Customer Reviews: Stumbling on Happiness
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on March 15, 2007
I love a quote by Dr. Richard Feynman, the late Nobel Prize winning physicist: "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself - and you are the easiest person to fool". If you want to be happy, happy with your choices and the outcomes of your efforts you should buy and read this book to at least understand why you are pretty much hard-wired to break Dr. Feynman's first principle while you are trying to do so.

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.
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Here are some of the most important points of this 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.
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on June 16, 2006
Like many, many books, this one is better at describing the problem than it is in proposing solutions. Gilbert contends that our powers of predicting what will make us happy in the future are seriously flawed, and then proposes a simple solution which he correctly predicts that no one will use.

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.
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on August 12, 2006
This book is entertaining, highly readable, and ultimately extremely frustrating. Gilbert summarizes scores of psychological and sociological studies on "happiness," and concludes that we humans are spectacularly bad at predicting what will make us happy. But the evidence he relies on seems, for the most part, one-dimensional and even trite, and his unquestioning reliance on this research makes his own theory of happiness seem shallow.

The biggest problem is his failure to address what he or the research subjects mean by "happiness." The same word is used throughout the book to refer to, say, the momentary pleasure one gets from a bite of ice cream, as well as to a more profound and lasting sense of contentment and meaning over time.

Although he acknowleges the definitional problem in the first chapter, he fails to conduct any systematic inquiry into what research subjects might mean when they say they are "happy" in response to a particular research question. It seems obvious subjects might apply a different definition of happiness when asked to predict their future happiness level than when asked to rate their mood at a particular moment in time. Gilbert's failure to consider this possibility -- or to explain how the research controls for it -- undermines the overall persuasiveness of his argument, and leads one to suspect many of his conclusions would be contradicted by more precisely tailored research (or a more rigorous analysis of the results).

For example, Gilbert says that while most prospective mothers predict that having children will enhance their happiness, the research shows that those predictions are wrong. He reaches this conclusion by relying on studies in which mothers were asked how they were feeling at particular moments throughout the day. The responses indicated, for the most part, that the mothers were "less happy when taking care of their children than when eating, exercising, shopping, napping or watching television." These studies, he claims, show not only that prospective mothers are wrong when they predict that having children will increase their happiness, but also belie the mothers' claims later in life that having children made them happy.

One problem with this is, of course, that he never tells us what he or the research subjects mean by "happiness." In the particular example described above, I strongly suspect that if the subjects were given a chance to fully articulate their feelings, their predictions would be fairly close to reality. Most would-be parents would probably say they expect that having children will add depth and meaning to their lives, and will give rise both to moments of great joy and to hours of tedium and frustration. This prediction, for the most part, will probably turn out to be true. Moreover, most people with this belief would probably answer "yes" to a survey question asking whether they believed that having children would increase their happiness. But these very same people, when asked how they felt at a particular moment, might well respond "frustrated," "bored," "overwhelmed," or even "miserable" -- especially if the question were asked at the end of a long afternoon with a cranky toddler. Gilbert does not seem to consider that short-term displeasure can be entirely consistent with long-term satisfaction -- or that a meaning and satisfaction -- and ultimately happiness -- often emerge directly from -- not despite of -- a struggle.

To give another example, Gilbert says that most people would probably predict that being jilted at the altar would cause them tremendous unhappiness, but that most people who actually have been jilted probably think that it was "the best thing that ever happened to them." In truth, the actual experience is probably both of those things, and if allowed to elaborate on their feelings, most people would probably imagine they would feel close to how they would actually feel. The feelings would probably be something along the following lines: "it was a tremendously humiliating experience that caused me great embarassment and pain, and in fact, still causes me great embarassment and pain, but ultimately I'm glad I discovered what a selfish jerk my fiance was before I married him." Such a bride might accurately state that being jilted at the altar was the best and worst thing that ever happened to her.

