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Stumbling on Happiness — Daniel Gilbert

The major takeaway from many of the recent behavioral economics and psychology books that have come out, like Predictably Irrational, The Logic of Life, The Time Paradox, and now Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness, is that we don’t understand ourselves nearly as well as we think we do and simultaneously misinterpret how we should act. The rational actor imagined in the Enlightenment doesn’t seem to be as real as he or she once did.

Stumbling on Happiness is an excellent contribution to this major idea, and the book is better written and better researched than virtually anything else that might be nominally placed in the “self-help” category; indeed, his might be better considered a book about psychology for laymen, and, like Philip Zimbardo, Gilbert manages the transition from research paper to popular book well. Sometimes minor factual issues get in the way of his point, which he often likes to make in a way that can seem glib but is really essential for the “zing” of transmission discussed elsewhere. For example, in the afterward Gilbert writes that “Calculating such odds [regarding future actions based on present conditions] is relatively straightforward stuff, which is why insurance companies get rich by doing little more than estimating the likelihood that your house will burn down, your car will be stolen, and your life will end early.” Except that insurance companies don’t make money primarily for that reason: they make money because they give individuals an out from losses they couldn’t afford to bear alone and because while individual variation is enormous, collective variation is less so. The casino knows nothing about one spin of the roulette wheel, but they know everything about ten million spins.

Maybe it’s unfair to focus on the negative at the front of this essay regarding a throwaway economic observation because Gilbert does so many things right. He helps us think about the way we think about ourselves thinking, consider how we might respond to experiments, and know the potholes in our own mental functioning—like the gap between how we anticipate we’ll feel upon achieving something and how we tend to actually feel. We’re always constructing images of ourselves and anticipating a future that seldom happens as we think it will:

We insist on steering our boats because we think we have a pretty good idea of where we should go, but the truth is that much of our steering is in vain—not because the boat won’t respond, and not because we can’t find our destination, but because the future is fundamentally different than it appears through the prospectiscope.

Given how much humans are good at, the question becomes why we chronically make mistake that we ought to have the cognitive power to realize. But it’s taken until the last few decades for that cognitive power to be applied in ways that do make us realize those mistakes, and it will no doubt take much, much longer for such ideas to diffuse throughout society and the media. Then again, even Gilbert might be making a bias mistake, because it’s not clear how much of his research applies to all humans, or just to humans raised in Western cultures; there might be a bias in that general direction, which he acknowledges in a few places. Still, his big ideas fascinate, as when he says that “… human beings come into the world with a passion for control, they go out of the world the same way, and research suggests that if they lose their ability to control things at any point between their entrance and their exit, they become unhappy, helpless, hopeless, and depressed.” We need control but don’t always exercise it well.

For example, maybe we need to gork how the hedonic treadmill can make us crazed, how unlikely we are to understand what we’ll enjoy (like children (and the double meaning of this is intentional)), and how important it is to stop worrying about what’s outside our ken and start focusing on things that matter to us—and how to expand that ken. Of course, the big problem is that understanding what matters to us isn’t something we’re very good at, just as understanding that we’ll not be as devastated by not getting the job, lover, or acceptance letter we want probably won’t be as important as we imagine it to be. I’m mimicking a Gilbertian habit in the preceding sentence, because he likes cataloging items. At one point, he says that “people often value things more after they own them than before, they often value things more when they are imminent than distant, they are often hurt more by small losses than by large ones, they often imagine that the pain of losing something is greater than the pleasure of getting it, and so on.” Some of those lists are more entertaining than this one because he’ll slip something unexpected in, and the technique itself is useful because he often then goes on to innumerate what exactly he means by each item, given each paragraph, section, and chapter the best of academic structure without the irritating nattering that academic writing often entails.

One such flaw stood out because I might suffer from it. Gilbert says that “committed owned attend to a car’s virtues and overlook its flaws, thus cooking to the facts to produce a banquet of satisfaction…”, making me wonder if I do the same regarding computers, since I’ve mentioned mine, along with their peripherals, several times on this blog. Naturally, I think I’ve made a sound decision and continually evaluate it based on new information, but Gilbert makes me doubt myself—which is a compliment to him—and puts the endless OS X vs Windows vs Linux flamewars in a new context of people tending to talk past one another more than engage in a Platonic or journalistic ideal of objectivity.

It’s useful to note that most of Gilbert’s recommendations are implicit, like the one above; he isn’t necessarily outright demanding anything, except knowledge, which is what most good teachers seem to do; he lets readers figure out what it means to implement advice, and the closing of Stumbling on Happiness fits its theme:

There is no simple formula for finding happiness. But if our great big brains do not allow us to go surefootedly into our futures, they at least allow us to understand what makes us stumble.

The quest to see the obstacles might itself make us stumble at times: we can make ourselves happy by believing that we should be happy, wherever we are and in whatever circumstances we’re in. The question is, why don’t we? Or, rather, why don’t we more often than we do, since dissatisfaction can be a keen motivator for working toward change. But many of us who live in the western world and are beset by existential malaise despite living with material circumstances unparalleled in human history. Now we need guides like this one because the formulas we imagine for success, like wealth, status symbols, and the like, don’t seem to work. Gilbert says that “The greatest achievement of the human brain is its ability to imagine objects and episodes that do not exist in the realm of the real, and it is this ability that allows us to think about the future.” The downside is that we have no surefooted path into the future, and Stumbling on Happiness tells us that’s okay, provided we have the tools to confront that future.

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