Stumbling on Happiness (2007) explains how our brains make us think about the future. It employs accessible language and everyday examples to help us understand complex theories from psychology, neuroscience and philosophy.
Stumbling on Happiness helps answer the question: why do we make decisions that leave us unhappy? By showing how our brains work, it aims to help us imagine our futures in new ways, ways that could leave us happier.
Let’s say that tonight you’re planning to go out to a pizzeria you’ve never been to before. You allow yourself to daydream about this little indulgence, and your imagination willingly conjures a very detailed scene of how you think the evening will unfold, right down to the waiter’s twirled moustache and the sizzling mozzarella cheese on your pizza. You can hardly wait!
The above is an example of how your mind can create a very vivid and credible prediction of the future based on just one simple piece of information: that you intend to eat pizza.
The problem is that after you’ve imagined this particular scene in your future, you will tend to imagine this as the one and only way the evening could unfold. You expect things to turn out as you imagined them.
But remember, the only thing you know for sure is that you intend to have pizza tonight. Your brain filled in all those other little details in your prediction. In fact, there is an infinite number of alternative courses that the evening could take. Maybe the restaurant has no pizzas with mozzarella? Maybe the waiter has a beard instead of a moustache? Or maybe the whole place burned down the night before?
And yet, despite these alternative futures, you will probably still consider the fantasy you constructed as a good guess of what is to come, and put an unwarranted degree of trust in this “prediction.”
Unfortunately, this applies to all our predictions about the future: they’re largely based on our imagination helpfully filling in details, but we still put our faith in them.
We trust that our predictions of the future are accurate – yet they are merely single scenarios in a sea of possibilities.