Gilbert does not seem to acknowledge that such apparently contradictory responses can, in fact, be entirely consistent. The most painful experiences might ultimately have the most meaning precisely because of their intensity, and an experience that is accurately predicted to cause great suffering might utlimately become a catalyst for positive change. To put it more bluntly, the cancer that caused a shift in your world view might be the best thing that ever happened to you, but you might lay down your own life before you would allow such suffering to be inflicted on the ones you love. The apparent contradictions between predicted and actual feelings that are the focus of Gilbert's book may well reflect more the inadequacies of social science surveys than any deep-seated delusions about what ultimately will give us a sense of meaning, satisfaction and contentment in our lives.

All and all, this is a book with a lot of fun vignettes, but without the depth that would make this a truly satisfying read.
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on January 11, 2007
Although the author does a good job pulling together many interesting threads, he beats every point to death mercilessly. Even if most of the extra verbiage is witty or clever examples, I suspect this book could be condensed to 1/3 its length and not lose anything of substance in the process.

I found many of the author's points thought-provoking, but rarely have I put down a book so many times due to example fatigue. If you are the kind of person who loves business and self-help books, you will like this book as written. If you are a "get to the point already" kind of person, you may still want to buy the book but be prepared to skim aggressively.
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on May 6, 2006
Mr. Gilbert has written a lively academic approach on the subjective subject of happiness. The reader looking for advice on how to manage their own lives will not find it here. Rather the author looks at the way people manage their own expectations of impending events and how they cope with anxiety. Many persons re-evaluate both stressful events in a more positive light (childbirth) and achieved goals in a less satisfactory fashion (buying that new car does not buy happiness). Ironically, clinically depressed persons see how how difficult life can be and have an inability to re-evaluate stressful situations. They lack this coping mechanism that other persons have : that both happiness and unhappiness will have their season and move on. For the reader desiring further reading on this topic, Dan McMahon's "Happiness: a History" takes a longer and more historical approach to how happiness has changed over the ages.
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on July 25, 2006
I was nearing the thrilling conclusion of "Stumbling on Happiness" when I came across a sentence so brilliant, so subtle, so genuinely funny that I had the experience readers crave but rarely enjoy --- I laughed out loud.

This is the sentence: "My friends tell me that I have a tendency to point out problems without offering solutions, but they never tell me what I should do about it."

Okay, maybe it would be better if you read the previous 222 pages. Because then you would know that one of the wittiest guys ever to teach at Harvard has not written the ultimate self-help book. That is, he does not hand you the keys to happiness and invite you to take it out for a spin. Just the opposite --- he shows you, over and over again, both logically and by reference to research, how your efforts to be happy are so misguided that they practically guarantee failure.

Dan Gilbert is apologetic about that. But after assuring you that the self-help book you want would not, in fact, tell you how to be happy, he makes the case for "a book that describes what science has to tell us about how and how well the human brain can imagine its own future, and about how and how well it can predict which of those futures it will most enjoy."

He begins this exploration with "The Sentence." Before they die, he jokes, all psychologists must write it. The trick is to wait until you're almost dead, so you won't be proven wrong in your lifetime. Professor Gilbert, no coward, plunges in. And so his way of completing The Sentence --- "The human being is the only animal that...." --- is this: "that thinks about the future."

And there, of course, is the problem. Sometimes, he notes, "we'd rather think about it than get there." For example, volunteers asked to imagine themselves asking for a date with someone on whom they had a major crush were more likely to want to enjoy their fantasies than pick up the phone.

On the other hand, when we can imagine an event, we tend to overestimate how enjoyable it will be. That's a particularly American trait --- we generally believe in a golden future. Even challenges thrill us; cancer patients turn out to be more optimistic than their healthy neighbors.

Funny thing about the mind: When we do imagine unpleasantness ahead, the imaginative process minimizes its impact. That's not based on reality. It's because humans have "a passion for control" and if we lose that ability we get actually depressed. We prefer to imagine we know where we're going.

