Eugene Fedorenko is Designing, Writing, Reading, and Traveling

Stumbling on Happiness

Stumbling on Happiness

I read this book in 2016 but got to process my highlights only now. Working through them has given me a new appreciation for this book. Stumbling on Happiness is really well written and researched. In a way, this is a self-help book written for people who don’t read self-help books. Daniel Gilbert is Professor of Psychology at Harvard University specializing in social psychology, so it’s grounded in research and actual science. He explains how the human brain can imagine future and how well it can predict if this future will bring us happiness. (Spoiler: it doesn’t do a very good job.) Along the way he writes about anxiety, dealing with negative events, feeling in control, what happiness means and how it can be measured, remembering experiences, changing our views, and predicting feelings. Overall I consider it one of the best books I read in 2016 and hope that my highlights will motivate someone to pick it up and read.

Foreword

The premise of this book:

We treat our future selves as though they were our children, spending most of the hours of most of our days constructing tomorrows that we hope will make them happy. (p. xiii)

Part 1. Prospection

Prospection — The act of looking forward in time or considering the future.

1. Journey to Elsewhen

On difference in perception between children and adults:

Unlike the child who can only think about how things are, the adult is able to think about how things will be. At some point between our high chairs and our rocking chairs, we learn about later. (p. 9)

On frontal lobotomy and our sense of the future:

In the 1930s, a Portuguese physician named António Egas Moniz was looking for a way to quiet his highly agitated psychotic patients when he heard about a new surgical procedure called frontal lobotomy, which involved the chemical or mechanical destruction of parts of the frontal lobe. This procedure had been performed on monkeys, who were normally quite angry when their food was withheld, but who reacted to such indignities with unruffled patience after experiencing the operation. Egas Moniz tried the procedure on his human patients and found that it had a similar calming effect. (It also had the calming effect of winning Egas Moniz the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1949.) […] Although patients with frontal lobe damage often performed well on standard intelligence tests, memory tests, and the like, they showed severe impairments on any test — even the very simplest test — that involved planning. (p. 12)

On a connection between anxiety and planning:

Now, this pair of observations — that damage to certain parts of the frontal lobe can make people feel calm but that it can also leave them unable to plan — seems to converge on a single conclusion. What is the conceptual tie that binds anxiety and planning? […] We feel anxiety when we anticipate that something bad will happen, and we plan by imagining how our actions will unfold over time. Planning requires that we peer into our futures, and anxiety is one of the reactions we may have when we do. […] As scientists now recognize, the frontal lobe “empowers healthy human adults with the capacity to consider the self’s extended existence throughout time.” (p. 13)

On escape from “here” and “now”:

For the first few hundred million years after their initial appearance on our planet, all brains were stuck in the permanent present, and most brains still are today. But not yours and not mine, because two or three million years ago our ancestors began a great escape from the here and now, and their getaway vehicle was a highly specialized mass of gray tissue, fragile, wrinkled, and appended. (p. 15)

On thinking about the future:

Because, as anyone who has ever tried to learn meditation knows, not thinking about the future is much more challenging than being a psychology professor. Not to think about the future requires that we convince our frontal lobe not to do what it was designed to do, and like a heart that is told not to beat, it naturally resists this suggestion. (p. 16)

On delayed gratification:

Forestalling pleasure is an inventive technique for getting double the juice from half the fruit. Indeed, some events are more pleasurable to imagine than to experience (most of us can recall an instance in which we made love with a desirable partner or ate a wickedly rich dessert, only to find that the act was better contemplated than consummated), and in these cases people may decide to delay the event forever. (p. 17)

That must be why I enjoy planning trips and researching purchases so much.

On our perception of reality:

Experiencing an earthquake causes people to become temporarily realistic about their risk of dying in a future disaster, but within a couple of weeks even earthquake survivors return to their normal level of unfounded optimism. Indeed, events that challenge our optimistic beliefs can sometimes make us more rather than less optimistic. One study found that cancer patients were more optimistic about their futures than were their healthy counterparts. (p. 18)

On imagining unpleasant events:

First, anticipating unpleasant events can minimize their impact. […] The second reason why we take such pains to imagine unpleasant events is that fear, worry, and anxiety have useful roles to play in our lives. […] Forecasts can be “fearcasts” whose purpose is not to predict the future so much as to preclude it, and studies have shown that this strategy is often an effective way to motivate people to engage in prudent, prophylactic behavior. (p. 19)

This makes me think about stoics and their practice of negative visualization.

