Home books Don’t Chase After Happiness: What I Learned from the NYT Bestseller Stumbling on Happiness  

Don’t Chase After Happiness: What I Learned from the NYT Bestseller Stumbling on Happiness  

by Marianne Navada
stumbling on happiness

Stumbling on Happiness is not a self-help book on how to live a happier life. Rather, the author, Daniel Gilbert, a psychologist, walks you through the science behind how the brain processes memories, feelings, and how we imagine the future. When we plan our lives or assess our feelings, we think we know what will bring us happiness, but most of the time, we’re don’t. Most people misjudge what will make them happy in the future. We take on a selective memory to remember our past. Feeling dissatisfied after hours and hours of shopping? It’s probably the ability to return the items that’s affecting your level of satisfaction. Yes, the simple thought that you can change your mind on a purchase can mess with your head. Generally, we are clueless when it comes to assessing how our lives will play out, but this human super power of longterm planning and imagining, has its utility.

As always this book reflection is not meant for you to forgo reading Stumbling on Happiness. I write down my thoughts and what I have learned to hopefully encourage you to cuddle up with this witty and informative work. 


Our level of satisfaction is not as clear-cut as it seems. It has everything to do with our brain. The brain fills in the gaps of our memories and cooks up facts for our own survival

Whether by choosing information or informants, our ability to cook the facts that we encounter helps us establish views that are both positive and credible.

Stumbling on Happiness

We don’t do this intentionally. It’s the way our brain processes information to help us make sense our lives. 

What We Know About Happiness 

We experience happiness. It’s a feeling, and as such, it’s fleeting, so we can’t expect ourselves to be happy 24-7. Additionally, since happiness relies on personal feeling, it’s subjective. We might make assumptions about who feels unhappy (someone who experienced a traumatic incident), but most people get this wrong. When we process our own feelings, we tend to be comparative. We use information that compares our situation to “those who have done poorly” than us. Moreover, we try to find ways to explain why bad things happen to us. 

When we think of happiness, we think of the past, present and future. Our brains selectively pick out memories from the past and our present heavily influences how we forecast our emotional future. We have ideas of where we want to retire, for example. But most of us misjudge what will bing us joy in the future. 

The Past and the Future: What Gives You Pain Also Gives you Joy, Over Time 

If you ask parents, they will say that their children are their source of joy. But survey after survey shows that couples with children see a decrease in happiness level. This means that during the thick of things, when people are busy being parents, they are more miserable than their childless counterparts.

Despite what we read in the popular press, the only known symptom of “empty nest syndrome” is increased smiling.

Stumbling on Happiness

When we remember the past, we highlight the highs, lows, and the unique. As a result, the events that happen the most often get drowned out.

“Because we tend to remember the best of times and the worst of times instead of the most likely of times…” 

Stumbling on Happiness

Big Problems and Little Problems: Psychological Immune System

Our brains want us to thrive in this world. Our psychological immune system “defends the mind against unhappiness”. We rationalize our decisions and events. There is such a thing as a healthy psychological immune system.

“A healthy psychological immune system strikes a balance that allows us to feel good enough to cope with our situation but bad enough to do something about it (“Yeah, that was a lousy performance and I feel crummy about it, but I’ve got enough confidence to give it a second shot”).” 

Stumbling on Happiness

I’m sure you’re heard stories of how a rejection or failure led to someone’s great success. Oprah got fired from her job as a news anchor and Steven Spielberg didn’t get into University of Southern California film school. The point is that if you ask people to write what would enhance their lives right now, no one would think about writing a low point event. But those who have experienced such events look back and find a way to gain from the experience. 

The book explains that our wants, likes, feelings of satisfaction, and happiness, are influenced by what we are presented. A $200 pair of sneakers will most likely seem reasonably priced to you, if the pair next to it costs $500. Most people want freedom, but ability to change our minds can mean we feel less satisfied about what we have. What we THINK we want, our sometimes the things that will give us pain.

Our brains are wired to find balance between optimism and reality. The brain constantly tries to make sense of the world and to let us navigate it. Our frontal lobe, located right on the third eye, allows us to planned think about our future. “The human being is the only animal that thinks about the future.” This expertise can be a source of pleasure, but it is also our source of anxiety. The element of control over our lives can make us feel powerful, but we all know that not everything goes to plan. We’re fairly inaccurate in knowing what our future self would want and need. 

The Takeaway from Stumbling on Happiness

The lesson for me is that happiness is a real feeling and emotion. We should acknowledge it. But perhaps we can’t have happiness to be the direct pursuit in terms of daily life. I’m starting to believe that moving life forward, working towards learning and getting better as a person, and showing up for the people I love—these matter and they bring me happiness. Happiness happens as a result of progress.

The book reminds me that our brains generate our feelings. And to navigate emotions, it helps to listen to them, and problem solve how to get to your preferred state of mind. It’s great that as a society, we openly talk about mental health and happiness. But maybe constantly asking ourselves about our emotional state doesn’t always serve us in the grander scheme of things. We like to think we are in control of our happiness and destiny, but the reality is, we are just blindly stumbling on happiness.

Commit to living.