90 Second Book Review: Stumbling on Happiness

I must admit that I don’t quite recall where I first heard about the subject of this quick review, but as has happened many times, that intergalactic portal that sorts through the thousands of books I’d like to read and picks the right one at the right time to send my way did its job and I found myself in its possession.  Dan Gilbert’s work falls into that interesting category that is blend of psychology, biology, evolution, anthropology and self help.  It’s extremely readable, which is a great asset since the message is so important.

When I’m done with this review, I will end up putting it on the shelf next to Haidt’s “Righteous Mind” which argues that rather than humans being Rational, we are actually “Rationalizing”, i.e. we apply a rational framework to our decisions post hoc as a way of telling ourselves and our friends a story about why we did what we did.  Haidt argues that this reversal of the commonly accepted cognitive process stems from basic evolution – it’s just the way we are wired.

Gilbert, in “Stumbling on Happiness” similarly argues that due to a series of evolutionary accidents our brains work in some particular ways that run counter to the stories we tell ourselves about how they work.  The rational animals story and the captains of our own ship story have been with us for a long time and its only now with the bright light of scientific inquiry are we learning that we may have been fooling ourselves.

While there are some detractors, many great philosophers will claim that happiness is the ultimate virtue, since happiness is sought as an end in itself, and not as a pathway to anything else.  In Stumbing on Happiness, Dan Gilbert constructs a compelling story about why humans are so bad at actually being happy.  Even better, he offers practical advice on what we can do about it.

Gilbert states his thesis early on:

We insist on steering our boats because we think we have a pretty good idea of where we should go, but the truth is that much of our steering is in vain – not because the boat won’t respond and not because we can’t find out destination, but because the future is fundamentally different than it appears through the prospectiscope*.
*(a made up word he uses to describe the mental “device” we use to predict the future).

Before Gilbert can describe why we’re so bad at predicting what will make us happy, he spends some time defining what happiness is, and just as importantly for a work attempting to take a rational approach, how we can measure it.  Gilbert spends a few pages discussing the fact that defining happiness is not that easy and one of the main reasons is that seeking is often seen a selfish or petty.  Thanks Puritans!  What he settles on is the basic idea that happiness is a subjective experience, so the person best situated to measure happiness of any particular individual is that individual themselves as long as you do as much as you can to control for the distortions caused by memory and social norms.

With a working definition and measures of happiness, the next three sections focus on the three failure modes of imagination which make it such a bad tool for predicting what will make us happy.  The first of these he calls “Realism” which refers to the fact that our imagination works so quickly, we often don’t even notice that what we are thinking is imagined.  This can lead to confuse imagined ideas with real ones.  Which leads to making decisions on things we think are true when they in fact aren’t…but we think they are.

The next failure mode of imagination he calls “Presentism” which argues in the opposite direction of the first failure by claiming that despite our ideal about imagination, it’s really not all that imaginative in that our imagined futures are very often extremely similar to our actual presents.  If Realism is all about the imagination working to well to be useful for accurate prediction, presentism is all about it not working well enough.

Gilbert calls the third and final imagination failure mode “Rationalization” which is all about how hard it is for us to accurately predict how we will think and feel about the future we imagine for ourselves once we get there.  Realism and Presentism keep us from being good forecasters about what will happen next and Rationalization seals the unhappiness deal by making sure we will most often be wrong about how we’ll feel about it on the off chance we happen to get lucky and correctly predict future events.  The basic idea of rationalization is that humans are way more resilient than most psychologists would give us credit for.

Gilbert provides the strongest evidence for this when he applies his objective happiness measurement to people that have undergone a specific tragedy (loss of a love one, terminal illness) and those who haven’t but that he asks to imagine how they would feel if they had.  Those that actually have had the experience are consistently happier than those that haven’t imagine that they would be if they had.  In short: we can get used to pretty much anything.

Fortunately, Gilbert doesn’t end his book here, on an “all is lost” tone.  He offers a way out, although he immediately says that he does this knowing that almost no one will take it.  Gilbert claims there is a simple way to see through the mirages provided by hind sight and foresight: find people that have recently, or even better are currently, doing what you are thinking about doing or have stopped doing what you are thinking about stopping and ask them how they feel.  You will likely feel the same.

However, this rescue comes with a caveat: most people wont chose this path due to what I have always known as the “special snow flake” argument.  “I’m special.”  “I’m different.”  “I’m complicated.”  Gilbert calls BS on these and a thousand other similar claims, at least when it comes to what makes us happy.  In the realm of happiness we humans are all more or less the same.  What makes other people you know happy will more than likely make you happy and vice versa.

Thinking about some big life change and not sure whether to pull the trigger?  Or already decided, but not started?  Find someone in your circle of friends, friends of friends, acquaintances, or even random people you search for on the internet that have done the same and ask them how they feel. Then relisten to what they tell you.  You’ll be happier for it.

 

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