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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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As the book progressed, each word and each sentence became more and more painful to read. I would find the author making ridiculous examples and assumptions based around "what most people would do or not do" with no real substantial evidence this is truly what "most people" think, feel, say, etc...
I guess this book may be good for individuals with absolutely NO psychology background. Instead of Stumbling on Happiness, I stumbled on a headache! Just my opinion.
The author argues that the human brain remembers key points of past experiences and fills in the rest, rendering our recollection of past events inaccurate sometimes.
I agreed with many of the author's assertions regarding how our throught process interferes with our perception of reality, and why and how this can hinder our judgment of how we will feel about the future. What you think will make you happy may not make you as happy as you think.
I disagreed with the extent to which these processes affect our views of the present and future. We learn from trial and error which reduces perception errors. Moreover, many of the false expectations of happiness we harbor for future events are the result of external influences such as commercials, movies, television, celebrities, our peers and internal factors such as self image and self confidence which the author completely ignores.
Nevertheless, this book has many novel ideas I was introduced to that are informative and will be of use to me no doubt.
The idea behind the book is the errors that the human mind tends to make on a consistent basis leads us to make bad decisions about what will make us happy, but that connection is only loosely made and then only as an afterthought at the end of the book. Strangely, this doesn't really hurt "Stumbling." If you read it instead as a fascinating look at the ways the human mind can be deceived and often deceives itself - a truly interesting subject - you have a very solid book.
While it's surprising that Gilbert didn't realize his book wasn't turning out to be about his premise and alter his course a bit, he's still written a book well worth a read. Recommended.
If you've got some of that awareness, and it really creeps you out, but you feel it's more important to hear the truth than be comfortably ensconced in misconceptions, I also recommend this book, because while it'll be all sorts of creepy, I think the author does a decent job of also saying "This is not something unnatural or evil, though it is something good to be aware of."
If you are the type that, when confronted with possibilities like [that the world isn't exactly as you think it is, that you may not be remembering everything exactly the way it happened, or that you may even be remembering things exactly the way they didn't happen], you throw the book out the window, shoot the messenger, get highly defensive, and (most importantly) are now sure that you've never done any of these things... well, this book is not for you, because if you really try to read it, it'll trigger a massive freak-out, followed by exactly the kind of memory-refabrications you don't want to know that you engage in.
If you're the kind of person who knows other people that have such freak-outs, and likes to torment them by provoking such reactions, then you may not be the nicest of people, but I highly recommend this book to you as a source of useful provocation material.
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Thank you Daniel!