On control:

Knowledge is power, and the most important reason why our brains insist on simulating the future even when we’d rather be here now, enjoying a goldfish moment, is that our brains want to control the experiences we are about to have. (p. 20)

On being effective:

The surprisingly right answer is that people find it gratifying to exercisecontrol — not just for the futures it buys them, but for the exercise itself. Being effective — changing things, influencing things, making things happen — is one of the fundamental needs with which human brains seem to be naturally endowed, and much of our behavior from infancy onward is simply an expression of this penchant for control. (p. 20)

On being in control:

The fact is that human beings come into the world with a passion for control, they go out of the world the same way, and research suggests that if they lose their ability to control things at any point between their entrance and their exit, they become unhappy, helpless, hopeless, and depressed. (p. 21)

In my personal experience dealing with things that I can’t control, affect, or influence (i.e. immigration process) is much harder and more wearing than being faced with more serious issues (i.e. health), but over which I have at least some perceived control.

An interesting study of the importance of control:

A follow-up study confirmed the importance of perceived control for the welfare of nursing-home residents but had an unexpected and unfortunate end. Researchers arranged for student volunteers to pay regular visits to nursing-home residents. Residents in the high-control group were allowed to control the timing and duration of the student’s visit, and residents in low-control group were not. After two months, residents in the high-control group were happier, healthier, more active, and taking fewer medications than those in the low-control group. At this point the researchers concluded their study and discontinued the student visits. Several months later they were chagrined to learn that a disproportionate number of residents who had been in the high-control group had died. Only in retrospect did the cause of this tragedy seem clear. The residents who had been given control, and who had benefited measurably from that control while they had it, were inadvertently robbed of control when the study ended. Apparently, gaining control can have a positive impact on one’s health and well-being, but losing control can be worse than never having had any at all. (p. 21)

A related personal anecdote. I’ve been working remotely since the beginning of my career, but in 2012 I relocated to the USA while staying at the same company. Because of the time difference, I was used to working on my own hours and being in control of my day, but then I faced 9-to-5 and commute for the first time in my life. Even while I was really excited to be in the office and work with my team face-to-face, it was hard to lose this sense of control. Luckily, soon enough we realized that everyone values this flexibility and that become a non-issue. (Now I actually prefer keeping normal hours because of my family, but working from home a couple times per week.)

On feeling in control and clinical depression:

In fact, the one group of people who seem generally immune to this illusion are the clinically depressed, who tend to estimate accurately the degree to which they can control events in most situations. These and other findings have led some researchers to conclude that the feeling of control — whether real or illusory — is one of the wellsprings of mental health. (p. 22)

On why we exercise control:

We insist on steering our boats because we think we have a pretty good idea of where we should go, but the truth is that much of our steering is in vain — not because the boat won’t respond, and not because we can’t find our destination, but because the future is fundamentally different than it appears through the prospectiscope. (p. 23)

Part 2. Subjectivity

Subjectivity — The fact that experience is unobservable to everyone but the person having it.

2. The View from in Here

On what happiness means:

…happiness really is nothing more or less than a word that we word makers can use to indicate anything we please. […] The word happinessis used to indicate at least three related things, which we might roughly call emotional happiness, moral happiness, and judgmental happiness. (p. 31)

On emotional happiness:

Emotional happiness is a phrase for a feeling, an experience, and subjective state, and thus it has no objective referent in the physical world. […] Philosophers like to say that subjective states are “irreducible,” which is to day that nothing we point to, nothing we can compare them with, and nothing we can say about their neurological underpinnings can fully substitute for the experiences themselves. (p. 31)

Because emotional happiness is an experience, it can only be approximately defined by its antecedents and by its relation to other experiences. (p. 33)

On humanity’s pursuit of happiness:

