Daniel Gilbert is a psychologist and author who is best known for his book Stumbling on Happiness, which explores the science of why we are often poor predictors of what will make us happy. Gilbert has also conducted extensive research on the role of emotions in decision-making. The TED talks he has performed over the years are among some of the most popular. Daniel Gilbert is also the author of Stumbling on Happiness, a book that was described by New Scientist as ‘A witty, insightful and superbly entertaining trek through the foibles of human imagination’.
In addition to his academic accomplishments, Daniel Gilbert is also a popular public speaker, and he has appeared on numerous television shows. Throughout his career, Daniel Gilbert has established himself as one of the world’s leading experts on happiness, and his work has helped to change the way we think about our emotions and our choices.
Please enjoy our interview with Daniel Gilbert…
How would you describe what makes us truly happy to a child?
Children think they’ll be happy if they get what they want, and it takes some time for them to learn that their desires are not always good predictors of their satisfaction. Funny you should ask because I’ve just written a children’s book on this very topic. It’s called If That’s What You Want… and should appear in Spring 2023.
What is something about you that people might find surprising?
I am an introvert. Because I enjoy performing—whether on television, in a classroom, or on a stage—and because I’m naturally garrulous and at ease in social situations, people think I am a four-alarm extravert. But extraversion and introversion are not capacities so much as affinities. They aren’t about what you can do, they are about what you like to do. And the fact is, that I really like being alone. A perfect day involves reading, writing, thinking, biking, and listening to music—all unsullied by human company. Except for my wife, of course. (Hi sweetie!).
I’m reading The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman. I just finished a string of books by Ian McEwan, Jonathan Franzen, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Richard Powers, so I guess I just wanted to hear a woman’s voice for a change. So far, I’m very glad I did.
When did you first become interested in the subject of happiness specifically?
One answer is that happiness is the only thing that anyone is ever interested in. Epicurus and I agree on that. But you probably meant “When did you get interested in studying happiness?” and the answer to that question is 1992 when a friend and I had lunch and discovered that in the months since we’d last seen each other (a) we’d both experienced a long list of negative life events (divorces, deaths, and so on), and (b) we were both happier than we would have predicted. I went away from that lunch wondering why people are so bad at predicting what will and won’t make them happy—and then I spent the next thirty years trying to answer that question.
The Overstory by Richard Powers. I was having lunch with Michael Pollan and we were talking about whether stories can ever induce the same “perspective shifts” that hallucinogens do. Michael mentioned The Overstory because it allows readers to experience the world from a tree’s point of view. So I bought it and read it in a single sitting. It was that riveting. It wasn’t much like taking LSD, but it was one of the most profound, brilliant, and beautifully written works of fiction I’ve ever read. His Pulitzer was well-deserved.
What advice would you give to a young aspiring psychologist looking to begin their career?
The only reward for being a scientist is the joy of doing the work well, so if you sacrifice that to advance your career—for example, by publishing large numbers of stupid papers that no one cares about just so you can get promotions or awards or some other form of external validation—then you are a sucker. You’ve given away the only thing about the job worth having. There are many joyless occupations that would at least make you rich, so if you are going to sacrifice joy, then why not do one of those and retire early to a Caribbean island?
I suspect everyone’s answer to that question is: “Something I read during the critical period of 13- 23 years when my worldview and adult identity were forming.” For me, those two books were Be Here Now by Ram Dass and Ubik by Philip K. Dick.
Both shattered my view of reality, thus forcing me to find a new one. Which I did. By what surely must be a cosmic coincidence, I later had a brief career as a science fiction writer and Phil Dick become a mentor to me, after that I had a much longer career as a psychologist and took the job (psychology professor at Harvard University) that Richard Alpert abandoned in order to become Ram Dass. In short, I read two books as a teenager and then spent the rest of my life following the authors around.
How do you decide on whether a topic is suitable for a book and what are the next steps once you have made that decision?
