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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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Stumbling on Happiness is a fun stroll through brain studies throughout history. Over and over again, Gilbert introduces another study that shows you the silliness of your brain. By the end of the book, you will wonder how we have accomplished so much as humans.
This is fun read. It is not a deep book but a great light-hearted look at the silly side of our humanness.
In fact, this book is so packed with insights that I'll need to carefully go through it again (which I look forward to). Some readers may feel that the book goes into too many topics which are tangential to the main argument, but I personally very much appreciated the way Gilbert builds his case systematically and thoroughly, providing us with a wide array of intellectual fringe benefits in the process. Indeed, while the focus of the book is on happiness, the scope of the book is actually much broader than just happiness.
The content of the book is mostly drawn from experimental psychology (the good kind), and Gilbert describes many experiments in just the right amount of detail. I sometimes felt that he neglected plausible alternative interpretations of the experimental results, but I see this as a relatively minor issue. The earlier parts of the book also mixed in some Western philosophy, which I thought was a nice touch. And the many quotes from Shakespeare were also apropo since, after all, Shakespeare just about single-handedly encapsulated the full spectrum of human experience and behavior into his body of work!
Given the book's rich content, it's hard to summarize this book, but I would say that the (greatly oversimplified) main idea is that both our memory and imagination are inherently faulty, which often causes us to choose suboptimally when it comes to decisions which affect our future happiness. We can partly get around that problem by querying people who are currently having the experience we're considering having, but that approach doesn't always work, plus we're inherently resistant to taking that approach anyway. However, again, this is just an oversimplification, and you really need to read this book in its entirety.
Regarding Gilbert's writing style, I think he's quite clear and easy to follow, and he also employs humor throughout the book. To be honest, I initially found his humor superfluous and a bit annoying, but I gradually came to appreciate it, since it lightens the book's atmosphere and thereby helps to sustain the reader's stamina.
Overall, this is a superb book and I highly recommend it if you want to be happier, or even if you're just interested in what makes people tick. Five stars don't even begin to do justice to this book.