Gilbert, Stumbling onto Happiness -- All notes

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Gilbert, Chapter 1. Journey to Elsewhen

  • the difference, to the problem of happiness, from our ability to imagine a future.
  • Calls "Nexting" predicting immediate future for me; "predicting" both conscious and unconscious. surprise. measurable in the very young and primates. Notice the levels of "nexting" from simple to entirely imagined futures.
  • nexting happens in the frontal lobe; Phinneas Gage; lobotomies; tradeoffs between planning (being able to think about the future) and anxiety. N.N. - cognitive awareness of time without ability to imagine the future.
  • Prospection and Emotion: 12% of time we think about the future. ways that we enjoy anticipation of a future (18), even as substitute, American optimism and distorted sense of the future. imagining the future changes our predictions about the likelihood of our imaginings coming true. Cancer patients more optimistic about future than the healthy.
  • Control. study at 21ff. lots of specific results on control read 22.


Gilbert, Chapter 2: The View from in Here

  • Twins: Lroi and Reba. How to assess their preference?
  • Types of happiness: emotional, moral, judgement happiness.
  • How can the twins be happy? What is the role of "objective conditions"?
  • Subjectivity of Yellow, 32. Nozick's experience machine, 35. Happy Frank, p. 37. (Perhaps goal of this analysis is to see that normal understanding of happiness includes life happiness, virtues, and perfective activities.)
  • 40: How similar are two people's experience of happiness? How would you know?
  • problem: we don't compare experiences, we compare memories of experiences.
  • Describer's study on memory of color swatch, 41. What do we access when we make happiness judgements?
  • How reliable is our judgement from one minute to the next?
  • Interviewer substitution studies Daniel Simon's Lab: [1]. Other perceptual aspects, 43-44.
  • Conclusion: 44-45: read. Not so much about how bad we are at noticing change, but how, if we aren't paying attention, memory kicks in.
  • Happiness scales
  • Language squishing and Experience stretching: Addresses the question: Does the range of my experience of happiness lead me to talk differently about an identical experience (of the cake) as someone else, or does it cause me to experience things differently? (Point about guitar experience (52) -- moving targets problem.)
  • Language squishing hyp: We "squeeze" our happiness scale (language) to fit the range of our objective exp.
  • R&L feel exactly like you do (about a birthday cake, for example) but talk about it differently.
  • consistent with the idea that the same feeling or state could receive a higher assessment by someone with limited experience.
  • Experience stretching hyp: We take the range of our objective experience and stretch it to fit our scale.
  • R&L talk about experiences the same as you do but feel something different.
  • consistent with the idea that someone is having a different experience because of their limited background.
  • maybe a rich background of experience (exotic experience, diverse or challenging experience, luxurious experience, experience of rarefied environments) "ruins" mundane experience. In which case, absence of peak experiences is not a problem.

Another way of putting the R&L problem: When R&L give something an 8 is it like what you experience when you (presumably as someone with broader and more diverse experience) give something an 8?

  • Drawing a conclusion: Our relationship to our judgements about happiness is changed by our experience of happiness and vice versa, creating a kind of ambiguity in intersubjective assessments of happiness.
  • Small group discussion: Thinking about R&L and "experience stretching" and "language squishing", what are the major variables that affect whether two people are having getting the "same hedonic effect" from an experience or different effects? Can enriched experience (luxury, peak experiences, exotic experiences) "ruin you"? Does connoisseurship pose a risk to happiness? Does the "moving targets" problem come into the picture here?


