Book Review: Stumbling on Happiness, The Happiness Track

In this book review:

  • Stumbling on Happiness, by Daniel Gilbert.
  • The Happiness Track, by Emma Sheppala.



What the book is about

Do you know what makes you happy?

No you don't. Don't argue with me, you're wrong! You have NO IDEA!

That's the central message of this book by famed Harvard Psychologist Daniel Gilbert.

In this book, Gilbert presents the central concept that human beings are (i) the only animal that imagines the future and (ii) that we are TERRIBLE at imagining the future.

He then proceeds to provide solid scientific evidence supporting this thesis, and linking it to its impact on happiness: we tend to create an "expectation of a future event and link it to an expectation of a certain level of happiness we believe we will experience once the event happens".

Except that it almost NEVER works out this way: in most cases, we are wrong about the event even happening, which leads us to feel unhappy and potentially depressed and disillusioned. And if the expected event DOES happen, our actual experience of happiness is either non-existent or far weaker than we had anticipated. 

He also presents further evidence that our "memory" of how happy we felt when the event took place is also wrong: we remember feeling much happier than we actually were at the time of the event itself.

He argues that when we do feel happy about something, it's purely a coincidence: we just "stumble" on it.


And that's about it...

What I mean is the following: the author presents these arguments in a fun, scientifically sound, and compelling way. But that's all he does: he does not provide any meaningful suggestions on HOW to use this knowledge to improve one's life or "find happiness".

If you were to believe this theory: we're bad at predicting the future, we attach too many expectations of happiness on the future, we over-estimate how happy we will when the future arrives, and we over-exagerate our memory of how happy we felt afterwards...

And? What am I supposed to do with this knowledge?

That's my first issue with this book.

My second issue with this book is the following: when we sit down daydreaming about the future, imagining how wonderful something can/will be, we (in my personal opinion) actually FEEL HAPPY while doing that. We become more OPTIMISTIC while "imagining" the future, and whether the event does or does not materialize is irrelevant. We felt happy "at that moment in time" when we imagined it, and for me, that's very valuable.

In addition, imagining positive outcomes of the future has been shown in various psychological studies to provide the energy, optimism, discipline and drive to WORK TOWARDS that future. This is why we have vision boards, we write down our goals, etc.

In Conclusion

As you know by now (if you're a regular reader/viewer of my book reviews) that I'm generally not a fan of books that are just "theory" and short on practical tools and techniques to achieve a higher level of performance in "life".

I'm afraid that this book falls in that category.

Is it a bad book? Absolutely not. I did enjoy reading it. It's one of those books which I would love to include in a list for a book club, where we can sit around the table and discuss these theories over a nice wine (red please!) and some dark chocolate.

But is it a book you can draw practical advice from? Nope, I'm afraid it isn't.



What the book is about

We (at least most of us) are all born into a culture that hammers into our psyche the idea that working hard and burning the midnight oil every day of our lives is what earns us a badge of honour and ultimately happiness in life.

In recent years though, I've started noticing that those same people who advocated "hard work at the expense of all else" started making a "u-turn" in their advice as they got older, retired, and perhaps started thinking about "other important things in life".

This is the central concept of this book, by psychologist Emma Seppala: she questions that idea that "hard work at all cost" brings us happiness, and delivers scientific and research-backed evidence that it does NOT.

The first powerful concept she puts forwards is that we "keep chasing the future" at the expense of being happy in the present. She demonstrates how studies have shown that the majority of people "working hard to build a future" end up being miserable while doing it, and never ultimately achieve that happiness they work towards.

The second powerful concept is that we live in a culture which wears stress as a badge of honour. I can certainly relate: as a successful investment banker, there was a time in my life when I (and many of my colleagues) would proudly proclaim that we "thrive under pressure" and that "work stress" was a sign of high achievement. I can tell you now that it's all BS!

She then goes on to present a series of other powerful concepts in the same manner, including the importance of energy management, how doing "nothing" is critical for developing creativity, which in itself will help you get more done in an efficient way. 



While the author does present a number of central concepts demonstrating the fallacy of our "modern" way of pursuing evasive happiness through "hard work", "stress management", etc, what I liked about the book is that she presents clear, arguably better, and practical alternatives to each.

For example, she outlines the evidence on how working "under stress" not only damages our mental and physical health, but also ends up being counter-productive with less work (and lower quality work) being produced. She then goes on to demonstrate that it is virtually impossible to "manage stress", and that we should rather focus on "building resilience" against stress, and thereby limiting the damage it causes. 

She then proceeds to outline strategies and practical tools to do so.

She does that for every idea she puts forward throughout the book: presenting alternatives and practical applications.

In Conclusion

I really enjoyed reading this book and do recommend that you pick it up for 2 main reasons:

1. It presents the principles of how our assumptions about the pursuit of happiness are flawed in a clear and scientifically-backed manner.

2. It presents actionable alternatives which you can start putting into practice TODAY!

This puts it a significant step above many of the books I've read recently, which presented interesting by theoretical concepts, and failed to deliver on the "actionable" part.

Highly recommended.