Book Review: Stumbling on Happiness

So if you have noticed a bit of an increase to the happiness theme of the blog lately you can firmly blame me for reading Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert.  The book isn’t on how to be happy, but rather on why people are so bad at predicting what will make them happy.  Which when you think about it is almost more useful.

Now I will warn you the book is a touch heavy in spots for content.  My reading rate noticeably slowed while reading this book to let my mind suck up all the interesting fact and ideas he presented.  I can’t possibly summarize the entire book here because there was so many fascinating concepts he explored.  So instead I’ll point out a few of my favorite ideas.

This is the book that spawned my post on relative money.  Basically he explored the fact we don’t think in absolute dollars but rather relative ones.  So $50 should always be $50, but we always end up comparing it to what we are buying.  So hence people are a lot more relaxed about spending an extra $2000 on a house than a car or even a new TV.  The higher the cost of the item the more tolerant we are likely to be to spending more money on something.

Another interesting idea Daniel explores is how we tend to compare the present to the past rather than the present to what is possible.  We have a internal bias towards keeping things familiar so they is why it is often hard to clearly imagine living a different life than the one you are living.  We tend to focus on what we would like to see rather than what practically would happen.  Hence to us we think the grass really is always greener on the other side of the fence regardless of the fact if we raised our heads a bit we would see the grass over there is actually brown.

Perhaps the most interesting concept he explored was the fact major blows to your mental well being are easier to deal with than minor one.  Your brain basically has an ‘immune system’ for dealing with negative things in your life.  You justify and alter your perceptions to cope with the major situation.  For example, if you were stood up at your wedding by the bride.  You would feel bad, but then ask questions to your mom like “She was never right for me, right mom?”.  We fish for what we want to hear to help us out.  Yet when we feel a little off one day we don’t do the same thing.  So in the case of your mind a death of a thousand paper cuts really is worse than a knife to the belly.

So what does all this mean?  Well in practical sense there are two main myths that are really false.

  1. More money makes you happy.  Well yes from $10,000/year to $50,000 is a good jump, but after that it just falls apart.  $250,000/year isn’t significantly more happy than $50,000.  There is lot of research to back this up.  Adding excess money to your life doesn’t increase happiness you just get bigger piles of coloured paper or bank accounts with more digits.
  2. Children makes us happy.  No realistically children are a LOT of hard work and studies have shown that that when they leave the nest your happiness typically goes up.  Now here’s the fun bit, after the kids leave your happiness goes back to where you were before you had kids.  So logically kids don’t make us happy, but we colour our memory to keep this myth going.  Let’s face it, you don’t remember each diaper you changed or how many times your kids were sick this year, but you do recall playing with them at the park last week and how much fun that was.

So in the end I highly recommend this book for reading.  It will really open your mind to what you are doing in your life to make you happy.    So if you read the book, what did you think?  If not, what did you think of the myths?

7 thoughts on “Book Review: Stumbling on Happiness”

  1. I recall some research papers written on happiness and there were a list of factors. It had to do with discovering when and how often people felt happy. They had people wear pagers and called them at random times etc. They were called at work and at other times.

    The scientist found that the activities people were doing when they felt happy, shared certain characteristics. Some of the characteristics were.

    People felt they were in control.
    People were receiving immediate feedback on how things were going.
    People felt they were being creative.

    Example…as I sit here typing I get immediate feedback from reading the words. I am being creative and I have a lot of control.


  2. Tim,

    Would you call this book one of the mind expanding books that has changed the way that you think? Because from what I can tell it seems that way. What was the most important thing that you took from the book?


  3. I read this book too. It is not really motivational or life-changing as such … i.e., it is not “How to be happy”, but more of a pop-sci exploration of the topic of happiness.

    My biggest take-away from this book is that what you believe will make you happy at the time you make choices is necessarily wrong because you will be a different person and in different circumstances when you experience the consequences of your choice.

    For example, and I even think this one is in the book: You are in a store comparing your sunglasses to a pair for sale. You look at them side-by-side and like the new pair more, the lenses seem clearer, design is better, etc, so you buy them because you think you will be happier owning them. Later on, however, you are no happier than you were before because you normally never think about your sunglasses. When you did think about them in the store you imagined the one would be better than the other, but afterwards the thoughts never again cross you mind and you are therefore equally happy.

    Another cool point was that imagination made people happy. He pointed out a study that people liked to look forward to a nice dinner out almost as much as the actual dinner. In fact they would postpone such a nice dinner in order to get some time to fantasize about it.

    Did you read “The Power of Now”? If not then it could be a good book for you to read next given what you read about happiness in this book. Power of Now is more of a motivational how-to, but it proposes some radically different things that what Gilbert finds actually does make people happy.

  4. Rocky,

    No the book didn’t expand my mind all that much. I was already aware of most of the concepts the book talked about. It was very entertaining and some what useful.

    The most important thing I learned from the book was the happiness increase after the kids leave home. It’s given me permission to realize yes I do love my kids but they do really piss me off once in a while. That is ok, it happens.


    I didn’t read the Power of Now. I might have to go borrow it.


  5. Tim,

    Thanks for the info.

    I may have to pick this book up after I finish the other five I have to read before it.


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