Gilbert, Chapter 3: Outside Looking In

  • How well do we know what we're feeling?
  • Determining that something is scary comes before understanding it. (That's scary.) automatic processes can help or distort our preferred reactions.
  • Maybe you can be happy and "not know it" in the sense of not being aware that this (state, experience structure, etc.) is normal to happiness.
  • Capilano Bridge Study -- fear and arousal. reading without awareness. you can have an experience and not be present to it or aware of it.
  • Blindsight - visual experience and awareness of that experience are generated by distinct parts of the brain. 62.
  • Alexithymia - mismatch of experience and awareness of experience or lack of introspective awareness, leading to impoverished vocab of phen. experience. You could be happy and not know it. (Will you "know it when you see it"?) (That's scary, too.) But another claim being made here is about variation in people's aptitude for emotional self-description. This seems related to "emotional intelligence." (Discussion: Do people vary in this way? What, if any, intervention might alter one's capacity for emotional self-decription?)
  • p. 63: "They (alexithymics) seem to have feelings, they just don't seem to know about them."
  • Objectivity issue summarized: 64.
  • Addressing Measurement Issues: 1) imperfect measures are still measures; 2) real time reports by individuals are still pretty reliable (1st person perspective has some privilege); 3) law of large numbers can help
  • physical correlates, multiple measures, avoid priming,
  • Law of Large Numbers -- resolves some issues of subjectivity.
  • "problem of subjective experience" -- relation between knowledge of patterns and individual. point, bottom of p. 69. "law of larger numbers" to the rescue.


Gilbert, Chapter 4: In the Blind Spot of the Mind's Eye

  • Comparions of Adolph Fisher & George Eastman. Point: Need to 2nd guess how we impose seemingly objective criteria on others' lives.
  • Just because it's easier for us to imagine that a certain kind of future will bring happiness, and what we imagine might even be in line with objective research, it doesn't follow that other futures won't.
  • Brain reweaves experience: study with cars and stop signs/yield signs. Information acquired after the event alters memory of the event.
  • Two highly confirmed results: Memory fills in. We don't typically notice it happening. Word list excercise. 80 -- literal and metaphorical blindspots. experiments with interrupted sentences. We fill in.
  • Model of Mind (84) Prior to 19th century:
"philosophers had thought of the senses as conduits that allowed information about the properties of objects in the world to travel from the object and into the mind. The mind was like a movie screen in which the object was rebroadcast. The operation broke down on occasion, hence people occasionally saw things as they were not. But when the senses were working properly, they showed what was there. This theory of realism was described in 1690 by the philosopher John Locke: brains "believe" they don't "make believe" .
  • Model of Mind brought in with Kant at beginning of 1800's:
Kant's idealism: "Kant's new theory of idealism claimed that our perceptions are not the result of a physiological process by which our eyes somehow transmit an image of the world into our brains but rather, they are the result of a psychological process that combines what our eyes see with what we already think, feel, know, want, and believe, and then uses this combination of sensory information and preexisting knowledge to construct our perception of reality. "
  • false belief test -- [2]
  • Still, we act like realists: truck moving study-- we are first realists, but we learn to adopt an idealist perspective in social communication.
  • We experience the world as if our interpretations were part of reality. We do not realize we are seeing an interpretation.
  • We fill in details: imagine a plate of spaghetti. Very important for thinking about how we fill in the future. We carry out the exercise of imagining, and even make estimates of satisfaction, but the result depends upon which of the family of experiences picked out by "plate of spaghetti" we have in mind.
  • point for happiness theories: p. 89.
  • closes by giving you the narratives that make sense of the Fisher/Eastman comparison.


Gilbert, Chapter 5: The Hound of Silence

  • This chapter continues to build the case that our rationality is isn't a simple and accessible universal tool for thinking about things in an unbiased way. That might be an achievement of rationality, but "our inattention to absences influences the way to think about the future."
  • We don't train on what's not there: pigeons, detecting pattern change in trigrams. "Blindspot" in our inference machinery. explains tendency to see coincidences -- we don't keep track of non-coincidences.
  • UVA sports fan study (102): Why do non-describer sports fans overestimate impact of losing a big game? 102 They don't think about the whole picture -- what's going to happen after the game, etc. Details the describers fill in. (Interesting practical lesson here.) Likewise, with California happiness studies and our estimates of the happiness of the chronically ill or disabled.
  • Analogy of loss of detail of visual objects at a distance and loss of detail in objects of thought at a temporal "distance". "Near future is pretty detailed, but the distant future is blurry and smooth." 105
  • Future value. We're horrible at calculating it. View Dan Gilbert's Ted talk on this subject [3]
  • Time frame matters: example of agreeing to baby sit in a month vs. tomorrow night.


