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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 focus of this book is to assess our ability to predict the future, and specifically whether or not this will make a person happy.
One aspect of this book I enjoyed is that it thoroughly considered time in its consideration of happiness. For example, the book would consider a situation and show how a person expected to feel in the present, BEFORE undertaking a certain action (say eating an ice-cream cone). It would then ask a person how the felt DURING the undertaking of a certain action. Then several weeks later would ask how the person REMEMBERED that certain action. The book does a very good job showing inconsistencies between how we predict how we will feel, how we feel at the time of a stimulus, and how we remember feeling the stimulus.
In the beginning in particular, the studies are described very vividly and are differentiated well. The message of the book is clear.
By the middle of the book, the reader is somewhat inundated with studies. And many of these studies are slight variants on the same idea that don't really elucidate the problem of imagination, or predicting happiness any better.
By the middle and the end, one realizes that it focuses on things like ice-cream cones and potato chips as source of pleasure-able feelings and doesn't offer a comprehensive model on happiness.
This book is not really geared about happiness so much as it is about recognizing many of the inconsistencies in human choice (mostly on more mundane things).
In its final chapter, the author really has VERY little to say on how to solve our inability to predict how the future will make us feel. He spends about a few pages recommending that we ask others who are experiencing the things currently that we would like to undertake.
(i.e. ask a practicing lawyer how much happiness they feel practicing law...).
In all the book is worth reading, but is by no means spectacular. The value in the book is in some of the ways that the author contrasts the past, present, future, human imagination and memory, and ties it all together to show where our blindspots are.
In all I'd give it about 3.5 stars...
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.