This question suggests that I write books, plural. I wrote just one. The one and only book I wrote—Stumbling on Happiness—was about the one and only thing I know a lot about, so finding a “suitable topic” wasn’t a difficult decision. I’ve always thought that if you are looking for something to write about, you probably shouldn’t be writing. The best books ask their authors to write them, not the other way around. At least that’s how it was for me.
I read lots of psychology books, typically because the author has asked me to blurb them and I won’t blurb a book I haven’t read. Many of them are fantastic, but the truth is, I’m bored with psychology because I’ve been doing it for so long. The books that thrill me are the books I couldn’t possibly have written myself.
One that I read recently was A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. Yes, I know. Everyone else read it nearly twenty years ago. Shoot me for being late to the game. But now I know what all the fuss was about. No one tells the story of scientific discovery (in this case, of every scientific discovery) more cleverly and engagingly than Bryson does. He’s one of those writers who makes me want to give up writing and stick to reading.
Your TED talks are exceptionally popular, how do you plan for your talks?
TED talks are serious productions that involve rehearsals and staging and teams of assistants, and the ultimate product is often seen by millions. But once upon a time, TED was a small, annual conference in California, and it wasn’t until 2004 that they decided to videotape the talks (because they had some vague idea that it might soon be possible to “put them on the internet”). That was the year I gave my first TED talk, and back then, you just got up on the stage and did your thing. I suspect I didn’t spend more than two hours planning that first TED talk because, in those days, TED talks were casual and somewhat spontaneous.
I am in awe of what TED has become, but honestly, part of me misses the old days. You knew that some talks would be great and some would be stinkers, but every talk would be different from the last, and anything could happen. Today’s TED talks are uniformly excellent, but I tend to find uniformity dull. They’re always good, but they’re always similar in form and style. Do I sound like a duffer grumbling about the good old days? Hey kids, get off my lawn!
If an alien landed in your garden; which three books would you gift them to showcase humanity in the best possible way?
First, I don’t have a garden. Second, why would I want to show humanity in a positive light? Why not tell the alien the truth about us? Good relationships are built on honesty, and what’s more, if the alien learns what’s wrong with us, then maybe they can help us fix it. So which three books? I can’t assume that an alien understands enough about how humans think, feel, and behave to get anything out of a great work of literature, so how about Gray’s Anatomy by Henry Gray to provide information about our construction, a calculus textbook to show that we are capable of discovering universal truths, and The Complete Paintings of Vincent Van Gogh to show that we are capable of recognizing beauty? If the alien went home and reported that our planet was populated by “featherless bipeds that understand derivatives and appreciate sunflowers,” I’d be satisfied.
In the world of psychology, what current research studies are you most excited about?
Research studies are like children: You are always most excited about your own, and you are always most excited about the newest one because it hasn’t had a chance to disappoint you yet. So I’m currently most excited about the studies in the paper I’m currently writing with my collaborators Adam Mastroianni and Tim Wilson called “The illusion of moral decline.” Stay tuned!
Probably Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick—not because he is one of my favorite writers (which he is) and not because it is one of his ten best books (which it is), but because so many people who have seen the movie Blade Runner don’t know that this excellent film is a loose adaptation of a small piece of the much better novel. So this is my “You’ve got to read the book!” book.
Which book sat on your shelf are you most excited about reading next and why?
T. C. Boyle is another one of those writers whose virtuosity makes other writers wonder why they even bother. I’ve read most of his novels and look forward to taking his newest book (Talk To Me) off the shelf (of my Kindle). Boyle often writes about topics with which I have a special historical connection (Drop City is about hippie communes, Budding Prospects is about marijuana farmers, Outside Looking In is about Tim Leary’s LSD experiments, and now everyone knows more about my wayward youth than they probably should). His newest novel focuses on psychology experiments, so you can understand why I’m eager to start. In fact, how about if we stop chatting now so I can get back to reading?
If you enjoyed this interview with Daniel Gilbert, please do check out his website and follow him on Twitter.
If you’ve discovered the reading list of Daniel Gilbert and want more, why not check out our list of the best books on mindfulness.