The transition from high school to College was the scariest of my life.
Before going to Cornell, I was a small-town video game-addicted teenager. The first semester at College was chaos. I left my whole 14-person friend group, switched majors, and considered dropping out.
One of the books that helped me most during this time was Stumbling Upon Happiness by Daniel Gilbert. In his book, Gilbert explores the uniquely human ability to retrieve memories of the past, perceive the present, and imagine the future. In this article we are going to explore the three major concepts from the book and the lessons I took from them to become a happier college student:
- Our memories of the past are inaccurate Lesson 1: My Next Few Weeks At College Are Probably Going To Be Better Than I Think They Are
- Our perceptions of the present are skewed Lesson 2: My Way Of Seeing The World Is Different From Other Students, And That's Okay
- Our imaginations of the future are often wrong Lesson 3: I Don't Have To Have My Four Years At College Planned Out
Our Memories Of The Past Are Innacurate
One of Gilbert's major points is that our memories of the past are inaccurate.
People tend to think their memories are quite good. This is because our process for storing experiences in memory is usually unconscious. It only becomes a conscious process when we deliberately try to remember something more deeply.
To understand why we must dive into how we store, remember, and alter memories.
When encoding experiences into memory our mind doesn't take a streamline running video.
It takes snapshots, usually during the peaks and end of an experience. The experience becomes a summary phrase such as ("Playing Minecraft was fun") or a small set of key features (Physics defying lava castle, diamond find, pig slaughtering).In effect our memories of the past are at best broad fallible summaries of the actual experience.
When remembering these broad fallible summaries, we recall the snapshots our brain stored and fabricate a narrative to fill in the sections between.
For example, our memory of going to the zoo becomes a summary: it was hot, and the pandas were cool. Remembering this event years later, we might falsely believe the sun created heat waves and we got ice cream while watching the pandas. These are pretty reasonable assumptions because we remember it was hot.
In essence, our brain weaves together our memory snapshots to create a narrative when remembering.
Finally, every time our brain remembers a memory, it's slightly altered.
This effect is moderated based on our present state, context, and how we would like to see that memory. For example, I might want to remember my mid night peanut butter binge as a healthy bulk for the gym. Over time as I remember that memory more and more, it starts to seem like a positive thing.
All in all, our memories of the past are inaccurate.
This culminates in one insidious effect: we overestimate the recurrence of unusually emotional or rare events.
Infrequent or unusual experiences are often the most memorable. We remember when we got a terrible professor, failed a test, or slogged through a group project. We don't remember the many more times we got a perfectly nice professor, did decently well on a test, or had fun in a group project.
Because these experiences are the most memorable they are more available in our mind, and we falsely believe they are more likely to happen in the future then they are.
Lesson 1: My Next Few Weeks At College Are Probably Going To Be Better Than I Think They Are
This leads to the first major happiness-boosting lesson I learned: My next few weeks at College are probably going to be better than I think they are.
Because of how your memory works, you might assume the next few weeks will be riddled with the difficult things mentioned earlier. But this is based on your inaccurate memories of the past. In reality, your next few weeks at College will be filled with many good moments and a couple of meh ones.
It's going to be better than you think.
When I realized this, I stopped fooling myself into the cognitive trap many college students wrap themselves in called the hamster wheel of death. The hamster wheel of death is the constant wheel of homework, studying, sleep deprivation, and more that students can get stuck on when they don't see any hope for the immediate future. It's mostly a result of believing that the next few weeks will be worse than they will be.
In reality, you might see friends, have a movie night, play video games, and so much more.
Don't let your false memories of the past dissuade you from appreciating the small things in the present.
Our Perceptions of the Present are Skewed
Gilbert's second major lesson is that our perception of the present is skewed.
Most people think they respond to reality, when in fact they respond to their subjective interpretation of reality.
This is because everyone comes to the same objective situation with different KSAOs, Knowledge, skills, abilities, and other characteristics (KSAOs), where "other" typically includes traits like personality, attitudes, and interests. These differing KSAOs cause people to attend to different things in the same environment. In effect, they take away different subjective interpretations of reality.