And there's the next rub: We imagine. That's useful for artists in the act of creation, less so for civilians in the mainstream of life. Because there is a vast difference between what we imagine and what's real. The facts elude us. "You are a very fine person, I'm sure," Gilbert writes. "But you are a very bad wizard."

Some fun facts along the way: You will regret what you did not do more than what you did. We make big choices shaped on our perception of future regrets. Almost any explanation, however implausible, reassures us. The only known symptom of empty nest syndrome is "increased smiling."

And then Professor Gilbert makes his big point. If we want to know how to deal with a problem, we might do well to ask someone who's experiencing it. Why don't we? Because we believe people are unique. We don't want to know otherwise: "Like most people, you don't want to know you're like most people."

So imagination is a great gift. Finding a surrogate may be a greater one: "The best way to predict our feelings tomorrow is to see how others are feeling today."

Not what you want to hear? Of course not. But doesn't it make you feel better to know there is a better way --- even if you're hard-wired not to take it? I, for one, am infinitely amused by that conclusion. Indeed, it sort of makes me happy.
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This book confirms aspects about human personality that I have been interested in for some time. One of these things concerns our ability to delude ourselves ABOUT ourselves. For example, studies show that 90% of people think they are better than the average driver. Since 50% of drivers have to be in the bottom half, 4/5ths of that 50% must be mistaken about their skill level. Surveys taken amongst college students bear this out. Except for those who are depressed, they consistently vastly overestimated their good qualities and badly underestimated their poor ones - as judged by their peers. Perhaps the depressed ones are in the more realistic group.

One of my favorite quotes about the ability of people to delude themselves is from "The Moral Animal," by Robert Wright: "...humans are a species splendid in their array of moral equipment, tragic in their propensity to misuse it, and pathetic in their constitutional ignorance of the misuse."

A second interesting aspect about human personality concerns the nurture/nature contributions to personality. There is much evidence that genetics governs the biochemistry that controls a person's general outlook - perhaps realistically thought of as one's "happiness thermostat." Nurture, on the other hand, is judged much more influential about learned behaviors such as personal habits. This author shows and studies confirm that after good or bad life-changing events, people tend to eventually return to their inherent steady state level of happiness.

Aside from confirming some of my preconceptions, I did come away from this book with one new (renewed) valuable thought: That our general level of happiness on a day to day basis is more likely to suffer from nitpicky, seemingly insignificant irritants rather than how generally well off we are otherwise. Old saying such as "Don't sweat the small stuff," seems to hold up well here, as does, "Have the serenity to accept the things I can't change, the courage to change those I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."

It makes sense to try to realistically identify and change recurrent irritants - also to re-evaluate the things that one REALLY likes, and make the appropriate adjustments in lifestyle. Anyway, this is a highly readable, thought-provoking book; entertainingly disguised as psychology - first rate.
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on June 16, 2006
If you think the predictive powers of adolescents in labs at (mostly elite) universities reveal deep truths about the human imagination, you'll find this book most exciting.

For instance, students full of pretzels and crackers routinely mis-predict how much they'll enjoy potato chips tomorrow. When they think about how happy they'll be after their team wins the big game, they forget to factor in the emotional effects of having to head for the library right after the game to study for an exam coming up on Monday.

Deep, very deep.

Gilbert says the best way to predict how you'll feel about something is to consult the real-time testimony of people having the experience. If you doubt it, that's because you delude yourself about human uniqueness. So if you're living in Marin County producing videos for Spielberg and you get an offer to go work for the county tax assessor in rural Alabama instead, the best way to know whether that's a good idea for you is to ask whether the folks who do that job in that place like it. Similarly, if your friends want to take you out to eat Ethiopian food for your birthday, and you're leery of that, just go ask the folks at the Ethiopian restaurant whether they're having a good time. And if you're really undecided about whether to join that fundamentalist church down the road--or maybe, instead, hook up with the local BDSM group--just go ask people at each place whether they enjoy it. Shoot, you'll probably end up joining both!

Ridiculous, you say? Well, there you go--deluding yourself about human uniqueness.

