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Stumbling on Happiness Paperback – March 20, 2007
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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
“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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1.Humans can think about the future
2.memories of the past are not accurate
3.because of biases our predictions of the future are flawed
4.we are so lucky to have the ability to imagine. BUT
5.Our brain makes predictions.. And when our own experiences don't MATCH we feel surprised
And so on..
Don't expect too much from your brain or this book
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.
Another big plus was the author's writing style. Clever phrasing, intriguing analogies, memorable one-liners. In short, worthwhile information and amusement!
Top international reviews
If you find value in psychology, linguistics and philosophy (better yet all three) there's a very good chance you'll love this book as much as I do.
Might be useful to dip into, but to read from cover to cover I think it's just too dense and intent on establishing its own importance.
The book teaches us that we have a very poor idea of how to achieve happiness. Among other things we don’t account that our thinking and feelings change over time, that our psychological immune systems kick in to make bad things feel better and that we don’t realise how much our own mind hides from us when constructing our imagination.
The author's solution is to tell us to trust the feelings of others currently in the position that we would like to be in the future. The solution is simple and short but leaves you wanting more. If that’s your feeling too then I highly recommend reading ‘Happy’ by Derren Brown after this book or for something shorter and less academic than ‘Happy’ you could go for Mark Manson's ‘The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F***' (Amazon won't let me type out the books name probably).
Is it at the cutting edge of psychological science? Well some of the ideas and things presented as absolute fact are slightly out-dated according to the latest research, but it's not a show stopper.
Is it a good read? It id written in places with a good sense of humour and a light witty style, however there were quite a few bits where it laboured the point rather, and I just said to myself in my head "yada yada yada" and ended up skim reading a few pages until it got interesting again.
The title of the book derives from the author's central position: we usually find happiness not by conscious effort but by chance.
Gilbert's argument is straightforward: our imagination is flawed - and indeed it has flaws similar to those of other basic functions of our brain, such as memory, vision and perception. Therefore, our ability to predict what will make us happy or how happy we shall be in a future situation is limited.
Using the findings of a large number of empirical studies, the award-winning writer focuses on the shortcomings inherent in our imagination, on the inadequacies which cause our predictions to be wrong. "Realism" is the first of these shortcomings: according to Gilbert, our imagination works fast, quietly and effectively in order to convince us of the "reliability" of its products and to appease our skepticism. The process is reminiscent of optical illusions, as well as of the way memory fills-in the gaps with information it never received but which fits in with the rest of the puzzle.
"Presentism" is the second shortcoming of the imagination: the future we envisage is not very different from the present we live in, thus making the available choices seem fewer that the ones that actually exist.
And if it is hard to imagine future events, it is even harder to predict the thoughts and feelings that these events will cause. "Rationalization", our ability to cope without unpleasant experiences, is the third shortcoming which completes the game that our own brains play on us.
The errors of prediction are difficult to cure by means of our personal experience, which is limited in any case. It is even more difficult to overcome them using the "wisdom" of past generations. And this is because this "wisdom" consists of ideas that flourish when they sustain the social systems that enable them to be transmitted - something they achieve by disguising themselves as recipes for individual happiness.
Instead of these approaches to happiness, the author suggests something simple: do not try to imagine how happy or satisfied you will be in a future situation, but observe, ask, learn how happy the people are who have already achieved happiness. And yet, it is sobering to note that this simple solution fails due to two barriers: our conviction that we are unique and our desire for control. Hence Gilbert is himself pessimistic regarding the adoption of his proposal.
One of the most interesting moments of the book is the discussion about the distinction between emotional and moral happiness. The author understands why philosophers feel it their duty to identify happiness with virtue as the particular type of happiness that we should be aiming at. He stresses, however, that "if a virtuous life is a cause of happiness, it is not happiness itself" and that the identification of virtue and happiness is misleading, because it mistakes the reason for the outcome. He concludes: "Happiness refers to feelings, virtue refers to actions and actions may lead to these feelings. But not necessarily and not exclusively."
Also very interesting is the discussion about the methodology used to approach the subject. The will for a scientifically rigorous study creates the need for measurement - even for such a subjective experience as happiness. Measurement, in turn, demands appropriate tools, however imperfect these are. It also requires the right timing, the right (i.e. high) frequency of measurement and a validation method that will make inter-subjective comparison possible.
The language of the book shows the sharpness of its author, who handles scientific concepts in a way that attracts lay readers without compromising the seriousness of the material. The unpredictable and witty sense of humour contributes to the enhanced enjoyment of reading. The real surprise, however, is its unconventionality - something you would not expect from a professor of a leading university. Gilbert does not hesitate to question two of the most powerful institutions of western societies: family and money. Referring to the family, and more specifically to the common belief that children bring happiness, he presents four different studies which show that happiness decreases dramatically after the birth of the first child and increases again only when the last child leaves home.
As for economy, the professor's sharp eye gleans from the work of Adam Smith, father of modern Economics:
"In what constitutes the real happiness of humans, [the poor] are in no respect inferior to those who would seem to be much above them... The joys of wealth and greatness...strike the imagination as something grand and beautiful and noble, of which the attainment is well worth all the toil and anxiety which they are apt to bestow upon it...It is this deception which rouses and keeps in continual motion the industry of mankind."
As Daniel Gilbert is well aware, it is not certain that in finishing this book people will feel happier or more ready to find happiness. However, it is very likely that their attitude towards many things will change - and they will surely feel they have made a large step towards self-knowledge.
As he says in the intro: "this is not an instruction manual that will tell you anything useful about how to be happy. Those books are located in the self-help section two aisles over, and once you've bought one, done everything it says to do, and found yourself miserable anyway, you can always come back here to understand why." Amen to that. Watch his exccellent TED talks for some further stuff on what he covers.