Latish Sehgal's Blog

Book Notes: Stumbling on Happiness

Read On: Sep 15, 2013
Reading Time: 10 hours
Rating: 8/10


In this book, Daniel Gilbert describes the foibles of imagination and illusions of foresight that cause each of us to misconceive our tomorrows and misestimate our satisfactions. Vividly bringing to life the latest scientific research in psychology, cognitive neuroscience, philosophy, and behavioral economics, Gilbert reveals what scientists have discovered about the uniquely human ability to imagine the future, and about our capacity to predict how much we will like it when we get there. With penetrating insight and sparkling prose, Gilbert explains why we seem to know so little about the hearts and minds of the people we are about to become.


  • Only humans are capable of imagination and thinking about the future.
  • We find it gratifying to have some control over future. We like to anticipate what is going to happen so that we can do something about it, if needed. Nonetheless, the future is usually different from what we predict.
  • All claims of happiness are from somebody’s point of view, and their past experiences serve as a context.
  • When we have to select the best of 2 options, we tend to focus on the positive attributes. When we have to reject the worst of 2 options, we tend to focus on the negative attributes. Ideally, we should consider both positive and negative attributes for all decisions.
  • Presenteism: Viewing the past and the future through the lens of the present. We tend to fill holes in our memories of the past with present memories, especially when emotions are concerned. The same thing applies when we are imagining our future.
  • Habituation Wonderful things are especially wonderful the first time, but the wonderfulness wanes with repetition. 2 possible ways to combat this:
    • Variety
    • Time
      If there is enough time between experiences, then variety is not needed. In fact, after enough time has lapsed, variety might have a negative effect on the happiness.
  • The human brain is not particularly sensitive to the absolute magnitude of simulation, but extraordinarily sensitive to relative change in magnitude. For example, we might consider driving across town to save $50 on a $100 radio, but not for a $30,000 car.
  • We are more impacted by losses than equally sized gains.
  • People are surprisingly resilient in the face of trauma. We over estimate how awful negative events can be.
  • Most experiences are inherently ambiguous, and we tend to find a positive view of the experience from our perspective. But being rejected by a large group of people is a demoralizing experience because it is so thoroughly unambiguous. If we are rejected by just one person, we can find a way to put a positive spin on it.
  • Most bad events are painful in prospect, but rosy in retrospect.
  • People regret inaction more than actions that they have taken. Our psychological immune system finds it harder to rationalize inaction.
  • Our psychological immune system kicks in for bad things bigger than a certain scale, and not for small issues. This makes it harder to have a positive outlook on a bad thing compare to having a positive outlook on a very bad thing.
  • Uncertainity can prolong and preserve our happiness, but we still prefer certainity to uncertainity.
  • We make decisions based on the experiences we remember. Often though, we don’t remember our average ordinary experiences, but only the non-average positive/negative experiences and end up using those to make decisions and predict our future.
  • We often judge the pleasure of our experience by how it ended.
  • The best way to predict our future regarding some activity is to ask somebody who went through that activity recently. Despite what most of us think, we are much closer to an average person than we think, and we should embrace the lessons we can learn from emotional experiences of other people.


I had to read this book in several sittings, and it really made me think hard. I was nodding along in agreement continuously throughout the book, as the author pointed out things that seem obvious but I had never thought of. My biggest takeaway was that as I set goals for my future, I should run them by other folks who have reached them recently and see how they feel after achieving those goals. I highly recommend that you check the book out.

P.S I have moved all my Book Notes to Read My Book Notes.