Everyone who has observed human behavior for more than thirty continuous seconds seems to have noticed that people are strongly, perhaps even primarily, perhaps even single-mindedly, motivated to feel happy. […] The dictionary tells us that to prefer is “to choose or want one thing rather than another because it would be more pleasant,” which is to say that the pursuit of happiness is built into the very definition of desire. (p. 33)

One of the problems is that many people consider the desire for happiness to be a bit like the desire for a bowel movement: something we all have, but not something of which we should be especially proud. The kind of happiness they have in mind is cheap and base — a vacuous state of “bovine contentment” that cannot possibly be the basis of a meaningful human life. (p. 35)

On stoics’ idea of happiness:

For Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and even Epicurus (a name usually associated with piggish happiness), the only thing that could induce that kind of happiness was the virtuous performance of one’s duties, with the precise meaning of virtuous left for each philosopher to work out for himself. (p. 36)

But if living one’s life virtuously is a cause of happiness, it is not happiness itself, and it does us no good to obfuscate a discussion by calling both the cause and the consequence by the same name.

On using word “happy” to indicate both experience and stance:

Happiness is a word that we generally use to indicate an experience and not the actions that give rise to it. […] Happiness refers to feelings, virtue refers to actions, and those actions can cause those feelings. But not necessarily and not exclusively. (p. 37)

The problem is that people sometimes use the word happy to express their beliefs about the merits of things, such as when they say, “I’m happy they caught the little bastard who broke my windshield,” and they say things like this even when they are not feeling anything vaguely resembling pleasure. (p. 37)

When the word happy is followed by the words that or about, speakers are usually trying to tell us that we ought to take the word happy as an indication not of their feelings but rather of their stances. (p. 38)

On how we store experiences (more on that later):

Experiences of chardonnays, string quarters, altruistic deeds, and banana-cream pie are rich, complex, multidimensional, and impalpable. One of the functions of language is to help us palp them — to help us extract and remember the important features of our experiences so that we can analyze and communicate them later. […] So we reduce our experiences to words such as happy, which barely do them justice but which are the things we can carry reliably and conveniently with us into the future. (p. 42)

On comparing with the past experiences:

Our remembrance of things past is imperfect, thus comparing our new happiness with our memory of our old happiness is a risky way to determine whether two subjective experiences are really different. (p. 42)

On not knowing what we’re missing:

Experience stretching is a bizarre phrase but not a bizarre idea. We often say of others who claim to be happy despite circumstances that we believe should preclude it that “they only think they’re happy because they don’t know what they’re missing.” Okay, sure, but that’s the point. Not knowing what we’re missing can mean that we are truly happy under circumstances that would not allow us to be happy once we have experienced the missing thing. It does not mean that those who don’t know what they’re missing are less happy than those who have it. (p. 50)

3. Outside Looking In

On fight-or-flight response:

Indeed, actions such as running away are so vitally important to the survival of terrestrial mammals like the ones from whom we are descended that evolution took no chances and designed brain to answer the “What should I do?” question before the “What is it?” question. (p. 57)

On awareness:

Awareness can be thought of as a kind of experience of our own experience. (p. 60)

On alexithymia:

If our expressive deficit is so profound and protracted that it even occurs outside of football season, we may be diagnosed with alexithymia,which literally means “absence of words to describe emotional states.” When alexithymics are asked what they are feeling, they usually say, “Nothing,” and when they are asked how they are feeling, they usually say, “I don’t know.” Alas, theirs is not a malady that can be cured by a pocket thesaurus or a short course in word power, because alexithymics do not lack the traditional affective lexicon so much as they lack introspective awareness of their emotional states. They seem to havefeelings, they just don’t seem to know about them. (p. 62)

On measuring happiness:

The nature of subjective experience suggests there will never be a happyometer — a perfectly reliable instrument that allows an observer to measure with complete accuracy the characteristics of another person’s subjective experience so that the measurement can be taken, recorded, and compared with another. […] …of all the flawed measures of subjective experience that we can take, the honest, real-time report of the attentive individual is the least flawed. (p. 65)

On imperfect measures and big data:

The attentive person’s honest, real-time report is an imperfect approximation of her subjective experiences, but it is the only game in town. When a fruit salad, a lover, or a jazz trio is just too imperfect for our tastes, we stop eating, kissing, and listening. But the law of large numbers suggests that when a measurement is too imperfect for our tastes, we should not stop measuring. Quite the opposite — we should measure again and again until niggling imperfections yield to the onslaught of data. (p. 70)

Part 3. Realism

Realism — The belief that things are in reality as they appear to be in the mind.