Gilbert, Chapter 6, The Future is Now

  • Being wrong about the future: possibility of heavy planes flying. 112
  • "When brains plug holes in the conceptualizations of yesterday and tomorrow, they tend to use a material called today"
  • 113: Long list of examples of current experience displacing past experience: dating couples, worries about exams, memories of Perot supporters.
  • Examples of how we fail to predict how future selves will feel. 115: Volunteers choosing candy bars or knowing answers.
  • We fail to account for the way future experience will change future preferences.
  • Sneak Prefeel -- evidence suggests brain can have emotional responses to imaginings of the future. We simulate future events, we don't just experience them reflectively. visual experience vs. imagination.
  • How to Select Posters: In poster selection study, the "thinkers" are less satisfied with their choices. 121 "Prefeeling allowed nonthinkers to predict their future satisfaction more accurately than thinkers did." 121
  • Limits of Prefeeling: "We can't see or feel two things at once, and the brain has strict priorities about what it will see, hear, and feel and what it will ignore. ... For instance, if we try to imagine a penguin while we are looking at an ostrich, the brain's policy won't allow it."122 2 other research studies on unconscious bias in future predictions. 123
  • Note from the gym/thirst study: emotional contagion from one experience to another. The "availability heuristic" comes in here again. Priming. practical advice: you can see how mindfulness might be part of the remedy here.
  • Read cartoon on bottom of p. 125 "Imagination cannot easily transcend the boundaries of the present, and one reason for this is that it must borrow machinery that is owned by perception. The fact that these two processes must run on the same platform means that we are sometimes confused about which one is running. We assume that what we feel as we imagine the future is what we'll feel when we get there, but in fact, what we feel as we imagine the future is often response to what's happening in the present."

Gilbert, Chapter 7, Time Bombs

  • We spatialize time because it's an abstract thing and thinking of its spatially helps make it concrete. But that makes some things easier to imagine in the future than other things. "Time is no grapefruit"!
  • Hedonic adaptation -- factors affecting the habituation rate -- time/variety (connect with satisficer/maximizer)
  • False prediction of future pleasure -- p. 130 study on snack predictions.
  • Gilbert's point -- variety has a cost… As you slow down the consumption rate, variety becomes less of a happiness maker because your rank preference becomes more prominent. [But it doesn't follow that it's not in your happiness-interest to pay it sometimes. Sampler plates still make sense because you're going to be consuming them quickly and at one sitting.]
  • Starting Now: mental images are atemporal. We can inspect a mental image to see who's doing what, but the "when" matters less. We imagine a future event as if it took place now and then discount (recall Gilbert's TED talk)
  • Spaghetti satisfaction predictions under condition of multi-tasking, p. 136. multi-tasking raises the effect of hunger and keeps people from making distinctions (morning/afternoon) about their experience. Another interesting implication for mindfulness, assuming a quieter and more mindful person would be less vulnerable to these distortions.
Lots of other biases (this is really what you get in the TED talk referenced above):
  • Anchoring Bias (135)-- how many african countries?, Sensitivity to changes, (accounts for preferences for steady income increases, even it net payout is lower).
  • Preference for the marked down vacation, even if more costly than a marked up one.
  • Famous Khaneman and Tversky "mental accounting" study -- (140) theater tickets and twenty dollar bills.
  • We compare the present to the past instead of to the possible. (coffee example)
  • But we also make mistakes when we compare the present to the possible. (tv purchase example, wine example, dictionary comparison, chips/chocolate vs. chips/sardines) digress on Economist pricing example.
  • Loss aversion (145); Sunk costs (we value things we have or avenues we commit to more than they are worth because we have chosen and invested in them.)


