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Stumbling on Happiness: Review (5/10)

In Stumbling on Happiness author Daniel Gilbert explores the topic of happiness and seeks to explain how happiness works.

Bullet Summary

  • Money only makes you happier insofar you’re poor. Beyond a certain point, it won’t make you any happier
  • Focus on usefulness to you, not on price changes
  • Take action: you regret what you didn’t do, not what you did do

Full Summary

Stumbling on Happiness is a mix of interesting experiments on psychology and social psychology.
Here are a few of them:

We Build Our Reality

Our eyes have a blind spot, yet we don’t see any black hole in our vision because our minds fill in the black spot with what it thinks should be there.
And we do the same for large portions of reality:

  • We only remember only key details and emotions
  • Our mind fills the details -for example, we might add a mischievous smile to a ruder waiter-

Our mind is so quick and natural at adding information that we don’t even realize it’s happening.

Our Future Scenarios Are Inaccurate

Similarly, as much as we make up our own past, we also invent future predictions.

Sometimes we start with one detail and we imagine a whole scene around it. After we do, we tend to believe in our own predictions.
And we fail to realize that albeit our own predictions is not necessarily untrue, it’s only one scenario in nearly limitless alternative realities.
And mathematically, the scenario that we imagine is quite unlikely to happen.

Current Emotional States Influence Predictions

The present state strongly influence our beliefs about the future.

And we act accordingly.

For example, if you go grocery shopping while hungry you will probably buy more food than you actually need. And if you do your shopping while full you will probably buy less.

This happens because our brain is much more concerned about the present moment than the future.
And if you feel one way today it’s much harder for the brain to imagine a state in the (near) future which is different or even opposite.

And this is not just about hunger and shopping.
You might feel scared today about a presentation in the future, thinking it will go wrong. And you might cancel today even though you had enough time to prepare. Or even though you might have delivered a good presentation even with today’s preparation.

Price Anchoring

We often have a tendency to judge prices not based on how much we find the product useful, but on how much the price has risen or fallen compared to the past.

In psychology, this phenomenon is called anchoring and was first theorized by Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking Fast and Slow (Tversky & Kahneman, 1974).

Daniel Gilbert exhorts the readers to value products based on the pleasure and the usefulness to us rather than its pricing dynamics.

Money Won’t Buy You Love

Money only makes you happy up to a certain point.

Wealth only increases happiness when it lifts people from poverty to the middle class.
So, for example, Americans earning 50K a year are happier than those making 10K a year. However, beyond the middle-class level more money won’t buy more happiness.

The author says this false myth of money bringing happiness spreads because it’s good for society as a whole. But I don’t think that’s the case.

We Think We’re Unique And Don’t Ask For Advice

We all think we are unique.

And maybe we are.
But the truth is that, often, our situations and life events are not that different from each other.

However, the belief that we are unique stops us from seeking advice.

The author argues this is a mistake and we could all benefit from seeking more advice.

We Regret What We Didn’t Do

Daniel Gilbert righteously says that we usually don’t feel too bad about actions that we have taken, not even when they yielded poor results.

It’s because usually our brain actively tries to make us feel better and reduce cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1957). So we find excuses to convince ourselves it’s not that bad.

But we have bigger issues in convincing ourselves of what we did not do.
That means that we majorly regret actions that could have resulted in a big windfall for us but that we didn’t take.

However, we are unaware of this limitation of our mind and we believe the opposite. Such as that we regret bad and wrong actions more than we would regret inaction.

But that’s not true.

Lesson learned: when you are not sure, go for it. You can learn from your mistakes but you’ll always regret inaction.

You learn from your mistakes. But you will always regret inaction.

We Won’t Feel Nearly As Bad As We Think

Stumbling on happiness makes the point that we often feel worse for small misfortune than for really major ones.

This is because we have an in-built mechanism that often kicks in to protect our mental well being when really major disaster happens.

But we don’t have the same for smaller events.

This means that we might be more bothered by a scratch on our new car than for our house burning down.

And we also tend to bounce back much more quickly than we think from major life misfortunes.

We’re Happier With Fewer Choices

Most people believe that we are happier with lots of choices.

However, experience shows that having lots of options leads to paralysis of choice, time-wasting, and unhappiness.

