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Stumbling on Happiness

The psychology of thinking about the future

By Daniel Gilbert
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  • Contains 13 key ideas
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Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert

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.

Key idea 1 of 13

Our minds are capable of filling in missing details without us knowing about it.

Though we’re not aware of it, everybody’s field of vision contains a blind spot, a place where the eye cannot see images. Yet, when you look at a photograph or someone’s face, you don’t see a big black mark where your blind spot is; you seem to see the whole image.

This is because your brain fills in the missing details automatically. It instantly scans the area around the blind spot and fills in what it thinks should be there. The mind effectively invents a portion of your vision without you knowing about it.

This example shows the immense capability of the mind to fill in missing details and transform our perception of reality. We assume that what we see is a true reflection of the world, and yet it isn’t: it’s partly the construction of our mind.

But the brain’s ability to fill in details goes far beyond adjusting our vision: it also influences how we remember past events. When we remember the past, we can’t possibly accurately recall everything that’s happened; there is just too much information to store. Therefore, what our minds do is store only key details and emotions.

For example, if you’ve had a bad dining experience at a restaurant, when you think back to the evening in question, you might remember being angered by a rude waiter or drinking corked wine. But along with these key details, your brain will fill in the surrounding picture as best it can with what it assumes should be there. For instance, it may insert the detail that the rude waiter had a mischievous grin as he served the spoiled wine. This, of course, was not really the case. As with the blind spot, our brains fill in these details so quickly that we don’t even know it’s happening.

So, although we consider our memories and our vision as accurate representations of facts, they are in fact a mixture of reality and imagination.

Our minds are capable of filling in missing details without us knowing about it.

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