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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
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 text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top Customer Reviews
Daniel Gilbert is the type of person you'd want to be friends with. He'd provide entertaining conversation, take you to gourmet restaurants and explain why your life is such a surprising journey. Along the way he'd make you laugh a lot. He sure did in this book. I lost track of how many times I laughed. Maybe I just got his humor and his writing had high creative appeal. I also learned a few new words like panglossian.
What did occur to me while reading was that I think I remember my past experiences far better than the people discussed in this book. I definitely know what would make me happy based on past experiences. I also know what won't make me happy in the future. This book did answer some of my questions however, like why I love to wait for packages from amazon. I will often choose the free shipping just so things get to me slower. This habit of forestalling pleasure brings me a lot of anticipatory joy.
One thing I didn't agree with was the comments about the movie Casablanca. A person usually doesn't regret doing the right thing. In fact doing the right thing can bring a wealth of happiness. I'm also not sure the author has ever experienced a form of spiritual enlightenment as it is like night and day and you know you've never been that happy before. Some of his comments indicated he may be more concerned with science than religion although religion brings a lot of happiness to people. God was not mentioned except in passing so there was no data on people who have fallen in love with God. I also am completely convinced that some people want to be miserable. They make a choice to continue in their negative ruminations.
Daniel Gilbert is however a keen observer of the world and he knows a lot about human nature. So from that angle this book is very intriguing. It is a joy to experience his deep thinking and conclusions. I also felt he was very logical and has a good handle on philosophy. He does however believe in evolution if that is of interest to you. Not a lot of time is spent on that subject besides describing aspects of the brain.
I do personally think it is fun to think positively about the future but I will now use more caution when my imagination runs wild. Will I ever have pool or travel to Paris again? These are things I hope for and it is fun to think about what I will do tomorrow and which book I will read. So hope is definitely a factor in predicting happiness.
So get ready to have an author uncover some dark secrets about society. Be prepared to laugh out loud. This is a very enjoyable reading experience that I can recommend to almost anyone. Just have some éclairs or chocolate cake handy. You will get hungry for foods he mentions. :)
~The Rebecca Review
I've always been one of those people who Always Has A Plan. Ever since reading Stumbling on Happiness, I've noticed that the objectively best things in my life have always happened quite by accident while I was making other plans. I have always worked hard to make whatever plans I have come true, but the best-laid plans of mice and men often go astray. My good luck in life has been that everything has always, ultimately, worked out for the best. It's helped me change my outlook on life, and I must admit that depression is easier to deal with when I realize that as long as I am doing the best I can and I sleep with a clear conscience, then even when it looks like all the doors are closed, somewhere, there is an open window, and it will be better than any door I could have found or made for myself.
The point of this book is that thinking too hard about happiness is pointless. Make the most out of every moment! That is how you stumble on happiness. Amen, Mr. Gilbert, AMEN.
In terms of entertainment and insights the book DID deliver. Gilbert is quite witty in his writing, and reading his book feels like sitting down in front of a log fireplace at the local pub, beer in hand, whilst talking with an academic about his research. He does an excellent job at weaving together numerous research findings to paint a picture of the many ways our perceptual system can impact our decision making such that we are later unhappy with the decisions we have made.
That said, the book was not transformative in the way I had hoped. It offered few concrete solutions to our decision–making mishaps, and the one real solution it did offer (to ask people who have already made a given decision how happy they were with it, before making the same decision ourselves), while good advice overall, seemed like an afterthought and lacked the robustness that would be needed to deal with major real–world decisions (what career, who to marry, where to live, etc.); and, the research to support that solution (which essentially argued that people are more similar than they think), felt more ivy tower than real world. In terms of my use of this "solution," in reading this book in the first place, the outcome was just ok: it was a good and fun read, but not the transformative experience that I was hoping for.