Are We Notoriously Bad at Knowing What Makes Us Happy?

Take a minute to think about it.  Haven’t we all jumped into something — started a new job, moved to a new town, gotten married, retired early — only to find out it wasn’t what we expected.

Fortunately, according to Stumbling on Happiness author Daniel Gilbert, we are far more resilient than we predict.  Unfortunately, Gilbert’s research finds that “most of us spend so much of our lives turning rudders and hoisting sails, only to find that Shangri-la isn’t what and where we thought it would be.”

The Lament For Icarus, by Herbert Draper (1898)

That’s why Gilbert strongly recommends against relying on our limited experiences and our imagination alone when we make decisions. Instead, we should take a closer look into the experience of others. Attempting to rely on our own imagination doesn’t work because we can’t imagine all the pros and cons.  It is significantly better to rely on another human being, someone who is actually doing precisely what you’re considering.  Memories aren’t that reliable either, they fade or are altered by other experiences.  It’s the current experiences that are so valuable. Gilbert goes so far as to say “perhaps we should give up on remembering and imagining entirely and use other people as surrogates for our future selves.”

I think that may be taking a good idea a bit too far, but getting real-world insights from others certainly does make sense.  Firsthand knowledge can help shape our imagination with concrete examples.  Talking to someone who’s doing whatever you might want to do allows you to dig deeper and learn about things you never even considered.

There are no guarantees of course. There are pitfalls to gaining input from others. They might not give you a completely honest response. Your actual experience will be different because the circumstances will be different.  You can talk to one person that loves their job and another person, in the same job, who hates it.  But Gilbert goes so far as to say “the experience of a single randomly selected individual can sometimes provide a better basis for predicting your future experience than your own imagination can.”  (Since this is difficult to believe, and he agrees it was difficult for him too, Gilbert gives a well thought out example in his book.  Refer to page 247.)  His point is that we’re more similar and have more in common with others than we might think.  That’s why their input can be so relevant.

What I find encouraging is that Gilbert points out how easy it is for us to increase our chance to find happiness. All we need to do is find one person that is actively doing whatever it is that we’re considering and talk to them. But will we?  We’ve been relying on our own judgment for so long.  The good news is that most people are typically quite willing to talk about what they’re doing.  And it’s more common to find a mentor to support you all along the way — someone with real-world experience.

So, before you consider jumping from your current job to another one, talk to someone who actually works there.  If you’re considering retiring to Naples, Florida, talk to someone who lives there right now.  Maybe you’re thinking about running for a political office, talk to someone who is currently running.  Sure, they won’t be totally objective, but you’ll have more real-world information to go on.  And a second opinion wouldn’t hurt.

All that said, let’s not lose the adventure.


There are things I’ve done that, had I known all the challenges going in, well, I might never have dared to jump. A little more insight certainly would have increased my happiness factor, especially during the tough spots.  Here’s one of them, where I should have followed Gilbert’s advice before buying a house in France. Instead, all I did was skim a few books. The romantic notion of living part-time in France and a strong dollar was all that was needed. Lost in my imagination of what it would be like, I didn’t pay close attention to the clues. The first one should have been seeing so many partially completed restorations.  Listening to the real estate agents talk about pending divorces should have gotten my attention too. Fortunately, we avoided one potential mistake when my husband had spent a month alone looking for houses.  That firsthand experience avoided buying a place in the countryside, miles away from anyone, where we would have felt too isolated.

After a long search, we bought our “dream home” in a small village in the Loire Valley.  During our first night in that 15th and 19th century house, an unusually strong storm blew in — shaking everything — including our nerves. Buyer’s remorse kicked in.  It was a large house and literally every wall, floor, and ceiling needed to have decades of “improvements” removed or renovated. What’s more, the cultural differences were daunting. We were certainly not French and weren’t even British! We knew nothing about working with limestone walls, slate roofs, or historic preservation regulations. We knew no one other than a British couple who lived 30 minutes away.  And we didn’t speak French. What in hell were we thinking? Fueling our fears,  an introduction to the village mayor ended with “bon courage.”   We knew it wouldn’t be easy; logically we knew there would be challenges, but the magnitude of it all was something we never anticipated.

Le Puy Notre Dame, France

We were fortunate to receive so much help — it’s a true testimony to the kindness in people.  A local French couple really took us under their wing. They helped us find contractors, sort through restoration requirements, and learn about all things French (not to mention enjoying their delicious organic wines).  Our elderly French neighbors are practically family.  And we have friends that have relocated too: from Britain, New Zealand, Holland, etc.  It’s been three years now, and the restoration is nearly done in the main house.  We’re thrilled to have weekly renters. And when we travel back and forth to the US, we know our friends are taking care of the guests, the garden and the house until we return.  Yes, we’re quite lucky it worked out so well.

In hindsight, I should have found a mentor to help me through it all.  Sure, we made friends, but having someone to talk to that knew me, and actually lived overseas part-time too, would have changed a lot.   I would have avoided a few headaches, assimilated into the culture faster, and been happier all around.  I’ve relied on mentors in my business life, but three years ago, it never occurred to me to find one in my personal life. Having a mentor to count on during the early days and months after the initial enthusiasm wore of, yes, that would have made a world of difference.  Next time.


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