Stumbling on Happiness
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211 of 270 people found the following review helpful
on June 13, 2006
This book is a mixture of interesting examples of the ways in which our imagination is imperfect, and an imperfect defence of Gilbert's professional world view. The examples are clearly described, and prove engaging and surprising. The world view is presented piecemeal and tendentiously, and when finally extracted from the frothy prose it is less than appealing.
*
Gilbert's world view can be roughly labelled formal hedonism. He upholds the contention that humans are ultimately motivated by the maximization of their own happiness, where happiness is best considered in terms of a felt experience of brief duration - a sensation within a moment. Following from this, a person's happiness over a longer period of time is simply the sum total of the amounts of happiness contained in the moments. In this world view, a person behaves `rationally' when they act to maximize this sum total of happy moments, and they make a `mistake' when they fail to do so. Note that the place of each moment is irrelevant - it is only the total that counts - so to prefer a particular shape to the distribution of one's happiness, in preference to maximizing the overall `amount' of happiness, is irrational. His view is extreme, but it and more sophisticated variants are accepted within academic psychology and economic theory, to the detriment of both. Gilbert slips ambiguously between implying that his is a descriptive theory, that is, he is reporting what humans do in fact want, and implying that it is a normative theory, telling us that this is what we should want (on pain of being irrational).
*
It is in the light of the above world view, and only in this light, that Gilbert sees humans as making `mistakes'. His examples entertainingly show that people are bad at anticipating the amount of momentary happiness they will experience in an anticipated future moment and, for that matter, bad at remembering how happy they felt in a particular moment from the past. Given his presumption that humans are aiming to maximize the sum of their momentary happiness, he laments at our failure.
*
On his account, our failures are systematic, and by uncovering the regularities he hopes to give us a chance to circumvent our mistaken inclinations. The regularties are seen as stemming from various forms of the same basic human limitation, this being our inability to detect the defects in our imagination when envisaging ourselves in the future, or the past, or when trying to step into another person's shoes, be this present, past or future. The defects in turn stem from our imaginations inventing only a small fraction of the novel situations and using our present experience to `fill in' the remaining fraction. Such `filling in' leads to errors, and these errors become nefarious because we fail to detect them. His examples make all of this vivid and humorous.
*
Reading the book is a frustrating experience. Time and again he begins a discussion without telling you why he has chosen to discuss the matter, and, having finished the discussion, he fails to situate it within a broader argumentative structure. The result is that you feel he is waffling, and you anxiously await the next example drawn from psychological studies, since here you will have something solid to consider. Having completed the book, one sees that the unmotivated sections combine to form a haphazard explication of his world view.
*
Thus, at first one can be baffled by his prolonged rumination on whether there is anything substantive to measure when one studies happiness. But he allies measurement with hard science, and the history of psychology can, in part, be seen as a struggle for legitimacy within the sciences. This desire to be considered a scientist also motivates his views regarding happiness being `basically' a momentary felt experience - a more complex view of happiness would render it even more difficult to measure. If his topic is not amenable to experimental method, then he would stand defeated - defeated at least as a scientist.
*
A more general criticism of the book is that Gilbert's thinking is neither clear nor rigorous. At times, it is utterly wrongheaded. Two of a wealth of instances follow.
*
In Chapter 2, The View from in Here, he overtly discusses the fact that happiness might be taken to mean more than a momentary feeling, and mentions two of the many thinkers who explored a more complicated view, namely J.S.Mill and Robert Nozick - here he dismisses their arguments with a wave of his rhetorical hand, and summarizes their `mistake' in the claim, "...philosophers have muddled the moral and emotional meanings of the word `happiness'" - Nozick's argument, in his experience-machine paper, is a powerful attack on the very view which Gilbert espouses - to brand Nozick's thought `muddled' is the height of irony. Relatedly, in this section Gilbert blurs the distinction between happiness being one of the goods in a worthwhile life, and it being the only good. Bear in mind that the latter is his professed position - it is, however, intuitively unattractive, so he blurs the distinction to suit himself, hoping that some of the plausibility of the milder claim will rub off on his. Thus, the thinkers Gilbert cites would have no problem with the former contention, but would reject the latter; likewise, his hyperbolic claim, "...every thinker in every century has recognized that people seek emotional happiness" is utterly false if taken to mean that every thinker supports Gilbert's world view, but plausible if taken as the weaker claim that being happy is one of the many things people seek and reasonably hope to attain. Gilbert's entire discussion is very confused.
*
Chapter 4 has an unfortunate discussion of `realism'. Gilbert notices that this term occurs in Locke (and subsequent analytic philosophy), and also appears in Piaget - reading Gilbert one would assume the term has the same meaning in both contexts, when in fact the word refers to widely differing concepts. Locke's point is that there exists an external world, independent of our perception of it, with logical room for us to perceive it correctly and incorrectly; Piaget leaves no such room, as his entire thrust has the infant child unaware of the distinction between its own self and the world, and hence incapable of establishing the concept of an independent external world, and, a fortiori, the concept of perceiving - Piaget's `The Child's Conception of the World' makes all this very clear. Gilbert's error is grotesque, but it is no accident, as he labours the false analogy painfully. He strains the analogy further by bringing in a dubious one paragraph summary of Immanuel Kant's metaphysics, and likens the child's development to philosophy's alleged development from Locke to Kant. This is not just unhelpful, it is a misunderstanding of the thought of all the thinkers cited, and a misrepresentation of the history of philosophy.
*
While his examples are in themselves interesting, his interpretation of them is often simplistic and dogmatic. To again mention just one of many instances: in Chapter 5, p.100, he cites a 1970s study where Americans were given a list of four countries, East Germany, West Germany, Nepal and Ceylon; they were asked to pick the two countries most similar to each other, and they chose the two Germanies; when asked to pick the two most dissimilar, again they chose the two Germanies. He interprets this paradoxical result as showing that people `ignore absences', that is to say, when focused on similarities, they ignore dissimilarities, and vice versa. Yet alternate interpretations are viable, such as that people simply chose the two countries which were most familiar and hence which they knew most about. Here, as elsewhere, the reader is lead to believe that only one interpretation of the study is available
*
Perhaps the most unintended consequence of Gilbert's discussion is that his cited examples can be seen as contradicting the basic contention of his world view. If, after all, humans are systematically incapable of accurately predicting their future momentary happiness, and yet evolution has seen the development of frontal lobes uniquely capable of forward planning, it might be that we are not planning for our future momentary happiness but for something else - something more complicated, such as a genuinely satisfying human life.
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49 of 61 people found the following review helpful
on December 29, 2008
I should have been warned off by the title of this book: Stumbling On Happiness. Not "Stumbling Upon Happiness" but "on" -- huh? Sounds like a bad thing -- like I'll fall down if I stumble on it.

