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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
Until recently, when someone asked me "what do you want from life?" I would survey the myriad wishes and desires floating around in my mind and pull out some random musing to do with creating a family or making more money than I knew what to do with. I have certainly worked towards these things and had varying levels of success with love and career and material wealth. But I have always been baffled by why virtually nothing could make me happy in a lasting and predictable way. I am not baffled anymore, even though I am still unhappy in a lot of ways. "Stumbling on Happiness" has educated me to the ways that people exhibit self-delusion when looking forward to predict how happy some future experience will make them happy.
Gilbert is wickedly funny at times as he describes the mechanisms that lead us to distort our thinking; our projections about what will bring about our future selves happiness. This is the kind of information (why we're so deluded) I expected to get from the book. But he goes further and explains how we often don't even know how we feel in a particular moment and how we can have an *experience* of something, without it ever bubbling up into our conscious *awareness*. The onslaught of the information demonstrating the failures of human imagination in achieving contentment is a lot to take in... I felt myself a little depressed at my chances at choosing any future path that was any better than what I'd done up to this point.
But I came to a realization about what I'd learned here: if you are like me and are actively looking to increase your level of happiness, while this book is not directly practical in accomplishing that, it is an essential base upon which to evaluate other materials. Having this book as a counterpoint to other, more practical books (say in the field of Positive Psychology) will increase your chances of not fooling yourself (at least not as badly or for as long). And to be fair, he does offer one suggestion.
I heard about this book listening to an interview with him on the CBC Radio program 'Tapestry'. I highly recommend taking the 24 minutes to listen to that interview (Google: 'tapestry daniel gilbert' to listen online) if you want a preview of the fascinating content of the book.
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.
His description of the reasons that our predictive powers are flawed is both fascinating and convincing. However, even in this part (which is the bulk of the book), he makes an unspoken (and apparently unrecognized) assumption: That is, he assumes that "real" happiness or unhappiness is defined by the emotional state that a person feels immediately after, or concurrently with, the event in question.
To use an example: a couple of other reviewers have already mentioned Gilbert's story of a victory in an important college football game. Students predict in advance that they will be ecstatic if their team wins, and a different study suggests that a few months after the fact they will contend that they WERE ecstatic. However, close monitoring of their feelings at the actual time of the victory, or shortly thereafter, suggests that they weren't as happy as they expected to be, or as they later recalled being. On a less trivial topic, he makes the same claim regarding the experience of having and raising children: It isn't as much fun as the parents expect it to be. And while the child-rearing was going on, it wasn't as happy an experience as they later remembered it to be. But Gilbert is ignoring a vital point here: The anticipation of happiness, and the recollection of happiness, ARE happiness! Gilbert writes the entire book with the unexamined assumption that happy anticipations and happy memories can be discarded as mere illusions - the fabrications of irrational minds. I think he's wrong.
At the end, Gilbert provides a prescription for making decisions: ask the advice of someone who has chosen each of your alternatives, and see how (s)he likes the results. The suggestion is obviously far too facile, but it does give Gilbert the opportunity to discuss the interesting fact that each of us tends to exaggerate his or her own uniqueness. He's almost certainly right about that, but it isn't enough to rescue his advice. Regardless of what the "average" person thinks, I am certain that watching "American Idol" would be an excruciatingly boring experience for me, and that I would much prefer living in Eugene, Oregon, to living in Las Vegas where I live now (and where tens of thousands of people are flooding in every year, all of them optimistic that they will be happier here than wherever they live now). I don't need to talk to another person to be confident that I would prefer a Whopper to anything served in a Thai restaurant, and that I would rather take a course in classical guitar than art history.
So read this with a skeptical mind. But read it. There's lots of good stuff in it.