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Stumbling on Happiness Hardcover – Deckle Edge, May 2, 2006

4.0 out of 5 stars 532 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Do you know what makes you happy? Daniel Gilbert would bet that you think you do, but you are most likely wrong. In his witty and engaging new book, Harvard professor Gilbert reveals his take on how our minds work, and how the limitations of our imaginations may be getting in the way of our ability to know what happiness is. Sound quirky and interesting? It is! But just to be sure, we asked bestselling author (and master of the quirky and interesting) Malcolm Gladwell to read Stumbling on Happiness, and give us his take. Check out his review below. --Daphne Durham

Guest Reviewer: Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell is the author of bestselling books Blink and The Tipping Point, and is a staff writer for The New Yorker.

Several years ago, on a flight from New York to California, I had the good fortune to sit next to a psychologist named Dan Gilbert. He had a shiny bald head, an irrepressible good humor, and we talked (or, more accurately, he talked) from at least the Hudson to the Rockies--and I was completely charmed. He had the wonderful quality many academics have--which is that he was interested in the kinds of questions that all of us care about but never have the time or opportunity to explore. He had also had a quality that is rare among academics. He had the ability to translate his work for people who were outside his world.

Now Gilbert has written a book about his psychological research. It is called Stumbling on Happiness, and reading it reminded me of that plane ride long ago. It is a delight to read. Gilbert is charming and funny and has a rare gift for making very complicated ideas come alive.

Stumbling on Happiness is a book about a very simple but powerful idea. What distinguishes us as human beings from other animals is our ability to predict the future--or rather, our interest in predicting the future. We spend a great deal of our waking life imagining what it would be like to be this way or that way, or to do this or that, or taste or buy or experience some state or feeling or thing. We do that for good reasons: it is what allows us to shape our life. And it is by trying to exert some control over our futures that we attempt to be happy. But by any objective measure, we are really bad at that predictive function. We're terrible at knowing how we will feel a day or a month or year from now, and even worse at knowing what will and will not bring us that cherished happiness. Gilbert sets out to figure what that's so: why we are so terrible at something that would seem to be so extraordinarily important?

In making his case, Gilbert walks us through a series of fascinating--and in some ways troubling--facts about the way our minds work. In particular, Gilbert is interested in delineating the shortcomings of imagination. We're far too accepting of the conclusions of our imaginations. Our imaginations aren't particularly imaginative. Our imaginations are really bad at telling us how we will think when the future finally comes. And our personal experiences aren't nearly as good at correcting these errors as we might think.

I suppose that I really should go on at this point, and talk in more detail about what Gilbert means by that--and how his argument unfolds. But I feel like that might ruin the experience of reading Stumbling on Happiness. This is a psychological detective story about one of the great mysteries of our lives. If you have even the slightest curiosity about the human condition, you ought to read it. Trust me. --Malcolm Gladwell

From Publishers Weekly

Not offering a self-help book, but instead mounting a scientific explanation of the limitations of the human imagination and how it steers us wrong in our search for happiness, Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard, draws on psychology, cognitive neuroscience, philosophy and behavioral economics to argue that, just as we err in remembering the past, so we err in imagining the future. "Our desire to control is so powerful, and the feeling of being in control so rewarding, that people often act as though they can control the uncontrollable," Gilbert writes, as he reveals how ill-equipped we are to properly preview the future, let alone control it. Unfortunately, he claims, neither personal experience nor cultural wisdom compensates for imagination's shortcomings. In concluding chapters, he discusses the transmission of inaccurate beliefs from one person's mind to another, providing salient examples of universal assumptions about human happiness such as the joys of money and of having children. He concludes with the provocative recommendation that, rather than imagination, we should rely on others as surrogates for our future experience. Gilbert's playful tone and use of commonplace examples render a potentially academic topic accessible and educational, even if his approach is at times overly prescriptive. 150,000 announced first printing.(May)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

This Book Is Bound with "Deckle Edge" Paper
You may have noticed that some of our books are identified as "deckle edge" in the title. Deckle edge books are bound with pages that are made to resemble handmade paper by applying a frayed texture to the edges. Deckle edge is an ornamental feature designed to set certain titles apart from books with machine-cut pages. See a larger image.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; 1 edition (May 2, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400042666
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400042661
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.1 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (532 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #83,282 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
I love a quote by Dr. Richard Feynman, the late Nobel Prize winning physicist: "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself - and you are the easiest person to fool". If you want to be happy, happy with your choices and the outcomes of your efforts you should buy and read this book to at least understand why you are pretty much hard-wired to break Dr. Feynman's first principle while you are trying to do so.