Without adequately first defining "happiness", the author stumbles headlong (literally) into an endless research-laden dissection of the human condition.

In the end (p. 263), he finally admits: "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."

In describing the human quest for happiness, the author myopically focuses on happiness as defined by either the objects we collect or imagine collecting, or the quest for controlling our future -- and eschews any quest for happiness in the spiritual realm (and I'm not talking about answers found in religious dogma).

Save yourself the effort of reading this book and instead read Shalom Freedman's succinct review of the book on Amazon:

"Here are some of the most important points of this book:
1) We often exaggerate in imagining the long- term emotional effects certain events will have on us.
2) Most of us tend to have a basic level of happiness which we revert to eventually.
3) People generally err in imagining what will make them happy.
4) People tend to find ways of rationalizing unhappy outcomes so as to make them more acceptable to themselves.
5) People tend to repeat the same errors in imagining what will make them happy.
6) Events and outcomes which we dread may when they come about turn into new opportunities for happiness.
7) Many of the most productive and creative people are those who are continually unhappy with the world- and thus strive to change it.
8) Happiness is rarely as good as we imagine it to be, and rarely lasts as long as we think it will. The same mistaken expectations apply to unhappiness."
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38 of 48 people found the following review helpful
on August 27, 2009
First, the title is misleading. One might expect a book called "Stumbling on happiness" to perhaps provide some new, surprising routes to happiness. Instead, the book is more about errors in predicting our happiness. "Happiness stumblings" would have made more sense as a title, but of course would not be so catchy.

Second, and more serious, the book tries to make a lot out of a little. The book can be summarized as saying "When we predict our future happiness, we do so imperfectly!". It tries to make out that this a real problem, as though if we can't be right 100% of the time, there's no point in trying to be right at all. Of course we can't predict the future 100% accurately, our own happiness included. Some of the psychology experiments confirming this are mildly interesting, but that's about it.

Add in an overdose of attempts at humor (presumably to cover the weakness of the argument), and you're left with a disappointing read.
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79 of 111 people found the following review helpful
on April 26, 2007
If the author had spent as much energy clarifying his point in a concise and coherent way as he spent in his constant attempts to prove that Daniel Gilbert is One Funny Guy, we might have ourselves an interesting read here. I was in search of some good food for thought on how the brain works in relation to this thing we call "happiness", and the book got off to a promising start. But the endless, narrow and redundant studies of college undergraduate behavior, coupled with Gilbert's distracting compulsion to make a dumb joke at every possible opportunity, made trying to glean anything useful from this volume an exhausting and frustrating exercise.