4. In the Blind Spot of the Mind’s Eye

On comparing possibilities:

We are forced to consider the possibility that what clearly seems to be the better life may actually be the worse life and that when we look down the time line at the different lives we might lead, we may not always know which is which.

The best way to understand this particular shortcoming of imagination(the faculty that allows us to see the future) is to understand the shortcoming of memory (the faculty that allows us to see the past) and perception (the faculty that allows us to see the present). (p. 77)

On how do we remember experiences:

How do we cram the vast universe of our experience into the relatively small storage compartment between our ears? We do what Harpo did: We cheat. As you learned in the previous chapters, the elaborate tapestry of our experience is not stored in memory — at least not in its entirely. Rather, it is compressed for storage by first being reduced to a few critical threads, such as a summary phrase (“Dinner was disappointing”) or a small set of key features (tough steak, corked wine, snotty waiter). Later, when we want to remember our experience, our brains quickly reweave the tapestry by fabricating — not by actually retrieving — the bulk of the information that we experience as a memory. This fabrication happens so quickly and effortlessly that we have the illusion (as a good magician’s audience always does) that the entire thing was in our heads the entire time. (p. 78)

How children perceive things in the world vs in the mind:

When a two-year-old child sees her playmate leave the room, and then sees an adult remove a cookie from a cookie jar and hide it in a drawer, she expects that her playmate will later look for the cookie in the drawer — despite the fact that her playmate was not in the room when the adult moved the cookie to the drawer from the jar. Why? Because the two-year-old child knows the cookie is in the drawer and thus expects that everyone else knows this as well. Without a distinction between things in the world and things in the mind, the child cannot understand how different minds can contain different things. Of course, with increasing maturity, children shift from realism to idealism, coming to realize that perceptions are merely points of view, that what they see is not necessarily what there is, and that two people may thus have different perceptions of or beliefs about the same thing. Piaget concluded that “the child is a realist in its thought” and “its progress consists in ridding itself of this initial realism”. In other words, like philosophers, ordinary people start out as realists but get over it soon enough. (p. 86)

5. The Hound of Silence

On ignoring the absence:

But studies show that when ordinary people want to know whether two things are causally related, they routinely search for, attend to, consider, and remember information about what did happen and fail to search for, attend to, consider, and remember information about what did not. (p. 99)

But when people are asked to judge the similarity of two countries, they tend to look for the presence of similarities (of which East and West Germany had many — for example, their names) and ignore the absenceof similarities. When they are asked to judge the dissimilarities of two countries, they tend to look for the presence of dissimilarities (of which East and West Germany had many — for example, their governments) and ignore the absence of dissimilarities. (p. 100)

On failing to consider what our imagination leaves out:

But just as we tend to treat the details of future events that we doimagine as though they were actually going to happen, we have an equally troubling tendency to treat the details of future events that we don’t imagine as though they were not going to happen. In other words, we fail to consider how much imagination fills in, but we also fail to consider how much it leaves out. (p. 101)

On underestimating the happiness of people with disabilities:

The tendency that causes us to overestimate the happiness of Californians also causes us to underestimate the happiness of people with chronic illnesses or disabilities. For example, when sighted people imagine being blind, they seem to forget that blindness is not a full-time job. Blind people can’t see, but they do most of the things that sighted people do — they go on picnics, pay their taxes, listen to music, get stuck in traffic — and thus they are just as happy as sighted people are. They can’t do everything sighted people can do, sighted people can’t do everything that they can do, and thus blind and sighted lives are not identical. But whatever a blind person’s life is like, it is about much more than blindness. And yet, when sighted people imagine being blind, they fail to imagine all the other things that such a life might be about, hence they mispredict how satisfying such a life can be. (p. 103)

A curious story on how learning and brain works:

About fifty years ago a Pygmy named Kenge took his first trip out of the dense, tropical forests of Africa and onto the open plains in the company of an anthropologist. Buffalo appeared in the distance — small black specks against a bleached sky — and the Pygmy surveyed them curiously. Finally, he turned to the anthropologist and asked what kind of insects they were. “When I told Kenge that the insects were buffalo, he roared with laughter and told me not to tell such stupid lies.” The anthropologist wasn’t stupid and he hadn’t lied. Rather, because Kenge had lived his entire life in a dense jungle that offered no views of the horizon, he had failed to learn what most of us take for granted, namely, that things look different when they are far away.

