Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert says our beliefs about what will make us happy are often wrong — a premise he supports with intriguing research, and explains in his accessible and unexpectedly funny book, Stumbling on Happiness.

Why you should listen

Dan Gilbert believes that, in our ardent, lifelong pursuit of happiness, most of us have the wrong map. In the same way that optical illusions fool our eyes -- and fool everyone's eyes in the same way -- Gilbert argues that our brains systematically misjudge what will make us happy. And these quirks in our cognition make humans very poor predictors of our own bliss.

The premise of his current research -- that our assumptions about what will make us happy are often wrong -- is supported with clinical research drawn from psychology and neuroscience. But his delivery is what sets him apart. His engaging -- and often hilarious -- style pokes fun at typical human behavior and invokes pop-culture references everyone can relate to. This winning style translates also to Gilbert's writing, which is lucid, approachable and laugh-out-loud funny. The immensely readable Stumbling on Happiness, published in 2006, became a New York Times bestseller and has been translated into 20 languages.

In fact, the title of his book could be drawn from his own life. At 19, he was a high school dropout with dreams of writing science fiction. When a creative writing class at his community college was full, he enrolled in the only available course: psychology. He found his passion there, earned a doctorate in social psychology in 1985 at Princeton, and has since won a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Phi Beta Kappa teaching prize for his work at Harvard. He has written essays and articles for The New York Times, Time and even Starbucks, while continuing his research into happiness at his Hedonic Psychology Laboratory.

What others say

“Gilbert's elbow-in-the-ribs social-science humor is actually funny. ... But underneath the goofball brilliance, [he] has a serious argument to make about why human beings are forever wrongly predicting what will make them happy.” — New York Times Book Review

Dan Gilbert’s TED talks

Dan Gilbert on the TED Blog
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Live from TED2014

Nuclear fission reactors, Africa’s Einsteins and the healing power of nature: A recap of “Beauty and the Brain,” All-Stars Session 2 at TED2014

March 19, 2014

By Liz Jacobs and Thu-Huong Ha Our brains work in mysterious ways. They make us laugh, they make us cry, and sometimes, they make us 19-year old geniuses. The 11 speakers in this All-Stars session specialize in areas of the brain as diverse as personality, trauma and gender, but they all agree: Our minds matter. […]

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Choosing and buying happiness

December 17, 2008

There’s a fascinating conversation going on right now around Dan Gilbert’s latest TEDTalk, “Exploring the frontiers of happiness,” posted yesterday. In the talk, Gilbert goes into detail on his research into choice, satisfaction and happiness. Several commenters are suggesting the headline is inaccurate, because the talk isn’t about happiness, per se, as much as about […]

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Quotes from Dan Gilbert

Natural happiness is what we get when we get what we wanted, and synthetic happiness is what we make when we don’t get what we wanted. In our society, we have a strong belief that synthetic happiness is of an inferior kind.
Dan Gilbert
TED2004 • 9.6M views Sep 2006
Fascinating, Informative
Synthetic happiness is every bit as real and enduring as the kind of happiness you stumble upon when you get exactly what you were aiming for.
Dan Gilbert
TED2004 • 9.6M views Sep 2006
Fascinating, Informative
Forgive me, for those of you who play the lottery — but economists, at least among themselves, refer to the lottery as a stupidity tax, because the odds of getting any payoff by investing your money in a lottery ticket are approximately equivalent to flushing the money directly down the toilet.
Dan Gilbert
TEDGlobal 2005 • 2.3M views Dec 2008
Informative, Fascinating