Perhaps this stuff goes over well in Dr. Gilbert's classes at Harvard; he keeps the kids entertained and cites numerous studies involving people just like them. I'm sure his classes are quite popular, a welcome relief from all those "heavy" courses one is required to take. But his style is insufferable for someone actually trying to learn something.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on December 27, 2014
First off, if you are struggling with clinical depression, I would not recommend reading this book at all. If I could have chosen a title for it, I would have chosen "Stumbling in Misery" instead. If you are depressed I would instead recommend picking up a book like "Superbrain" by Deepak Chopra and reading that. This book is not about happiness. It is primarily about why we are not happy because of the way our brains may function, in the author's point of view. He explains at length why we do not remember the past accurately, we do not perceive the present accurately, and we do not imagine the future accurately. All of this being the case, he says we are then generally unable to make choices and decisions in life which may lead to personal happiness. The author does present ample results from psychological research to support these ideas. Last but not least, the author goes on to inform the reader as to how other peoples' experiences with life situations we are considering (e.g where to live, what career to pursue) could help us make wise decisions that may lead to happiness, but how we are unwilling and often unable to use other peoples' experiences as input since we also tend to feel that we are special, unique, and different from other people. The book ends on this misery-inspiring note, and the author does not provide suggestions for solutions to these conundrums. He basically lets us know that now we know why we are unhappy. The only positive idea I observed on his part is that when people are having a major negative experience like being ill with cancer, getting divorced or being disabled, they tend to perceive their lives much more positively than most of imagine they would. The author also has an amusing sense of humor, however cynicism is the foundation for most of the jokes. The author also does not give any credit to the original cognitive dissonance theory for some of his ideas on why many people will look back on an experience and label it as positive only in retrospect, and he should have, as a professional in this field. If you are depressed and searching for helpful ideas, there are many great books on the market which can help, and of course therapists and other professionals who can as well. I hope that this author will find a clinical psychologist colleague in his university department to write a follow up to this book, which would be about how to find happiness even in the midst of all this research data showing why it can sometimes be so challenging. There are many people who are indeed quite happy in this world, let's study them and what they do... successfully... instead.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on February 26, 2015
Dan Gilbert has constructed a needlessly protracted book that easily could have been trimmed in half. He produces study after study that asserts the human mind fills in the wrong information and leaves out the proper information when we think about the past or the future. This book becomes redundant very quickly. After laying out all of these problems Gilbert claims that science has not found any good solutions yet except for one, which he believes the reader will not follow. He proposes that when making a decision we should rely solely upon what someone else who has been in a similar situation says about how happy it made them, restaurant recommendations being one example, even though the entire premise of the book is how prevalent misconceptions about happiness are in society and how terrible individuals are at gauging what makes them happy. The number of times I have asked a friend which restaurant he recommends and subsequently being disappointed comes to mind when I realize that we have very different taste palates. Gilbert asserts we are more average and alike than we think, which is a fair point, but I can only imagine the consequences of asking somebody else for a much more complicated and consequential life choice and basing my decision solely on that.
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7 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on July 2, 2013
The author claims we should give up planning because we are almost always wrong at picking which futures will make us happy.

He tries to back up his claim (that the planning and executive function capabilities of our prefrontal cortex are hopelessly inaccurate) by presenting several artificial laboratory experiments which show it can be tricked sometimes.

This is a bit like showing some optical illusions and claiming "Our vision system is wholly unreliable and shouldn't be trusted for navigation." Poppycock.

Sure, our planning isn't perfect. So what? It is directionally correct most of the time, and much better than flipping a coin. Gilbert's examples of how it can be tricked in contrived situations shouldn't put you off using it for planning.
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23 of 36 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon January 25, 2009
I got through the first chapter or two hoping the book would become more interesting, but it never really did. The author tries to be witty like the writers of Freakonomics, but doesn't come close, and the attempts to be funny in every other sentence and not having it really work make it hard to read. Like some of the other one star reviewers, I'm puzzled at the amount five star reviews this book received, because usually books here at Amazon with those kind of reviews are actually pretty good, like Freakanomics and Fooled by Randomness.

The book itself just seemed to be a lot of high level analysis of unrelated, simplistic college student experiments on human nature strung together enough to make a book.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on April 23, 2015
Don't purchase this book. Don't even borrow it. I "Imagined" it would be a whole lot better than it was and give some insight on how to improve our chances at happiness. The book is 100% quotes from studies this author did not do. He borrowed everything for this book to accomplish only one thing and that's money in his pocket. I'm sorry I wasted my time on this book. I learned nothing.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
I hated this book. I'm sorry, Dan Gilbert. I know you are a Harvard person and all but the book just not that great. I wanted to love it because I love happiness and habit topics but this was not very interesting or engaging. I would like my money back but alas that will not happen!
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