Today we welcome back regular guestblogger, Dave Baldwin. Dave shares his review of Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert. Enjoy and think about what brings you happiness.

Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert does a great job exemplifying what it looks like to distill psychology into a practical layperson’s science. I’ve found that re-discovering happiness and fulfillment is an art, a science, and at times, an uphill battle. Gilbert helps to shed some light on the question of why. Gilbert doesn’t present a solution to a problem; he presents perspectives that I’ve found useful in my own process of unraveling it.

Gilbert is a great storyteller, and the book is a fun, fast read – which is my number one criteria for any book I recommend. He starts by raising ubiquitous questions that are not always asked out loud. For example, why do we often expect that certain things will bring us happiness, only to discover that they fail to meet expectations? That question forms the central inquiry of the book, and Gilbert attacks this question from various different angles, citing stories of happiness-based research projects and university studies.

When I read this book the first time, I recalled a particular incident in the Phoenix airport. I was flying home after a three-week trip to Tucson, Arizona, and our flight had a one-hour layover. I went into the airport to get a cup of coffee and something to read during the four-hour flight to Philadelphia. As I started walking back to my gate, I had a moment of panic. I had left my bag in the airport! I spent the next ten minutes hurriedly retracing my steps in a vain attempt to locate the bag, afraid that if I didn’t find it, it would be confiscated and destroyed by airport security. Out of time, I gave up and got back on the plane, thinking about how many things I would have to replace. When I arrived at my seat, the bag was sitting right under it.

Here’s the insidious part that had continued to haunt my mind for some time afterward. I remembered standing in the coffee shop. I could play back a mental video tape of the scene. I leaned over to set down my carry-on bag so that I could use both hands. The fact that I was able to remember doing this so clearly was the very reason why I could feel certain that I had, indeed, brought the bag off of the plane with me. This memory turned out to be completely false. After I read Stumbling on Happiness, it made perfect sense. According to Gilbert, the human brain does not store picture-perfect memories of what happened – it fabricates them on demand.

What does this have to do with happiness and the pursuit thereof? Since our memories of the past are not nearly as accurate as we think they are, we are likely to inaccurately project what will make us happy in the future. We believe that certain things made us happier (or less happy) than they did in the past, and we leave out critical details from our memories – even when we have the same experiences repeatedly. Gilbert cites the all-too-familiar example of Thanksgiving dinner. We overeat, then feel the consequences of overeating, vow never to do this to ourselves again, then proceed to repeat the whole mess in December.

Gilbert also talks about the process of making decisions, and how we select different options based on what we believe will make us the happiest in the future. The process, says Gilbert, is made complicated by a number of factors, including one that he calls “presentism.” Gilbert asserts that we all unconsciously assume that we have always felt (and will always feel) the same way about things that we feel now. He cites a study which found that people were far more likely to say they were happy with their lives on sunny days, and unhappy with their lives on rainy days.

Since reading this book, I’ve learned to re-evaluate the ways I seek to bring fulfillment into my life. For example, when I find myself wishing that I had more of this, or less of that, I automatically challenge the assumption. I now find myself looking for happiness in new places, and I’m finding that the process of pursuing happiness brings me more happiness than it used to. For example, I found that disciplining myself to write consistently brought me happiness, a little bit more each day. I also have found it easier to resist the temptation to indulge cravings for things like candy and rich desserts. I am able to walk past the ice cream aisle in the grocery store, indulging my senses with the visualization of each flavor – and not buy any of them.

I plan to re-read Stumbling on Happiness at least one more time in my life. I definitely recommend it. It may or may not give you the secret to happiness, but you’ll at least enjoy reading it.

Your Turn:

How do you define happiness? What makes you happy and fulfilled?


About Dave:

Dave Baldwin is a writer who has lived and worked in Raleigh, NC since 2007. He has self-published two books: Pied Piper Entrepreneurship (2009) and Get That Book Out of Your Head! (2009).