On the topic also read:

Mystery Is Better Than Knowing

Usually, mysteries capture our imagination more than events where everything is clear.

For example, chances are you’ll be elated of receiving a gift from a mysterious lover.
But the moment the person reveals himself, chances are you will be a bit disappointed: now you know and the mystery is gone.

Daniel Gilbert says this happens because mysterious events are unusual and they get us more excited. Furthermore, we think about them longer and more deeply, deepening our feelings and making them last longer.

So going from positive mystery to explanation is usually not a good feeling.
But going from negative events to explanation makes us feel better.

We Usually Pick Friends Just Like Us

People usually pick friends who approve of us and similar to us.

That can lead to issues when we ask for feedback. if our friends are just like we will have a tendency to hear what we already think, feel, and know.
And it will limit the exposure to new ideas and contrasting opinions.

stumbling on happiness

Real-Life Applications

  • When You’re Not Sure, Do It

We often regret inaction more than actions that yield bad results. And when you take action and you don’t get what you wanted, you have still learned something.
So go for it.

  • Don’t Send Anonymous Gifts

When you send anonymous gifts to someone with the idea of revealing your identity later chances are they won’t happy to know it’s you.
Not because it’s you, but because people long for the mystery and when the mystery goes away we can’t help it but be disappointed.

Only always send a gift with your name on it then.


  • I miss the point and a coherent “WHY”

At times “Stumbling on Happiness” feels like a list of interesting tidbits of psychology information, but… It doesn’t build towards a specific point, a general message, or even a set of useful habits to adopt.
In my opinion, it lacked a coherent narrative. Why was this book written? That’s the question I couldn’t answer.

  • Coud Have Been Briefer  

As a searcher for efficiency, this is a complaint I often have.

  • Money and Happiness Spread For Society?

I believe that the idea that money gives people happiness spreads because it’s good for society makes no sense. It spreads because poor and middle class just don’t know any better.

  • Sometimes Lacks in Depth

The author gushes over Angela Duckworth’s concept of “Grit“.
And it makes sense, I also loved when I first read that book.
But Grit has been heavily criticized to the point of making into the list of pop-psychology myths.
Mentioning the criticism might have been useful to the more scientific-driven readers.


Some Good Golden Nuggets
I found some good ideas on Stumbling on Happiness. My favorites were:

  • Never going from positive mystery to introducing yourself
  • An action bias tends to make us happier

Video Summary

This was my favorite video summary and review of “Stumbling on Happiness”:


Stumbling on Happiness follows a long list of books that takes psychology research and experiments and seeks to find practical applications that can improve lives.

In a way, that’s also what I’m doing with The Power Moves, applying science and psychology to human relationships.

Whether or not we are successful in this endeavor and produce useful information is a different question.

Honestly, I didn’t find Stumbling on Happiness to be particularly useful or enlightening.
I find it to be a patchwork of psychological phenomena with little practical application to increasing happiness.
It’s not that it’s bad: there are good ideas. It’s just that I personally didn’t see scientific enlightenment or practical use in it.


Have you read the forum guidelines for effective communication already?

That can lead to issues when we ask for feedback. if our friends are just like we will have a tendency to hear what we already think, feel, and know.
And it will limit the exposure to new ideas and contrasting opinions.

a veritable confirmation bias inducing echo chamber fueled by a sample bias.

that part about small misfortunes being worse psycologically or emotionally than bigger tragedies I found it super interesting.

Yeah, that was an interesting tidbit, and I can also see it happening in my life sometimes.


Have you read the forum guidelines for effective communication already?

but what are supposed to be the practical applications?

like if I am going to lose a toe I would better cut the whole leg so the "compensation mechanism" kicks in or what? it is very paradoxical xD

Quote from Stef on September 7, 2020, 4:57 am

but what are supposed to be the practical applications?

like if I am going to lose a toe I would better cut the whole leg so the "compensation mechanism" kicks in or what? it is very paradoxical xD

Yes, that's exactly what I didn't like about this book.
It was a mixture of "curiosities" from psychology, but not real coherent narrative, or not much to turn those curiosities in ways that are actually helpful.

In this case though, I'd say that whenever a small thing bothers you, one could immediately put it into context to help realize that it is indeed a small thing.

Have you read the forum guidelines for effective communication already?