City of Girls — Elizabeth Gilbert

City of Girls is Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book, and it’s well-summarized by its protagonist’s comment on a play: “To my mind, there was never anything better than those simple, enthusiastic revues. They made me happy. They were designed to make people happy without making the audience work too hard to understand what was going on.” If you want a fun story about being young in the 1940 – 1960 area, with lots of sporting that doesn’t involve a foot-, basket-, soccer-, or ping-pong ball, this is that book. Had someone less famous written it, it likely wouldn’t have been noticed, but that’s not the case, so it has been, or is being, noticed. There’s some weak prose and many interesting moments, and the beginning effectively and rightly tells you not to work too hard, only for you to realize by the end that you’ve been deceived. It tells you not to work too hard and to have fun instead frequently: “People will tell you not to waste your youth having too much fun, but they’re wrong. Youth is an irreplaceable treasure, and the only respectable thing to do with irreplaceable treasure is to waste it,” lest you forget. And it lulls you. I was lulled. In a lot of books, characters focused on frivolous and intense pleasures get a comeuppance; in this one, they just have a good time, a bit like Funny Girl.

There’s a lot of great dialogue, which I can be a sucker for:

“Isn’t it your theater, Peg?”
“Technically, yes. But I can’t do anything without Olive, Billy. You know that. She’s essential.”
“Essential but bothersome.”
“Yes, but you are only one of those things. I need Olive. I don’t need you. That’s always been the difference between you.”

Almost no character says what they mean and means what they say, delightfully. Yet early comedy moves into later pathos, and this is a paragraph, from the end of the novel, expressing ideas we see expressed too infrequently in the Internet, social media age:

In that moment, I felt overcome by a sense of mercy—not only for Frank, but also for that younger version of myself. I even felt mercy for Walter, with all his pride and condemnation. How humiliated Walter must have felt by me, and how dreadful it must have been for him to feel exposed like that in front of someone he considered a subordinate—and Walter considered everyone a subordinate. How angry he must have been, to have to clean up my mess in the middle of the night. Then my mercy swelled…

It seems there are many stories passed around online that could do with a little bit of mercy and understanding—thoughts and emotions hard to fit into a Tweet. Twitter is low-context medium, novels are full of context, and life has the most context of all, if we can notice it.

The playhouse where most of the novel occurs is like a startup: “I had nobody to report to and nothing was expected of me. If I wanted to help out with costumes, I could, but I was given no formal job.” Except in a startup, every duty is expected of everyone, but the lack of formality is because without constant effort, nothing happens. There are things I didn’t know exist—what exactly are “doeskin trousers?” The eye for fashion is novel to me. It’s not a type of leather, as I’d assumed: “It is similar to duvetyn, but lighter; usually softer and less densely napped than melton.” That clears things right up.

Most of all, City of Girls is about what it means to be a child versus an adult—an idea I missed the first time through. The adults pay for their fun with personal responsibility; the kids don’t, or don’t quite, and learn to deal with responsibility for frivolity and pleasure. Vivian is a kind of early Karley Sciortino, without some aspects of sex-positive modern culture to fall back on.

The book is humane: it doesn’t feel political and almost none are purely types; the absence of outright villains and heroes refreshes. The characters’s many weaknesses are not signs of evil, but signs of humanity. Weaknesses don’t cancel a person’s existence, particularly because weaknesses are often the flipsides of strengths. On some level these points are obvious, yet we seem to forget them easily, particularly but not exclusively on the Internet.


A so-so interview with Gilbert.

On what makes people happy, from Daniel Kahneman:

Our poor intuitions about the pursuit of happiness are a genuine paradox. Daniel Kahneman summarizes decades of happiness research this way: “It is only a slight exaggeration to say that happiness is the experience of spending time with people you love and who love you.”

(Emphasis in original.)

[. . .] it’s not just survey data that confirms the horror of rush hour. A few years ago, the Swiss economists Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer outlined a human bias they called “the commuting paradox.” They found that, when people are choosing where to live, they consistently underestimated the pain of a long commute. As a result, they mistakenly believed that the McMansion in the suburbs, with its extra bedroom and sprawling lawn, will make them happier, even though it might force them to drive an additional forty-five minutes to work. It turns out, though, that traffic is torture, and the big house isn’t worth it.

Both quotes come from “Does Money Make You Unhappy?” (hat tip Penelope Trunk). Strangely, Jonah Lehrer doesn’t mention Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, until the very end. Since reading Stumbling on Happiness, I’ve been pointing out these points from it to various people in various contexts:

  • making more than about $40,000 / year does little to improve happiness (this should probably be greater in, say, New York, but the main point about the diminishing returns of additional income for most people remains)
  • most people value friends, family, and social connections more than additional money above around $40K/year
  • your sex life probably matters more than your job, and many people mis-optimize in this area
  • making your work meaningful is important, although this means different things to different people

I consciously think about this book when making my own life choices, and this is also the kind of valuable insight that seemingly never gets taught in schools.

I have some theories about why so many people screw this up, but they aren’t well-developed enough to write about. Yet.

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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