This was an interesting book - not a guide to happiness as you might think at first, but an explanation of some of the psychological reasons why we are bad at predicting what will make us happy. He has some tips at the very end, but mostly it’s a jaunt through the interesting things our brain does to try to help us, and when those things can backfire. This is part review, part me-keeping-notes-for-the-future.

My personal summary: We are bad at remembering what did make us happy, and bad at imagining what will make us happy, even though we have lots of practice. Our brains are very good at filling gaps in our perception and rationalising our choices, and so the best way to get a sense of whether a situation will make us happy is to look to someone who is currently in that situuation and ask them.

What follows are my longer notes for future self.

The first point I took note of is the difficulty of establishing a baseline for happiness across people. Do we experience the same levels of happiness, or is your definition stunted, or do our words mean different levels? Nobody really knows. We all experience different lives. The authors examples was of conjoined twins. Those of us who have not experienced it think they must have such a low quality of life, but if you ask them, they describe themselves as happy as anybody else. Do we decide that they don’t know what real happiness is? Or is it simply because we cannot imagine being happy in that state? A related point is that we can make up causes for our feelings, even when its definitely not the cause, like feeling giddy from a height but thinking its because of the attractive person we’re talking to.

The second point I took note of is that ideas are more likely to flourish when they preserve the social structure that allows them to transmit. For example, a society with the idea “having children is bad” will clearly not last as long as a society with the idea “having children is good”. The issue is that our brains disguise these ideas as “this will make me happy”, even though there is some evidence that, when asked in the moment throughout their lives, many people are less happy while they are raising children. This can also be applied to the idea “more money will make me happy”, since maybe if no-one believed that, our economy would have collapsed.

Our memories are not great. There is so much information we are processing at any given moment that it would be impossible for our brain to store all of it for all of the memories we have. It does a lot of intelligent filling in of the gaps. This is very useful, but it means that, for example, the last impression of an event sticks with us much more than the middle of the event (movie had a bad ending = movie was bad), and our memory of our feelings in the past will pretty much match how we feel now, not how we actually felt then. When we imagine how we will feel, we can exaggerate it. When we remember how we felt, we can exaggerate it. During the moment, though, if we record it, the feeling is closer to “standard”. We also more easily recall things that have happened recently and more frequently, leading us to think they are more common globally.

As the brain fills in the gaps in our perception in the present, like our visual blind spot, it also fills in gaps in our imagination of the future and our memory of the past. We usually start with something we know, like how we feel now or what our life is like now, and then adjust a little until we think it’s right. This is basically an Anchoring Bias, and so our memory of past feelings often matches how we currently feel. Or, when we imagine the future, we can’t help but start with how we feel now. It’s like when you have just stuffed yourself on pasta so you can’t even get up, and then trying to imaging eating a nice steak - it’s very difficult to imagine enjoying it. We also tend to leave out lots of details and just assume it will work out nicely for us. This causes us to overestimate or underestimate our happiness as well since we don’t think that, for example, our favourite team may win the game but we’ll need to get our car fixed that day.

Our desire for variety is often misunderstood. We tell ourselves “variety is the spice of life”, but it’s a little more nuanced. When events are close in time, variety is helpful. If you go to a nice restaurant with a friend, you will enjoy the experience more if you both order separate dishes and share, rather than both ordering the same thing. However, if events are separated enough in time, variety becomes unnecessary. If you go to the same restaurant each month for a year, most people will be happier if they order their favourite dish each time rather than feeling like they should try something different. Another consequence of this behaviour is that our brains can try to look for minute differences (that don’t really matter) when have a choice between very similar options. This is despite the fact that any one of them would make us happy. Suddenly we find ourselves “caring” about the tiniest differences, trying to maximise our choice somehow.

We value things more when they happen soon. A fancy dinner in one week is better for our current happiness than a fancy dinner in one year. We value things more when we own them than before. Once you buy a new Toyota, you find yourself convinced that Toyota’s really are better cars than Holdens. The imagined pain of losing something is more than the imagined happiness of gaining something - this is our loss aversion. Imagining losing $1,000 hurts more than imagining winning $1,000, even though, after either situation, our happiness very quickly returns to its original state. Keeping things unexplained can increase the emotional intensity - the cliffhanger at the end of a movie before the sequel is released, or a gift from a mysterious benefactor, or an unknown suprise on your birthday next week. We keep on thinking about them, and if it’s a positive mystery, that rumination is pleasant. Once it’s explained, our brain ties a little knot around it and we stop thinking about it.

I was fascinated by the writing on our psychological “immune system”. It is the explanation why little things can hurt us more than big things, and why we can easily dismiss the opinion of one person who makes us feel bad, but it’s much harder to dismiss the opinion of thirty people who make us feel bad - we can create a story like “he just doesn’t like blondes” or “she didn’t get enough sleep last night”, but our brain cannot convince us that all thirty people had a problem like that. It’s simply too far-fetched. This rationalisation also helps us to find and trust information that conforms with our view, and discredit information that does not conform with our view. It can explain why we feel worse when a friend of ours is insulted compared to when we are insulted. The immune system only kicks in if a big enough attack happens, so if it’s something small, we just take it as it is. Another way the immune system is triggered is when we are in an inescapable situation. This is why we can feel better with an option when it’s forced on us, compared to when we equivocate over several and end up picking that same one.

Finally, the author had a couple of points about better predicting what will make us happy. What I took away was this: Looking at someone who is in the same situation you’re imagining yourself in is a good indicator for how you will feel. Yes, we are all different, and we like to think that our reaction will be special, but it is the best baseline. If you want to move interstate for work, talk to someone who has moved interstate for work and ask them how they feel. Similarly for starting a new hobby, getting married, etc.

One must try to let go of one’s imagination sometimes.