The surprising tale of a famous alumnus

Gilbert blazes path to happiness expert at Harvard, Prudential spokesman, and best-selling author

January 16, 2017

Harvard University Professor Daniel Gilbert, PhD, scrunches his brow in worry when a student tells him that she’s got her whole post-college life mapped out. Gilbert knows from personal experience that much of what makes life enjoyable are things he couldn’t possibly foresee.

“Here I am a psychologist. I got into it by damn accident,” the CU Denver alumnus says by phone from Cambridge, Mass. “If map making had been open that day instead of psychology, I’d probably be a cartographer.”

He’s referring to a random, life-changing day in the late 1970s when Gilbert, a high school dropout from Chicago, found himself, after extensive hitchhiking and guitar strumming, living in suburban Denver. He was all of 18 and already married and raising a child. An aspiring science-fiction writer, Gilbert hopped a bus one day to the Auraria Campus to enroll in creative writing at Community College of Denver. The class was full, however, prompting him to ask, “What else have you got?” The woman at the registration desk said the psychology class had an opening.

CU Denver alumnus Daniel Gilbert
Harvard Professor Daniel Gilbert got his start as a psychology student at CU Denver. He has gone on to become a world-renowned social psychologist researcher, lecturer and author.

Just then, Gilbert — who went on to become the author of the bestselling book “Stumbling on Happiness” as well as the affable, bespectacled star of those TV spots for Prudential — sustained a whopper of a stumble. It happened here at CU Denver.

And it’s led him to … well, you guessed it. “What better example could there be?” he says cheerfully. “Indeed, a lot of life is stumbled upon.”

After signing up for another psychology class, and excelling, the instructor suggested Gilbert pursue the subject at the university level. He took his GED and applied to CU Denver. “It was going to be there or nowhere, and they let me in. That’s how I got into psychology, and got the rest of the dominos falling.”

‘He’s changing the world’

The dominos are substantial as Gilbert has become a world-renowned social psychologist researcher, lecturer and author. University of Chicago Professor Linda Ginzel, who graduated three years behind Gilbert at CU Denver and, by coincidence, followed him to graduate school at Princeton University, sums it up: “Dan Gilbert is a masterful scholar. He is changing the world through his research.”

Fueling his professional passion were two professors in the Department of Psychology in the  College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at CU Denver. The late Gary Stern, who was also an inspiration to Ginzel, introduced Gilbert to social psychology. “He was a mesmerizing lecturer, and I sat there with rapt attention every class, thinking, ‘Oh my god, how do people know this?’ I was 18, and (Professor Stern) looked to me like the guy I wanted to be.” Carolyn Simmons (now retired) was another professor-mentor. “She was a very warm and wise presence who took me under her wing and made me a teaching assistant while I was an undergrad.”

Just like most current-day CU Denver students, Gilbert held down a job while going to school. He worked as a phlebotomist at Rose Medical Center from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. five days a week. “I timed it so all my classes would be over by early afternoon,” he says. “Looking back 40 years later, I must not have slept.”

‘Major epiphany’

It didn’t much matter, because in class Gilbert’s mind was awakened to the fact that questions he’d often pondered – Why do humans behave as they do? Why does the mind work like it does? Why are people so poor at predicting what will make them happy? – had real answers. “It was a major epiphany,” he says, “that you could do experiments and answer questions that people had been asking themselves for 2,000 years.”

Daniel Gilbert at speaking engagement
Daniel Gilbert, PhD, delivered one of the most-popular TED talks of all time — “The Surprising Science of Happiness.”

After earning several Merit Prizes at Princeton University, where he received his doctorate, Gilbert went on to become a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin. He has been a faculty member at Harvard University since 1996.

Much of Gilbert’s research examines how humans exhibit an innate knack for happiness, but aren’t terribly astute about predicting their future levels of happiness. No matter the adversities they face, he discovered, people manage to reason their way to the sunnier side of the emotional spectrum. Yet they typically overestimate the intensity and duration of their emotional reactions to setbacks.

He summarized some of these findings in one of the most-popular TED talks of all time; “The Surprising Science of Happiness” has been seen by more than 15 million people. “Stumbling on Happiness,” which entertainingly distills decades of research by Gilbert and his collaborator Tim Wilson, spent six months on the New York Times bestseller list, and “This Emotional Life,” a TV series Gilbert hosted and co-wrote for PBS, was watched by more than 10 million in its first airing.

Memorable dinner in Denver

While a fascination for gathering factual information drives him, Gilbert is also a gifted storyteller who presents hard data, as well as personal anecdotes, in engaging and, often, humorous ways.

Another story from his CU Denver days: Gilbert remembers telling Professor Stern about his graduate-school applications to Harvard, Yale, Princeton and several other top-level universities. “Gary said, ‘Well, if you get into any of those I’ll take you to dinner.’ I said, ‘What if I get into all of them?’ Gary said, ‘Then, I’ll be your dinner.’ So, a few months later, I showed up at his door with a knife in one hand and a fork in the other and said, ‘It’s time for you to be my dinner.’”

Gilbert doesn’t recall the restaurant in which they dined, but the fancy white tablecloths and bottle of wine stand out as highlights.

‘I love it’

Meanwhile, the professorial visions he conjured decades ago as a pupil in Stern’s and Simmons’s classes at CU Denver have come to pass. Gilbert has himself become a mesmerizing lecturer, evidenced by his regular appearance on Harvard students’ annual list of “favorite professors.” Asked which he prefers more, research or teaching, Gilbert doesn’t miss a beat: “That’s like asking which of my teeth I love most? I love them both and would never give either of them up.”

He says there are fewer greater joys than introducing a field of wonders – “The mysteries of stars and molecules are interesting, but they don’t compare to the mysteries of us,” the professor enthuses – to students who are fresh out of high school. Gilbert sees their eyes widen as he shares insights from his years of research; he oversees a psychology research lab, where students regularly assist in studies, at Harvard. “They learn about the amazing secrets this field has uncovered in its century of existence,” Gilbert says. “They get to have the experience that I had when I heard Gary and Caroline giving lectures. I love it.”

Given that he enjoys variety — teaching, researching, writing, hosting TV shows, starring in commercials (in the latter, he addresses the psychological obstacles to saving for retirement) – the chat with Gilbert ends with a future-leaning question: What do you foresee doing next in your career?

“I don’t like to do the same thing twice,” Gilbert says, hinting at a too-early-to-disclose TV project. “I don’t know what’s next – maybe a rock opera? Whatever comes my way, I will enjoy doing it.”