the good looking man we met last month is a louse, that our sister will never change and that eating a jumbo pizza and an ice cream sundae always leaves us feeling bloated.

In the end the book raises more questions than it answers, but it is worth reading if you’re interested in psychology and want to learn more about the way we think.

Talia Mana


  1. Great review. I would say Mr. Gilbert has been living in the world of academia too long.

    I know that PTSD exists. Many women are suffering, undiagnosed, from this disorder. These women include victims of rape, incest, abuse and post-partum depression. That these women function at all is amazing. To discount their suffering because they cope, as women are taught to do, is arrogance.

    Sorry, did not mean to write a novel. Thanks for making me think!

    Here from the BC carnival.

  2. Talia, I left you a comment on Endangered spaces blog. Its fine to use the comments if you want. If you are not a do-follow blogger, then you would want to change that part.

    Click my name to go there.

  3. Talia,

    I think you did a very thorough and fair review of Daniel Gilbert's book.

    I think it's fair to say that a book titled "Stumbling on Happiness" should offer some solutions to those who aren't happy or who are unhappy, just like the book "The 4 Hour Workweek" should show me how to work for 4 hours a week and live in the manner in which I've become accustomed.

    If one is looking for solutions, one will find them in Gilbert's book. They just won't be spelled out in easily implementable steps.

    They come in the form of realizing how our experiences, beliefs, perceptions, and separate realities influence our perceptions, and thus our happiness.

  4. I agree that some parts of happiness are 'memory' and some parts are 'real'.. related to biochemical processes in the body as well..

    I agree that PTSD exists too.. & there was a study suggesting that feeding rats I think magnesium and antioxidants (or either of these) decreased the PTSD.. (!)

    There are studies on medline about the importance of magnesium etc. with regard to mental health, especially anxiety & depression..
    /I'm thinking Mr Gilbert might be magnesium-defficient.. or lacking other important minerals/vitamins too... :) very many people in the 'modern world' are../


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