How do our brains know whether a small retinal image is being made by a small object that is nearby or a large object that is distant? Details, details, details! Our brains know that the surfaces of nearby objects afford fine-grained details that blur and blend as the object recedes into the distance, and thus they use the level of detail that we can see to estimate the distance between our eye and the object. (p. 104)

On being rational and experiencing pain from delays:

The fact that we imagine the near and far futures with such different textures causes us to value them differently as well. […] There is nothing irrational about this. Delays are painful, and it makes sense to demand a discount if one must endure them. […] For example, most people would rather receive $20 in a year than $19 in 364 days because a one-day delay that takes place in the far future looks (from here) to be an unbearable torment. (p. 107)

Part 4. Presentism

6. The Future Is Now

On today:

…when brains plug holes in their conceptualizations of yesterday and tomorrow, they tend to use a material called today. (p. 113)

On mental images and imagination:

If we want to know how a particular object looks when the object isn’t sitting there in front of us, we send information about the object from our memory to our visual cortex, and we experience a mental image. (p. 117)

…the imaginative processes that allow us to discover how a penguin looks even when we are locked in a closet are the same processes that allow us to discover how the future will feel when we are locked in the present. (p. 119)

On prefeeling:

Prefeeling allowed nonthinkers to predict their future satisfaction more accurately than thinkers did. Indeed, when people are prevented from feeling emotion in the present, they become temporarily unable to predict how they will feel in the future. (p. 121)

On feeling and prefeeling:

The emotional experience that results from a flow of information that originates in the world is called feeling; the emotional experience that results from a flow of information that originates in memory is called prefeeling; and mixing them up is one of the world’s most popular sports. (p. 123)

7. Time Bombs

On time as a spatial dimension:

For most of us, space is the concrete thing that time is like. Studies reveal that people all over the world imagine time as though it were a spatial dimension. […] When we draw a time line, those of us who speak English put the past on the left, those of us who speak Arabic put the past on the right, and those of us who speak Mandarin put the past on the bottom. (p. 128)

On declining marginal utility of experiences:

Wonderful things are especially wonderful the first time they happen, but their wonderfulness wanes with repetition. […] Psychologists call this habituation, economists call it declining marginal utility, and the rest of us call it marriage. But humans beings have discovered two devices that allow them to combat this tendency: variety and time. […] …when episodes are sufficiently separated in time, variety is not only unnecessary — it can actually be costly. (p. 130)

On evaluating things that are going to happen in the future:

So how do we decide how we will feel about things that are going to happen in the future? The answer is that we tend to imagine how we would feel if those things happened now, and then we make some allowance for the fact that now and later are not exactly the same thing. (p. 134)

The problem with this method of making judgments is that starting points have a profound impact on ending points.

On relativity:

The human brain is not particularly sensitive to the absolute magnitude of stimulation, but it is extraordinary sensitive to differences and changes — that is, to the relative magnitude of stimulation.

But these economic arguments fall on deaf ears because human beings don’t think in absolute dollars. […] Studies show that people are much more likely to agree to pay the small cost after having first contemplated the large one, in part because doing so makes the small cost seems so… er, bearable. (p. 138)

Part 5. Rationalization

8. Paradise Glossed

On resilience:

“Resilience is often the most commonly observed outcome trajectory following exposure to a potentially traumatic event.” Indeed, studies of those who survive major traumas suggest that the vast majority do quite well, and that a significant portion claim that their lives were enhanced by the experience. (p. 152)

On overestimating the effect of negative outcome:

When people are asked to predict how they’ll feel if they lose a job or a romantic partner, if their candidate loses an important election or their team loses an important game, if they flub an interview, flunk an exam, or fail a contest, they consistently overestimate how awful they’ll feel and how long they’ll feel awful. (p. 153)

