What’s the main thing we can learn from Harvard happiness expert Daniel Gilbert?

 

I’ve been rereading Daniel Gilbert’s bestselling book Stumbling on Happiness and my main takeaway is this:

Much of our unhappiness springs from the fact that we’re terrible at accurately remembering how things made us feel in the past, so we make bad choices regarding the future. 

In Gilbert’s own words (and backed up by many studies):

We overestimate how happy we will be on our birthdays, we underestimate how happy we will be on Monday mornings, and we make these mundane but erroneous predictions again and again, despite their regular disconfirmation. 

Do you dread going to work, going to the gym or to that family gathering? How do you really feel when you finally get there or after? It’s often very different from your prediction. Some things that look like an enormous chore to do in the future are actually very fulfilling in the moment and afterward… like, oh, blogging.

So how do we fix this? Easy. Look at other people, what they do, and how they react in the moment:

This trio of studies suggests that when people are deprived of the information that imagination requires and are thus forced to use others as surrogates, they make remarkably accurate predictions about their future feelings, which suggests that the best way to predict our feelings tomorrow is to see how others are feeling today.

“But I’m different and unique!” you reply. No, you’re probably not. We delude ourselves about that more than anything else:

Most students see themselves as more intelligent than the average student, most business managers see themselves as more competent than the average business manager, and most football players see themselves as having better “football sense” than their teammates. Ninety percent of motorists consider themselves to be safer-than-average drivers, and 94 percent of college professors consider themselves to be better-than-average teachers. Ironically, the bias toward seeing ourselves as better than average causes us to see ourselves as less biased than average too. As one research team concluded, “Most of us appear to believe that we are more athletic, intelligent, organized, ethical, logical, interesting, fair-minded, and healthy—not to mention more attractive—than the average person.

We’re more similar to others than we are different. Don’t fight this, embrace it. It can be the key to a much happier life:

The irony, of course, is that surrogation is a cheap and effective way to predict one’s future emotions, but because we don’t realize just how similar we all are, we reject this reliable method and rely instead on our imaginations, as flawed and fallible as they may be.

I’m going to write another blog post, because as much as it seems like it will be a chore I know I’m very happy when I finish one… like I am right now.

Gilbert’s book is Stumbling on Happiness.

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About Eric Barker