Until recently, when someone asked me "what do you want from life?" I would survey the myriad wishes and desires floating around in my mind and pull out some random musing to do with creating a family or making more money than I knew what to do with. I have certainly worked towards these things and had varying levels of success with love and career and material wealth. But I have always been baffled by why virtually nothing could make me happy in a lasting and predictable way. I am not baffled anymore, even though I am still unhappy in a lot of ways. "Stumbling on Happiness" has educated me to the ways that people exhibit self-delusion when looking forward to predict how happy some future experience will make them happy.

Gilbert is wickedly funny at times as he describes the mechanisms that lead us to distort our thinking; our projections about what will bring about our future selves happiness. This is the kind of information (why we're so deluded) I expected to get from the book. But he goes further and explains how we often don't even know how we feel in a particular moment and how we can have an *experience* of something, without it ever bubbling up into our conscious *awareness*. The onslaught of the information demonstrating the failures of human imagination in achieving contentment is a lot to take in...
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Format: Hardcover
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.

Gilbert makes these points and others with much anecdotal evidence and humor.

A pretty happy read, but not as happy as you think it is going to be.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Like many, many books, this one is better at describing the problem than it is in proposing solutions. Gilbert contends that our powers of predicting what will make us happy in the future are seriously flawed, and then proposes a simple solution which he correctly predicts that no one will use.

His description of the reasons that our predictive powers are flawed is both fascinating and convincing. However, even in this part (which is the bulk of the book), he makes an unspoken (and apparently unrecognized) assumption: That is, he assumes that "real" happiness or unhappiness is defined by the emotional state that a person feels immediately after, or concurrently with, the event in question.

To use an example: a couple of other reviewers have already mentioned Gilbert's story of a victory in an important college football game. Students predict in advance that they will be ecstatic if their team wins, and a different study suggests that a few months after the fact they will contend that they WERE ecstatic. However, close monitoring of their feelings at the actual time of the victory, or shortly thereafter, suggests that they weren't as happy as they expected to be, or as they later recalled being. On a less trivial topic, he makes the same claim regarding the experience of having and raising children: It isn't as much fun as the parents expect it to be. And while the child-rearing was going on, it wasn't as happy an experience as they later remembered it to be. But Gilbert is ignoring a vital point here: The anticipation of happiness, and the recollection of happiness, ARE happiness! Gilbert writes the entire book with the unexamined assumption that happy anticipations and happy memories can be discarded as mere illusions - the fabrications of irrational minds.
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Format: Hardcover
This book is entertaining, highly readable, and ultimately extremely frustrating. Gilbert summarizes scores of psychological and sociological studies on "happiness," and concludes that we humans are spectacularly bad at predicting what will make us happy. But the evidence he relies on seems, for the most part, one-dimensional and even trite, and his unquestioning reliance on this research makes his own theory of happiness seem shallow.

The biggest problem is his failure to address what he or the research subjects mean by "happiness." The same word is used throughout the book to refer to, say, the momentary pleasure one gets from a bite of ice cream, as well as to a more profound and lasting sense of contentment and meaning over time.

Although he acknowleges the definitional problem in the first chapter, he fails to conduct any systematic inquiry into what research subjects might mean when they say they are "happy" in response to a particular research question. It seems obvious subjects might apply a different definition of happiness when asked to predict their future happiness level than when asked to rate their mood at a particular moment in time. Gilbert's failure to consider this possibility -- or to explain how the research controls for it -- undermines the overall persuasiveness of his argument, and leads one to suspect many of his conclusions would be contradicted by more precisely tailored research (or a more rigorous analysis of the results).

For example, Gilbert says that while most prospective mothers predict that having children will enhance their happiness, the research shows that those predictions are wrong. He reaches this conclusion by relying on studies in which mothers were asked how they were feeling at particular moments throughout the day.
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