On disambiguating stimulus:

…how we know which of a stimulus’s many meanings to infer on a particular occasion. Research shows that context, frequency, and recency are especially important in this regard. (p. 156)

Unlike rats and pigeons, then, we respond to meanings — and context, frequency, and recency are three of the factors that determine which meaning we will infer when we encounter an ambiguous stimulus. (p. 157)

On contract between the brain and the eyes:

The brain and the eye may have a contractual relationship in which the brain has agreed to believe what the eye sees, but in return the eye has agreed to look for what the brain wants. (p. 167)

9. Immune to Reality

On changing our views:

In short, we do not realize that our views will change because we are normally unaware of the processes that change them. (p. 175)

On blaming:

…people expect to feel equally bad when a tragic accident is the result of human negligence as when it is the result of dumb luck, but they actuallyfeel worse when luck is dumb and no one is blameworthy. (p. 178)

On regretting not having done things:

…we expect to feel more regret when we learn about alternatives to our choices than when we don’t, when we accept bad advice than when we reject good advice, when our bad choices are unusual rather than conventional, and when we fail by a narrow margin rather than by a wide margin.

Studies show that about nine out of ten people expect to feel more regret when they foolishly switch stocks than when they foolishly fail to switch stocks, because most people think they will regret foolish actions more than foolish inactions. But studies also show that nine out of ten people are wrong. Indeed, in the long run, people of every age and in every walk of life seem to regret not having done things much more than they regret things they did, which is why the most popular regrets include not going to college, not grasping profitable business opportunities, and not spending enough time with family and friends. (p. 179)

On terrorism:

Terrorism is a strategy based on the idea that the best offense is the one that fails to trigger the best defense. (p. 180)

On suffering and our defense system:

Because these volunteers suffered greatly, the intensity of their suffering triggered their defensive systems, which immediately began working to help them achieve a credible and positive view of their experiences. […] Indeed, research shows that when people are given electric shocks, they actually feel less pain when they believe they are suffering for something of great value. (p. 181)

On what happens when mild suffering doesn’t trigger psychological immune system:

The irony is that you may ultimately feel better when you are the victim of an insult than when you a bystander to it. (p. 182)

On our views (and Stockholm syndrome, I guess):

…we are more likely to look for and find a positive view of the things we’re stuck with than of the things we’re not. […] It is only when we cannot change the experience that we look for ways to change our view of the experience. (p. 183)

Part 6. Corrigibility

10. Once Bitten

On always looking for next:

We expect the next car, the next house, or the next promotion to make us happy even though the last ones didn’t and even though others keep telling us that the next ones won’t. (p. 196)

On polarization of memory:

Because we tend to remember the best of times and the worst of times instead of the most likely of times, the wealth of experience that young people admire does not always pay clear dividends. (p. 201)

On memory:

…memory is a reconstructive process that uses every piece of information at its disposal to build the mental images that come trippingly to mind when we engage in an act of remembering. (p. 206)

11. Reporting Live from Tomorrow

On super-replicators:

Genes tend to be transmitted when they make us do the things that transmit genes. (p. 215)

On wealth and happiness:

Economists and psychologists have spent decades studying the relation between wealth and happiness, and they have generally concluded that wealth increases human happiness when it lifts people out of abject poverty and into the middle class but that it does little to increase happiness thereafter. Americans who earn $50,000 per year are much happier than those who earn $10,000 per year, but Americans who earn $5 million per year are not much happier than those who earn $100,000 per year. […] Economists explain that wealth has “declining marginal utility,” which is a fancy way of saying that it hurts to be hungry, cold, sick, tired, and scared, but once you’ve bought your way out of these burdens, the rest of your money is an increasingly useless pile of paper. (p. 217)

On endless desires:

People in wealthy countries generally work long and hard to earn more money than they can ever derive pleasure from. […] As Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, wrote in 1776: “The desire for food is limited in every man by the narrow capacity of the human stomach; but the desire of the conveniences and ornaments of buildings, dress, equipage, and household furniture, seems to have no limit or certain boundary.” (p. 218)

