Stumbling Over Statistics And Studies In Stumbling On Happiness

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Book-loving blogger-cousins Penny and Rich review Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert.


I’m intrigued by this idea that imagining our future selves, or the future overall, generally doesn’t work. So, Gilbert claims, the best thing to do is to ask others because people more or less reliably report their own happiness in the present.

When Mrs. Rich read this book a few years ago, it really stuck with us that humans are not good at predicting / imagining what their future selves will want. So, we try to be careful when making decisions that will lock us into certain circumstances in 10 or 20 years.

For example, this is why we’ve questioned the conventional wisdom of buying a house in the suburbs. Can I really say that I’ll want that place at age 60? So much so that I’ll spend half a million dollars to get it? People we know who moved out there were happier in the city and are not as happy in the suburbs and hate their commute. And, people say a long commute is the worst thing in the history of man, basically. So, there’s no reason to think we’d be happy buying a house out there based on our current lives (we’re happy renters) or our friends’ experiences.

What do you make of the part about having kids? Gilbert says people gloss over how kids make them miserable. Well, I won’t dispute that kids are hard, and there are some unhappy days. But i was thinking about the basic assumption here, and a basic assumption underlying a lot of this “science of happiness,” that the ultimate goal of life is, in fact, happiness. Maybe i will agree that happiness is one goal, but happiness is not the entire point of life or what gives life meaning.

Survival, for example, is another goal.

To get mushy, love is probably a better indication of what gives life meaning, more so than happiness. This is why people will sacrifice happiness for love. Happiness is a goal, but love is a more important consideration. This is true in my experience, too. Loving my kids outweighs being happy with my kids.

Actually, browsing around the interwebs, I think there’s another term that does justice to what I’m looking for in existence, and that is The Good Life. The idea of The Good Life encompasses happiness as well as virtue, love, authenticity, dignity, well-being, morality and so on.

I think people make some dumb choices chasing happiness.

They leave marriages because they’re not happy in that moment. They leave jobs because they’re not happy paying their dues. They use happiness as a justification for selfishness or silliness.

I’m not saying continue to do things that always make you unhappy, but I would say it’s good to question if happiness is the number one priority in a given situation. Sometimes greater, deeper happiness comes from working through difficulty to get to a better place. If you pursue superficial happiness you may or may not get it, but if you pursue relationships (love), growth (work, purpose), and autonomy (freedom) it’s quite likely you’ll be happy. Happy is a byproduct of good living, not the other way around.

Finally, a quick funny story for you. Gilbert said that when high numbers of people say something brings happiness, it becomes a more reliable indicator, statistically. If one person says one thing is better than another, say, broccoli is better than ice cream, it could be random and a very unique personal perspective. But if 10,000 people to 1 say ice cream is better than broccoli, it’s very likely I would like ice cream better, even if I’d never tried it.

And this is why i use Trip Advisor. If a thousand people give a good review to a restaurant … odds are that I will agree.

So I thought of our earlier discussion about the Olive Garden. I *know* that Olive Garden is not great Italian food. As an experiment, I looked up Olive Garden on Trip Advisor for New York City

… and it got 4 of 5 stars!  what????? The 343rd best restaurant in NYC?

I’m really questioning everything now.

Maybe a better indication would be to ask people who have tried BOTH Olive Garden AND a 5 star Italian restaurant which one is better.

My grip on reality is wavering.

This also might argue for some people never trying the better option, because ignorance is bliss … I have no idea what to make of this.

I’ve gone quite far now from the book. Kind of like the book itself — interesting but a bit scattered. What do you think of this idea that you are doing things for the happiness of your future self?  How do you go about making big decisions — do you ask people or make a pro / con list or what?


I have to admit… I stumbled through this book a bit. It was a long-winded and boring read for me. I felt the author used 20 words where one would have been sufficient. And just endless and endless statistics and surveys and his long-winded thoughts and analogies on those statistics and surveys. Yawn.

But you bring up some good points.

I’d heard the part about “having kids = unhappier people” before. One of my friends is a marriage therapist, and she always advises people not to consider a divorce when their kids are really young, because that’s the hardest / unhappiest stage of life, and you shouldn’t make any rash decisions during that time. And I liked what you had to say about love. It seems to me that love outweighs being happy as well.

Take the book Brave New World, for example (a book that I am currently re-reading, and is much, MUCH better than this one). It’s set in a future society where happiness is paramount. People are born and conditioned to feel happy with their place in life. The point and meaning of their lives is that everybody is happy and comfortable. And, with society being set up that way, they end up missing out on so much: love, passion, sacrifice, truth, art, etc. I love that book so much. Seriously, my favorite book of all time.

Now, where was I… oh, yes, back to this time-suck of a book that really taught me nothing about happiness other than how unhappy I was to be reading it. (Hey, maybe that’s why my Happiness level was so low last month!) I learned more about happiness in one page of Brave New World than I did in the entirety of this book.

As for statistics and studies, I don’t put much stock in them. My problem with statistics is that they lump everything together and they don’t tell the whole story. There is always so much more to something than what a bunch of studies and statistics can say. They end up treating a person like a statistic and not like an individual.

I think putting too much weight in statistics is not beneficial. A lot of people probably like buying a house in the suburbs and commuting to work. You know yourself more than a statistic does (I believe that despite what statistics might tell me about that).