To be fair, not all of Gilbert's evidence is as trivial as most of it, and not all of his views are as silly as his conclusion.

And reading the book's a lot of fun. Gilbert is a truly extraordinary writer. The writing zings along, punctuated by wit and surprising self-deprecation.

But besides choosing his evidence without really thinking how well it applies to grown-ups who've acquired some experience at thinking through their choices, Gilbert omits to consider many of the things that cognitive psychologists have known for half a century influence our predictions (and our pleasures)--like the roles our social status wishes, our group affiliations, cultural norms we believe without thinking, and anticipated feedback.

And think about this: If we are really as incompetent at predicting our well-being as Gilbert says, how could that have developed? Did natural selection select us for incompetence? (Or if you're religious, did God want us to be really, really bad at anticipating and planning?)

Honestly, if Gilbert is right, either natural selection must be pretty lame (or God quite wicked)--or whether we're happy is irrelevant to fitness. If the latter--if we're just not suited by evolution to choose wisely about our well-being--you gotta wonder how basic human concerns got so far away from our natural aptitudes.

All in all, this book is pretty fluffy. I wouldn't say not to read it, but the book is to psychology what summer beach books are to literature.
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on August 21, 2006
Gilbert quotes a lot of various studies to reach rather grand conclusions. In some cases it works, in others it falls flat. You just can't compare, as others have pointed out, the feelings one has about ice cream versus how one feels about having children.

One of the huge problems with Gilbert's book is that his argument is far to ethnocentric. The research he quotes is overwhelmingly focused on the experiences of Americans and, as others have pointed out, much of that concerns rather trivial matters. People from different cultures experience happiness from different things which means that perhaps much of what makes us happy isn't inherent.

Gilbert takes certain things for granted so much that he ignores human history. The concept of the nuclear family, for example, is a modern construct. Hundreds of years ago extended families took care of the children and mothers were not necessarily the primary caretakers - certainly not once the children were out of infancy. Perhaps those individuals would report different levels of happiness regarding being a parent. We can't know because those days are long gone. But the point is that Gilbert can't treat the here and now as if it's the end all in terms of human experience and what makes us happy.

What really drove me nuts was Gilbert's unwillingness to question and his failure to apply the most basic scientific principle - correlation does not mean causation. He quotes the often repeated research about money not making people happy and that once we reach a certain plateau that more money doesn't make a difference. The problem here, just like the nuclear family issue, is that he's only looking at the correlation - money - and not looking at the causation - one's actions. Maybe a generous rich person is one of the most happy people on earth. We don't know because researchers like Gilbert never differentiate between the different ways people spend money. They just focus on the money.

Despite these criticisms, I enjoyed 90% of this book. It's easy to read and understand and the examples given are intriguing and thought provoking. There is meat to much of what Gilbert has to say.

His ending, however, just doesn't hold true. Gilbert argues that we're not as original as we all like to think and we really can ask others who are where we supposedly want to be about their happiness to find out if we would also be happy in their positions. This will only work in the most simplistic examples.

If you wonder if you like chocolate ice cream and you ask others about what it's like then, yeah, you'll find out that most like it and you will too. (Some of the research Gilbert quotes is that simple.) But most of us aren't concerned with such trivial matters. Say you're interested in traveling the globe in a sail boat. Or you want to be an astronaut. Or you want to run for political office. The odds are that the people you ask who've done these things are glad they did them. It was something they felt compelled to do. I believe it was Mark Twain who once said, "The people who will like this sort of thing are the people who will like this sort of thing." People who want to become astronauts work to become astronauts. You have it or you don't. And those who do have it are, despite what Gilbert argues, different than the rest of us who don't.

We discover what we like by trial and error and, when it comes to the big things in life, most of us wouldn't go back and change things. This makes us all very unreliable sources in terms of telling someone else - with a different personality, different life, etc. - whether they'll be happy as well.

I'm glad I read the book. But I felt let down by the faulty conclusions and the emphasis on small research examples to prove rather large points.
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