Using Paradox to Stumble on Happiness

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In "Stumbling on Happiness," Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert delves into the intriguing paradox surrounding the human experience of happiness. One of the key findings is that bad things happening to people can, in some instances, lead to unexpected happiness. Even more so than what are perceived as good things.

Through a careful examination of human psychology and the mechanisms behind our perception of happiness, Gilbert challenges our assumptions about what truly brings us joy and offers actionable insights to navigate this paradox.

The Perception of Happiness:

Gilbert argues that our perception of happiness is often biased and misguided. We tend to overestimate the impact of major events, positive or negative, on our long-term well-being. This cognitive distortion leads us to believe that certain outcomes, such as success, wealth, or personal achievements, will bring us lasting happiness. Conversely, we fear that adversity and unfortunate events will lead to permanent misery.

The Impact of Adaptation:

Human beings possess a remarkable ability to adapt to changing circumstances, both positive and negative. This phenomenon is known as the hedonic treadmill. While major life events may cause temporary spikes or dips in our happiness levels, we invariably return to a baseline level of well-being.

The happiness derived from positive occurrences diminishes over time. The misery caused by adverse events also fades away.

Most notably, humans are very bad at predicting the timeline of these effects. We expect bad feelings to linger much longer than they actually do, and that positive feelings extend long beyond the event that caused it. This leads us to pursue positive events and avoid negative ones much more vigorously than needed.

Finding Happiness in Resilience:

One of the paradoxical elements highlighted in "Stumbling on Happiness" is that individuals can find happiness in their resilience amidst adversity. Gilbert cites research showing that individuals who have faced significant challenges, such as disability or loss, often develop a greater appreciation for life's simple joys and cultivate a deep sense of gratitude. Adversity can foster resilience, leading to personal growth and a newfound capacity to derive happiness from the most unexpected sources. He attributes this phenomenon to what he calls our "emotional immune system."

I can attest to this being true. When I learned about this, it was a huge relief. I had always been ashamed of the idea that I viewed the death of my father as something which had a huge positive impact on my life. I thought it was dishonoring his memory to feel that way, but I couldn't shake the fact that it was true.

The paradox of the worst thing that had ever happened to me being positive was clear: my emotional immune system had kicked in. It wasn't that it was a positive event. It was that it was such an important one that it impacted everything that happened downstream. It taught me so much about myself that I count as my strengths. That was just my brain adapting to the situation and turning it into something that I could deal with, not me tarnishing the memory of my father.

Actionable Insights:

1. Embrace impermanence: Understand that both good and bad experiences are transient. Instead of overly fixating on negative events, recognize that feelings of sadness and discomfort will pass.

2. Cultivate gratitude: Train your mind to appreciate the small pleasures and simple joys of life. Keep a gratitude journal to remind yourself of the positive aspects in your life, even during challenging times. This can trigger the same effect as the emotional immune system without needing the negative events.

3. Focus on meaningful, attainable goals: Realize that successfully achieving a goal will only have a short term effect on your happiness. Make sure the goals you are pursuing are worthwhile and aligned with your values, that way you are always moving in the right direction. If a goal demonstrates itself to be impossible, let it go and reframe instead of senselessly chasing it.

4. Balance expectations: Be aware of the "impact bias" - the tendency to overestimate the emotional impact of future events. Certain achievements or hardships may cause temporary fluctuations in happiness. Long-term contentment is influenced by many things but is driven by your own mindset. This is especially important for trying too hard to avoid negative outcomes because of a fear of the repercussions.


Happiness is about the journey, not the destination. That is so true that even if the journey is fraught with seemingly tragic and negative outcomes, your mind can still adapt to be happy. Relish the moments along the way and stay open to experiences, and the paradox of happiness will take care of the rest.

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