Describing Happiness: 5 Reasons Why It’s So Difficult

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Stumbling on Happiness" by Daniel Gilbert. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Have you ever tried to describe happiness to someone? Why is it so difficult to discuss happiness in an objective way?

Daniel Gilbert, Harvard professor and the author of Stumbling on Happiness, theorizes that happiness is difficult to describe and discuss for five specific reasons. Gilbert further theorizes that most of the time people don’t even realize when they’re happy or unhappy, which complicates the issue further.

Here’s why it’s difficult to objectively discuss and describe happiness.

Talking About Happiness

Have you ever wondered why you so often regret the decisions you make about what to do in the future? In Stumbling on Happiness, Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert points out that our imaginations (our capacity to envision the future and speculate about what will make us happiest), memories, and perceptions of the present are highly subjective and inaccurate. When we make choices about our futures based on this inaccurate information, those choices end up hindering our future happiness. For this reason, it seems that we more often stumble on happiness than successfully create it.

Gilbert found that during moments of adversity in his life, he was incapable of understanding that his unhappiness would pass and that life would go back to normal—in other words, he was fabricating a dark vision of the future that didn’t reflect what it would truly be like. He embarked on a journey to discover why he was unable to accurately predict the future (and how he’d feel about it), and his research in this area became the basis for his book.

Let’s now cover the five reasons Gilbert believes it’s difficult to discuss happiness objectively:

Reason #1: Happiness Isn’t Concrete

According to Gilbert, the first reason it’s difficult to talk about happiness is that you can’t describe happiness unless you reference something else. You can only talk about happiness by saying what makes you happy or what happiness is like. You can’t concretely say what happiness itself is.

For instance, you might explain to a friend that the happiness you felt when your fiancé proposed was like the feeling of awakening to a warm spring morning, or you might show them a picture of your delighted face in an engagement photo. You can’t, however, describe your happiness without these references. 

(Shortform note: Gilbert contends that it’s difficult to describe happiness without using external comparisons. However, researchers have been able to discern with more ease what makes you happy: In the seminal Harvard Study of Adult Development, which tracked the health and well-being of 268 Harvard students over the course of 80 years, researchers found that having strong relationships was the greatest predictor of happiness.) 

Reason #2: Sometimes, We’re Only Happy About Something

Another reason why Gilbert believes it’s hard to describe happiness is that sometimes, we say we’re happy, but we’re only happy about something. Being happy is different from being happy “about,” which is commenting on someone else’s happiness or the potential to be happy. 

For instance, you probably aren’t happy that your neighbor left their dogs with you while they vacation in Hawaii, but you might say you’re happy about the fact that they’re taking a break. In this case, you’re commenting on your neighbor’s happiness, rather than experiencing happiness directly. Later, you might say you’ll be happy about their return—you’re not happy now, but you’re commenting on your potential future happiness.

(Shortform note: Gilbert proposes that feeling happy about something isn’t the same as being happy. In fact, when you say you’re happy for someone or about something, you might even be feeling the opposite of happiness: anger or envy. For example, if your neighbor leaves their dog with you while they go to Hawaii, you might feel anger over having more responsibility. When this occurs, balance out your negative feelings with positive ones by refraining from comparing yourself to the other person. This reduces unhappiness that arises when you feel others have it better than you.) 

Reason #3: We Confuse Happiness With Virtue

Gilbert writes that we further struggle to talk about happiness because we often confuse virtuous behavior—which only leads to happiness—for happiness itself. You might thus think you’re automatically happy when doing virtuous volunteer work at a soup kitchen. But this isn’t true: You can volunteer virtuously for years, but if you don’t enjoy the work, you won’t feel genuine happiness. You’ll only be making other people—the users of the soup kitchen—happy through your behavior.

(Shortform note: Gilbert argues that virtuous behavior isn’t tantamount to happiness. Others go even further to argue that if you act virtuously with the expectation of it making you happy, it reduces the virtue of the act. In Skin in the Game, Nassim Nicholas Taleb proposes that the smaller the reward you receive personally for a virtuous act, the more virtuous it is. Indeed, virtuous behavior should make you somewhat uncomfortable, he says, because it should require you to make a sacrifice or take a risk.) 

Reason #4: We Use Different Scales to Describe Happiness

Another reason it’s hard to speak about and compare levels of happiness, writes Gilbert, is that we all have different scales by which we measure happiness, yet none of us know what the other person’s scale is. Therefore, we might unknowingly describe the same amount of happiness in different terms.

Here’s an example to illustrate this: You and your friend go to a doughnut shop and eat the same plain doughnut. You both have the same experience of the doughnut (five units of fun, say), but afterward, you exclaim it was “awesome!” while your friend says it was “okay.” 

Gilbert writes that the explanation for this would be that your friend has had better doughnuts in the past that created, say, seven units of happiness, meaning comparatively, this “five units of happiness” doughnut merits only an “okay.” You, on the other hand, have only ever eaten worse doughnuts that created less happiness (say, two units of happiness). You describe this one as “awesome!” because compared to your previous experiences, it seems amazing on your “happiness scale,” even if it only really creates mid-level happiness.

(Shortform note: We might also look to culture and language to explain why different people describe things differently. American English is notoriously hyperbolic, and Americans use explosive words where other cultures use milder ones. An “awesome!” to an American might correspond to a mere “fine” from a British person. To be accurately understood in a different culture, you might need to adopt the level of hyperbole common to that culture. An English person new to a job in the States might need to begin using words like “amazing” and “excellent” when they would have previously just used the word “fine.”)

Reason #5: We Might Not Register That We’re Happy

The last reason it’s hard to describe happiness is that sometimes, you’re not aware you’re happy, writes Gilbert. This is because the part of your brain that processes experience—the experience of happiness or anger, for instance—is separate from the part of your brain that develops awareness of the experience—the conscious knowledge that you’re happy or angry. You can therefore have a physiological experience of happiness but not register that you’re happy, explains Gilbert. 

(Shortform note: Gilbert asserts that you don’t always know when you’re happy. Still, you can take steps to improve your awareness of your emotional state by meditating. Meditation helps you be more present with your thoughts and feelings when they come up. During meditation, you can even pose questions to yourself to become more in tune with your inner experience and promote further happiness. You might ask yourself what you’re trying to accomplish in life now and what obstacles are in your way. This can make you both more aware of your feelings (for instance, frustration about the obstacles) and also of potential solutions to problems that can make you happier.)

Describing Happiness: 5 Reasons Why It’s So Difficult

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Daniel Gilbert's "Stumbling on Happiness" at Shortform .

Here's what you'll find in our full Stumbling on Happiness summary :

  • A look at how your brain fabricates your reality leading you to make bad decisions
  • The six specific types of bad choices people make
  • How to improve your decision-making in the future

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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