When making big decisions, I do what feels right. Actually, and again, there is more to the story than any one bit of information, there is probably more to it than that: I will examine the issue. I will ask people and weigh out the pro and cons. I’ll pray about it. (I figure, if I pray about it, whatever ends up happening will be what is supposed to happen.) But, ultimately, I will do what feels best. And you know what? It always works out.

I agree with everything you said about people making dumb choices chasing happiness.

In a recent book I read by Chuck Klosterman called But What If We’re Wrong: Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past, he examines how our culturally held beliefs of today will eventually be proven wrong. Think about how we look at people from 50 years ago and can’t imagine how they believed some of the things they did. (What morons they were!) Yet, we can’t see that in ourselves today. We think that we know everything and we have all these facts and figures to prove how right we are about everything. (How smart we people of today are!) But we’re not. That’s part of the reason why I don’t get too caught up with studies and statistics.


12 Replies to “Stumbling Over Statistics And Studies In Stumbling On Happiness”

  1. I love Brave New World – a great book – I haven’t read it in years, but when I did, I couldn’t put it down!

    I’ll have to check out, “But what if we’re wrong” – sounds fascinating and it would be interesting to me given I love statistics and expanding my thinking.

    Thanks for sharing.
    Erik @ The Mastermind Within recently posted…The Richest Man in BabylonMy Profile

    1. Looking through the reviews — many of the 5 star variety were from Brits who’d never been before: “..We thought it was lovely, all meals come with as many bread sticks as you’d like plus either soup or salad. Amazing choice of pastas, this was our best meal we had in NYC” …

      On the other hand, some foreign visitors who apparently didn’t realize it was a chain were … disappointed:

      “…But I love Italian food, had been to Italy and that is definetly NOT a Bruschetta. The bread was warmed up, not tosted. And the “filling” was prepered long time before and stored at the fridge, because it was very cold. And there a black stuff on top of it that I could not figure it out what it was….”

      Rich @ recently posted…Are Stocks In A Bubble? And Why Do Engineers Retire Early? — Rich’s RamblingsMy Profile

  2. haven’t heard of this book before. Sounds interesting. I didn’t realize you guys were renters. I’d be interested to know more about the reasons behind that as it is something I am always thinking about going back to.

  3. Yep — currently we are overseas and our housing is paid for by our company. When back in the States, we rent. I’ll write a post on it sometime. The short version is this:
    1- We rent for location — apartment amenities, urban activities, a walkable neighborhood, and a short commute.
    2- Buying in our area would either be very expensive (750K – 1MM) minimum) or would require moving out to the burbs (poor location).
    3- We have a “home base” in the US but move every 3-4 years for our company, so mobility is ok.
    4- We like the simplicity of 1200 square feet. Easy to maintain and helps us avoid buying too much stuff!
    Rich @ recently posted…The Helicopter Parenting Paying For College FINAL SHOWDOWN (or, Part 3)My Profile

  4. Stats do provide a frame of reference though. THe problem with doing what feels right is that “feelings” are often wrong. For example, if you jump right into a marriage without taking the necessary precautions (e.g. a prenup), things can go really sour since 1/3 of all marriages end in divorce.

    1. Good point … but in my opinion a statistic can be first-level thinking devoid of implicit consequences. The prenup example is an interesting one, because if we grant that marriage can be difficult to maintain, it is precisely a combination of human “feelings” and skin in the game that can keep a marriage together. If you diminish the emotional aspect even a little and provide yourself an easier way out (well, I have the prenup, so the divorce may not cost me as much), you may have given yourself less incentive to work through marital difficulties. So that which you were trying to protect yourself against (divorce) became slightly more likely, almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

      Just my opinion but I think a full joining of finances in marriage can be a benefit, both to the marriage and to finances. If you’re not combining your finances for shared goals and so on, I’d start to wonder why you want to be married in the first place. Just live together and forgo the commitment to a union.
      Rich @ recently posted…Monthly Money Check: Penny Racked Up $898 In Birthday Freebies — March 2017My Profile

  5. “that humans are not good at predicting / imagining what their future selves will want.”
    This is a good one. When I think back of what I wanted as a 15 or 25 year old, and what I have now and want now, there is a big gap. Too many moving parts…

    That is why I like FI – the freedom it brings

    Funny you mention buying a house you do not want to live in at age 60. We now think we will move out when we get older, to have a smaller house, fitting our needs at that age. At this point in live, we are happy with the house. Especially now that the kids enjoy the garden more. Last week, they took me lk on a trip to a secret passage they found. I really felt great to see them grow up and explore the garden fully.
    Amber tree recently posted…Interview #11 – Roadmap2RetireMy Profile

    1. Thanks for the comment Amber. We currently live in a house provided by our company, and I love having a garden for now. When we move back to the US, we will be in an apartment, which has its own pros and cons. I think what we really enjoy is the freedom to move rather easily if factors change over time.

      Several years ago we were renting a house in a nice neighborhood, but after 2 years the commute was wearing on us and the house was starting to show its age. So we decided to move to an apartment. Many people dislike moving but for us, it was not a big deal, and for a couple thousand dollars our quality of live improved quickly and substantially. It’s freedom even before FI …
      Rich @ recently posted…Rich’s Plan To Build A Generational Family Legacy. Uh, Yeah, In 3 Easy Steps!My Profile

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