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Stumbling on Happiness

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Daniel Gilbert, the author of “Stumbling on Happiness”, questions how a person can have a hard time accurately predicting what can make them happy in the future. Gilbert states that imaginations is what limits our way in understanding happiness. Humans have the ability to imagine the future, but they are really bad at it. We will not know how we feel tomorrow, or next year, or ten years later, we predict the future wrong. Gilbert states that it is our imagination and illusion of foresight which causes us to misinterpret the future and misestimate our satisfaction. Humans only think about the future to help minimize our pain and it is pleasurable. We also think about the future for the feeling of control because it is satisfying.

Because of how a human’s frontal lobe has developed, Gilbert states that we are able to envision and predict possible futures that we think will make us happy. However, Gilbert asserts that we are not the best predictors of future happiness as ______ the future is often illusory just like the present and past can be. One reason for this error, Gilbert explains, is that the feelings people have about past experiences are personal and subject to change the more experiences they have, causing their definition of an emotion such as happiness to change also. Moreover, Gilbert asserts that because it is extremely challenging in trying to recall the exact feeling a person had about a past experience, claims about happy feelings are unreliable. He states we use our imaginations to predict our future happiness but because of flaws in our memory and perception, we are unable to accurately recall our past experiences, which causes us to view the present incorrectly, thereby resulting in our wrongly predicting the happiness of our futures.

Gilbert claims that since our brain compresses experiences into key images, we fill in the rest of the details of an experience when we are attempting to recall it, but also when we are perceiving things in the present. Gilbert proposes that from an idealist perspective, we construct our perceptions of reality based on our thoughts, feelings, knowledge, wants and beliefs in combination with “sensory information and preexisting knowledge” (94). The problem is as Gilbert sees it is that the reality we think we experienced, are experiencing, will experience are all illusions that the brain quickly and efficiently weaves for us. However, Gilbert suggests that the details the brain leaves out have even a greater effect in us incorrectly predicting what will make us happy in the future. He claims we often mispredict our emotional futures because of our brain’s inability to accurately see the details of things that will take place in the distant future, causing us to misrepresent how we will feel about future events.

Moreover, Gilbert believes that we rely on our present feelings about an experience to imagine how we will feel in the future. However, by engaging in “prefeeling” (136), he asserts we make mistakes as the brain’s focus on the present perception of reality negates the imagined perception of the same experience in the future. Therefore, Gilbert is saying what we are feeling about an object or experience in the present will be what we think we will feel about the object or experience in the future. Continue on with Chapter 7 This “prefeeling” brings us to another concept of utility of when we make different decisions which yields lower utility due to our current states. We tend to imagine the future as the present with a twist, because we are often unaware that we are always predicting the future using our view of the present. The “prefeeling” is the act of the present feelings affecting our past and future feelings, it similarly contains flaws that make it an imperfect trick for the brain.

Gilbert states that people prefer to think in a “positive view”. Negative events affect us, but they do not affect us as much or as long as we expect them to. Our brain has the freedom to interpret a stimulus in more than one way, it decides the way it wants to. Our preferences influence our interpretations of stimuli in just the same way that context, frequency and recency do. We consider a “psychological immune system” (177) to protect the mind the same way “the physical immune system defends the body against illness.” “(177). Gilbert states that this is “cook[ing] the facts”(177), where we rationalize positive feelings. He believes that we are also unaware that we are able to change the view of the world in order to change the way we feel about it. For example, we rather create a positive and credible view, instead of a painful or annoying experience. By selecting the favorable information, we surround ourselves with those who provided it and we accept it too because it causes us to feel better.

Gilbert believes that our memories are influenced by the instances, moments and theories about how we felt in the past. We are capable of correcting or improving our future. It is learned from our own experiences, by practice. However, there are plenty of mistakes that we may experience over and over because we often do not remember that experience correctly. Also, to get an accurate picture of the future, Gilbert proposes we look into other people’s reports of their experiences. However, people do not ask other people’s advice because Gilbert believes that every person is unique. Also, one may think that another’s report is unreliable. Therefore, he believes that we rather go back to our own imagination of what our future is like for us.

PART II

When thinking about having a child, the married couple does not realize how much actual satisfaction they will attain. Before having a child, the couple can only imagine the future. Like in Gilbert’s arguments, he states that we only think of a positive and credible view of the future, without even thinking about how much problems having a baby may cause. Imagination of the future fails to give us an accurate preview of how the couple would emotionally feel in the future. We are unable to imagine every feature and consequence of having a baby. Because we are too focused and excited of having a baby to make us happy, we do not consider what happens after the baby comes into life.

Gilbert believes that when married couples think about having a child, they do not do very well at envisioning whether this will make them happy. In Gilbert’s prospection and subjectivity theses, we tend to wrongly predict the happiness of our future. Because of the frontal lobe in the human brain, Gilbert believes that we only think about happy thoughts about the future. Even if the couple asked other about their past experiences, it is personal and is subjected to change the more experiences another couple has with a child. Therefore, it can cause their emotion of happiness to change as well. Gilbert asserts that it is extremely challenging to recall the exact feeling a person had about a past experience. Claims about happy feelings about one’s experiences are unreliable. We are unable to correctly observe how the future would be because experience is unobservable to everyone but the person experiencing it.

Gilbert states that our imagination we use is shortcoming, which is a tendency to fill in and leave out without telling us. This is referred to Gilbert’s realism theory. We are unable to imagine every feature and consequence of a future event of having a child. We consider some and fail to think about others. Usually, we would fail to think about the consequences which are the most important. The married couple would only think about how happy having a baby is, but they do not imagine how events will happen after having the baby and if it would influence their happiness. They do not realize how quickly the joy of having a baby would fade when it would be followed by the responsibilities of having a baby. We think that everything we think is reality as it appears to be in the mind.

In Gilbert’s other thesis, presentism, the imagination tends to project the present to the future. When thinking about the future, the mind will leave out necessary details and imagination would solve this problem by filling in the gap with details which are borrowed from the present. Because details are left out, we “prefeel” how it would to have a child. He states that the brain makes a mistake which causes the brain to only focus on the present perception of reality neglecting the imagined perception of the same experience in the future. The current experience is influenced from their views on the past and the future.

Rationalization is Gilbert’s third idea of imagination’s shortcoming, which is failure to recognize that thing will look differently once it happens- the bad things will look a lot better. Because details are left out, we would tend to focus on the positive side and neglect to think about the negative. Some would be the sleepless nights, the worries of having a child and the lack of free time after having a child. We would only think of having a child to love and being loved back, which will make a relationship closer together. Gilbert asserts that we prefer to think in a “positive view”. By picking the information we prefer, we accept the “positive feel” because it causes us to feel better and we are also unaware of it.

Gilbert believes that our memories can be help corrected and improved our own experiences, this is the corrigibility theory. He claims that we should look into other people’s description of their experiences. However, some do not ask others for their past experiences because he believes that every person is unique in their own way. Also, one may think that another’s report may be unreliable. So, he believes that we rather go back to our own imagination of how easy it would to have a child.

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