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Stumbling on Happiness Paperback – March 20, 2007
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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
“Think you know what makes you happy? This absolutely fantastic book that will shatter your most deeply held convictions about how your own mind works.” —Steven D. Levitt, author of Freakonomics
“A psychological detective story about one of the great mysteries of our lives . . . You ought to read it. Trust me.” —Malcolm Gladwell, author of Blink
“A fascinating new book that explores our sometimes misguided attempts to find happiness.” —Time
“A witty, insightful and superbly entertaining trek through the foibles of human imagination.” —New Scientist
“Gilbert’s book has no subtitle, allowing you to invent your own. I’d call it ‘The Only Truly Useful Book on Psychology I’ve Ever Read.’” —James Pressley, Bloomberg News
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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. The responses indicated, for the most part, that the mothers were "less happy when taking care of their children than when eating, exercising, shopping, napping or watching television." These studies, he claims, show not only that prospective mothers are wrong when they predict that having children will increase their happiness, but also belie the mothers' claims later in life that having children made them happy.
One problem with this is, of course, that he never tells us what he or the research subjects mean by "happiness." In the particular example described above, I strongly suspect that if the subjects were given a chance to fully articulate their feelings, their predictions would be fairly close to reality. Most would-be parents would probably say they expect that having children will add depth and meaning to their lives, and will give rise both to moments of great joy and to hours of tedium and frustration. This prediction, for the most part, will probably turn out to be true. Moreover, most people with this belief would probably answer "yes" to a survey question asking whether they believed that having children would increase their happiness. But these very same people, when asked how they felt at a particular moment, might well respond "frustrated," "bored," "overwhelmed," or even "miserable" -- especially if the question were asked at the end of a long afternoon with a cranky toddler. Gilbert does not seem to consider that short-term displeasure can be entirely consistent with long-term satisfaction -- or that a meaning and satisfaction -- and ultimately happiness -- often emerge directly from -- not despite of -- a struggle.
To give another example, Gilbert says that most people would probably predict that being jilted at the altar would cause them tremendous unhappiness, but that most people who actually have been jilted probably think that it was "the best thing that ever happened to them." In truth, the actual experience is probably both of those things, and if allowed to elaborate on their feelings, most people would probably imagine they would feel close to how they would actually feel. The feelings would probably be something along the following lines: "it was a tremendously humiliating experience that caused me great embarassment and pain, and in fact, still causes me great embarassment and pain, but ultimately I'm glad I discovered what a selfish jerk my fiance was before I married him." Such a bride might accurately state that being jilted at the altar was the best and worst thing that ever happened to her.
Gilbert does not seem to acknowledge that such apparently contradictory responses can, in fact, be entirely consistent. The most painful experiences might ultimately have the most meaning precisely because of their intensity, and an experience that is accurately predicted to cause great suffering might utlimately become a catalyst for positive change. To put it more bluntly, the cancer that caused a shift in your world view might be the best thing that ever happened to you, but you might lay down your own life before you would allow such suffering to be inflicted on the ones you love. The apparent contradictions between predicted and actual feelings that are the focus of Gilbert's book may well reflect more the inadequacies of social science surveys than any deep-seated delusions about what ultimately will give us a sense of meaning, satisfaction and contentment in our lives.
All and all, this is a book with a lot of fun vignettes, but without the depth that would make this a truly satisfying read.
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.
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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Thank you Daniel!