“In ease of body and peace of mind, all the different ranks of life are nearly upon a level.” — Adam Smith

On needs of economy and individuals:

…fundamental needs of a vibrant economy and the fundamental needs of a happy individual are not necessarily the same. […] Like so many thinkers, Smith believed that people want just one thing — happiness — hence economies can blossom and grow only if people are deluded into believing that the production of wealth will make them happy. Rather, this particular false belief is a super-replicator because holding it causes us to engage in the very activities that perpetuate it. (p. 220)

On happiness of parenting:

Couple generally start out quite happy in their marriages and then become progressively less satisfied over the course of their lives together, getting close to their original levels of satisfaction only when their children leave home. […] Careful studies of how women feel as they go about their daily activities show that they are less happy when taking care of their children than when eating, exercising, shopping, napping, or watching television. Indeed, looking after the kids appears to be only slightly more pleasant than doing housework. (p. 221)

“Children bring happiness” is a super-replicator. The belief-transmission network of which we are a part cannot operate without a continuously replenished supply of people to do the transmitting, thus the belief that children are a source of happiness becomes a part of our cultural wisdom simply because the opposite belief unravels the fabric of any society that holds it. (p. 222)

On the best way to predict our feelings:

But if we cannot travel in the dimension of time, we can travel in the dimensions of space, and the chances are pretty good that somewhere in those other three dimensions there is another human being who is actually experiencing the future event that we are merely thinking about.

If you believe (as I do) that people can generally say how they are feeling at the moment they are asked, then one way to make predictions about our own emotional futures is to find someone who is having the experience we are contemplating and ask them how they feel. (p. 223)

On three shortcomings of our imagination:

…imagination’s first shortcoming is its tendency to fill in and leave out without telling us. (p. 224)

Imagination’s second shortcoming is its tendency to project the present onto the future. (p. 226)

Imagination’s third shortcoming is its failure to recognize that things will look different once they happen — in particular, that bad things will look as a whole lot better. (p. 227)

On considering ourselves special:

This tendency to think of ourselves as better than others is not necessarily a manifestation of our unfettered narcissism but may instead be an instance of a more general tendency to think of ourselves as different from others — often for better but sometimes for worse. […] The self considers itself to be a very special person. (p. 229)

First, even if we aren’t special, the way we know ourselves is. We are the only people in the world whom we can know from the inside. We experience our own thoughts and feelings but must infer that other people are experiencing theirs.

The second reason is that we enjoy thinking of ourselves as special. Most of us want to fit in well with our peers, but we don’t want to fit in too well. (p. 230)

The third reason why we tend to overestimate our uniqueness is that we tend to overestimate everyone’s uniqueness — that is, we tend to think of people as more different from one another than they actually are.

Because we spend so much time searching for, attending to, thinking about, and remembering these differences, we tend to overestimate their magnitude and frequency, and thus end up thinking of people as more varied than they actually are. (p. 231)

On using the others to predict our feelings:

Our mythical belief in the variability and uniqueness of individuals is the main reason why we refuse to use others as surrogates. After all, surrogation is only useful when we can count on a surrogate to react to an event roughly as we would, and if we believe that people’s emotional reactions are more varied than they actually are, then surrogation will seem less useful to us than it actually is. 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 of our imagination, as flawed and fallible as they may be. (p. 232)

Afterword

On having a luxury of making important decisions in our lives:

Most of us make at least three important decisions in our lives: where to live, what to do, and with whom to do it. We choose our towns and our neighborhoods, we choose our jobs and our hobbies, we choose our spouses and our friends. Making these decisions is such a natural part of adulthood that it is easy to forget that we are among the first human beings to make them. For most of recorded history, people lived where they were born, did what their parents had done, and associated with those who were doing the same. (p. 235)

On calculating value and the wisdom of decisions:

…the wisdom of any decision could be calculated by multiplying the probability that the decision will give us what we want by the utility of getting what we want.

“The determination of the value of an item must not be based on its price, but rather on the utility it yields. The price of the item is dependent only on the thing itself and is equal for everyone; the utility, however, is dependent on the particular circumstances of the person making the estimate.” — Bernoulli (p. 236)

Read from December 7, 2016 to December 31, 2016 .