Even if they did attend to the same objective stimuli as each other, they would still take away different subjective interpretations.
Gilbert and countless modern cognitive science studies have shown The brain agrees to believe what the eyes see, but the eyes see what the brain believes. Remember earlier how wanting to perceive something a certain way when remembering the past can alter our memory of it? Similarly, wanting to perceive something in the present a certain way literally makes your eyes see things differently.
You see the world the way you want to see it.
Lesson 2: My Way Of Seeing The World Is Different From Other Students, And That's Okay
Understanding this fact led me to the second major happiness-boosting fact I learned: my way of seeing the world is different from other students and that's okay.
Other student's perceive the world differently, and thus it's only natural they will form different opinions than me. Similarly, my opinions result from my unique perceptions of the world. This is making me happier because I no longer have to feel bad just because I see the world differently than others. Instead, I should see it was a learning experience! That's what College is for.
College is an environment for fostering intellectual and social growth.
It brings together a range of diverse, passionate people and exposes them to the greatest ideas of the modern day.
At Cornell the school slogan is literally "any person any study." There are so many people way smarter and more driven than I am. When I first came across these them, I was incredibly intimidated. Who wouldn't be! But now I understand there is nothing inherently wrong about having different opinions than them. They came from different backgrounds and therefore perceive the world differently.
Comparing my ideas, habits, routines, or practically anything would be biased.
This doesn't mean I shouldn't compare but it does mean I can learn from others without a feeling of ineptitude.
Our Imaginations of the Future are Wrong
The third major insight from Gilbert's book is that our imaginations of the future are wrong.
The first reason for this is our present state biases our imaginations of the future. When imagining the future humans tend to extrapolate their present self's state without realizing it.
For example, one semester during the add/drop period at Cornell, I got into a book called Marshal McLuhan's Extending The Mind. After reading it, I was super into the idea of communication and media, so naturally when the add/drop period came later that day, I decided to switch my major and sign up for all communication classes. During the second add/drop period the next semester, I looked at my class decisions with utter confusion: what was I thinking!
I allowed my present state to severely influence my future imagination for a college major.
Human beings are also terrible at imagining how a future event will effect them emotionally.
Say someone asks how badly you would feel if you failed a major test a couple of days after the fail. You would likely overpredict how sad you would be. This is because you're failing to consider all the fantastic things that could happen between failing your test and those two days. Sound familiar? It's the same tendency mentioned earlier for overpredicting how bad the next few weeks will be.
In reality, you will likely feel much better than you think from an emotional event.
Now for the real nail in the coffin.
Remember earlier how we discussed our memories of the past are false? And our perceptions of the present are skewed? These two things combine to form a double whammy because when forming imaginations of the future, we use false memories and skewed perceptions as our foundation.
Our imaginations are doomed to be wrong; we start with faulty foundations.
Lesson 3: I Don't Have To Have My Four Years At College Planned Out
This insight led to my third lesson, which is making me happier at College: I don't have to have my four years at College planned out.
What major should I pick? What career path should I pick in the next fifty years? What classes should I take over the next four years of College?
Questions like these are common among college students but they all require imagining a future.
But as we now know, we aren't good at imagining a future our future selves will probably like; only a future our present selves thinks sounds good.
So I have stopped needing to plan everything down to a tea. I have some long-term goals and a major plan that give me direction, but I understand these plans aren't set in stone. As I change throughout my college experience, my interests will change, and I must be willing to change my plans alongside them. The stress of having to know everything is going away. I can focus some attentional faculties on planning but invest most of it into enjoying the present moment as much as possible.
I feel so much happier as a result.
We, humans, are silly things.
Our memories of the past are inaccurate. Our perceptions of the present are skewed. And our imaginations of the future are often wrong.
In essence, we fail to accurately remember how happy we were in the past or how we can make ourselves happy in the future.