Gilbert, Chapter 8: Paradise Glossed

  • Opening examples of people "re-narrating" horrible events in their lives, including wrongdoing and public humiliation. Asymmetry between people's estimates of misfortune (loss of ability) and estimates of people in those situations.
  • "If negative events don't hit us as hard as we expect them to, then why do we expect them to?" Interested in discrepancy between cs forecast and actual experience.
  • Suggests that the process of creating and attending to meanings is crucial (154-155). We respond, in part, to our own representations of reality. (Recall the Truck cubby hole perspective taking experiment)



  • Importance of context, frequency, and recency in identifying information and salience. Necker cube. Definers and self-rating study (159). importance of relative complexity of experience (over visual illusions). Complexity creates ambiguity which we exploit with narrative Kale and ice cream study, 159. Our immediate experience can change our relative perceptions of arrays of other objects and experiences.
  • major thesis on 160. Once our experience becomes actual, our uncs goes to work renarrating the story with positive bias. a kind of "psychological immune system" (psychological investment system). (recall the poster study.) Interesting practical advice follows: You might be able to choose a more or less positive way of looking at situations that have ambiguous interpretations. You are trying to strike a balance between disabling self-criticism and panglossian self-delusion.see 162.
  • We Cook the Facts (164): The mind needs some like a fact for belief, (but facts are not always readily available), so... it cooks the evidence. IQ test takers selection of article on IQ bias. By selecting sampling (attending to ads for the cars we bought), by conversational practices (not, "Am I the best lover..., but ....").
  • Evidence that we cook the facts comes from situations in which there are symmetrical and predictable inconsistencies in a group's interpretation (sports fans 168), or studies that show that we select evidence that fits our views (169). (This is also the evidence that is moving some faculty to blind grading!)

Gilbert, Chapter 9: Immune to Reality (Openness to Investment in Reality)

  • Clever Hans
  • Confabulation: People are unaware of many influences on them, but when asked will create a story or reason that provides a plausible explanation other than the actual influence. Priming studies. Negative words flashed on screen produces more negative judgments. (note about being "strangers to ourselves" -- connects with Leary, Curse of Self)
  • Some evidence (174) to suggest that deliberate methods to induce good feeling fail.
  • thesis on 174: not only do we cook the facts, but we need to consume them in a way that doesn't reveal the fabrication or alteration. (One way that we become "strangers to ourselves" is that we need to conceal the fact that we're cooking the facts.)
  • Looking forward/backward (recall examples from 153, in which we over-predict the effect of negative events): asymmetry in judgments of events when looked at prospectively and retrospectively. Thesis: We assume that the views looking forward and backward are symmetrical, but they are not. You won't value things the same way once events transpire, but the process of revaluation is largely hidden from us.
  • Judge/Jury Rejection study: prospectively we aren't aware that we'll more easily write off the judge's decision than the jury's. (176) -- key issue: if the explanation for the result is so obvious, why can't the test subjects anticipate it?
  • great example of confabulation too.
  • Regret: when we blame ourselves for outcomes we might have anticipated. A kind of "personal liability" emotion. Sometimes useful. Problem of the number of things you didn't do. (research on p. 179: suggesting that we regret omissions more than commissions, though they predict that they'll regret commissions more.) Why is this? Gilbert's thesis: It's harder for the immune system to re-narrate an event that didn't happen.
  • Psychological Immune System: Very bad things trigger it more than slightly bad things. "it is sometimes more difficult to achieve a positive view of a bad experience than a very bad experience. Concept of "psychological investment" in initiation rites study (181). Triggers at work in the negative feedback study (182).
  • Claims that we experience "sunk costs" in relationships. Trade offs between changing our experience and changing our view of our experience. Photo selection satisfaction study involving "escape" and "no escape" conditions p 184. Subjects in the escape condition were less satisfied with their choices. Yet test subjects asked which they would prefer say that want the escape option. (notice prospection/retrospection asymmetry)
  • Speculative Theory about how we use explanations: "Explanations allow us to make full use of our experiences, but they also change the natures of those experiences." 186. beneficial effect of writing about trauma, simulated student study involving identified vs. unidentified admirers. 187. Happiness buzz lasts longer on unidentified (power of unexplained) . (Interesting implication for seeking "love from the world".) Suggested as support for theory. Unexplained events have bigger impact. Other studies suggest explanations can get in the way of emotional impact. Point: We respond to unexplained and mysterious events with higher interest and affect, even attributing great significance to them, but we also relentlessly try to explain things, thus diminishing their emotional impact. Example of research with Smile Society cards. Details may have detracted from positive impact. (Again, people think the card with the explanation will have higher impact.) "The price we pay for our irrepressible explanatory urge is that we often spoil our most pleasant experiences by making good sense of them." 191