Stumbling on Happiness

Deliciously paradoxical, Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness is not about finding the subject of its title so much as it is about illuminating why we get in our own way as we pursue, scramble, scrape, and grab for it. Although the subject matter is weighty and the author’s pedigree formidable, reading this book is easier (and more enjoyable) than one might suspect. As Seth Godin remarks in a cover blurb, “Gilbert writes like a cross between Malcolm Gladwell and David Sedaris.” Can’t beat that for an entertaining way to approach a complex subject.

Even Gilbert’s footnotes crack wise, starting with the first one in the Foreword: ” … If you don’t care about sources, aren’t interested in nonessentials, and are annoyed by books that make you flip back and forth all the time, then be assured that the only important note in the book is this one.” Of course, there’s more information ‘in the back,’ but it’s either only interesting (examples and clever descriptions) or merely required (source citations), not essential to the gist of the book. Gilbert finds just the right touch of humor, pokes just the right amount of fun — especially at his own profession (psychology), and serves up just enough tantalizing examples to keep us moving forward.

Forward motion is a big deal to our sense of happiness, Gilbert contends, because humans are the critters on Earth who can think about the future. What would you do if you knew you only had ten minutes to live? Regardless of our certainty about the answer to that question, our future selves don’t end up doing what we think they will — for a lot of reasons, some of which may be related to how we perceive optical illusions.

“The errors that optical illusions induce in our perceptions are lawful, regular, and systematic. They are not dumb mistakes but smart mistakes — mistakes that allow those who understand them to glimpse the elegant design and inner workings of the visual system.

“The mistakes we make when we try to imagine our personal futures are also lawful, regular, and systematic. They too have a pattern that tells us about the powers and limits of foresight in much the same way that optical illusions tell us about the powers and limits of eyesight. That’s what this book is all about. Despite the third word of the title, 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. Instead, this is 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.”

According to Gilbert, we don’t do a very good job of either, despite the human brain’s “greatest achievement,” the “ability to imagine objects and episodes that do not exist in the realm of the real,” which is “the ability that allows us to think about the future.”

With examples that range from the 1848 unintentional frontal-lobotomy-by-crowbar of Phineas Gage, the meditator’s deliberate effort to “be here now” while the brain says the future will be so much more fun, and the computer that seems able to discern your chosen card, to our eyes’ literal blind spot, Sherlock Holmes’ sense that what was missing was just as important as what was not, and an impressive collection of psychological experiments and studies, Gilbert outlines just why, “if your future self is not satisfied when it arrives at the last page [of this book], it will at least understand why you mistakenly thought it would be.”

Stumbling on Happiness explores the effects of time and space (how we can move in one but not the other) and the nature of subjectivity that never really lets us know anything but how we feel right now. In addition, we learn how our imaginations create our past, present, and future (better known as realism, presentism, and rationalization). Believe it or not, we would make better choices if we were willing to learn from others and not insist quite so much on our own uniqueness. But our brains are hard-wired for certain states. Only within the last 3 million years, however, have humans incorporated the concept of later, which makes our world (and the future) possible.

Throughout, our imagination cooks up all sorts of stuff, despite its “three shortcomings.” The first is “its tendency to fill in and leave out without telling us” — we can consider only some features and consequences of future events, not all. Second, our imagination tends to “project the present onto the future,” but because we can’t know everything about a future that hasn’t happened yet, our imagination fills in the gaps with details it “borrows from the present.” Third, imagination fails to “recognize that things will look different once they happen — in particular, that bad things will look a whole lot better…. When we imagine losing a job, for instance, we imagine the painful experience (“The boss will march into my office, shut the door behind him…”) without also imagining how our psychological immune systems will transform meaning (“I’ll come to realize that this was an opportunity to quit retail sales and follow my true calling as a sculptor.”).”

Studies show that if we would learn from others’ experiences, we could be much happier with our decisions, choices, and futures. But, says Gilbert, “our mythical belief in the variability and uniqueness of individuals is the main reason why we refuse to use others as surrogates…. The irony, of course, is that surrogation is a cheap and effective way to predict one’s future emotions, but because we don’t realize just how similar we all are, we reject this reliable method and rely instead on our imaginations, as flawed and fallible as they may be.”

Gilbert acknowledges “our ability to project ourselves forward in time and experience events before they happen enables us to learn from mistakes without making them and to evaluate actions without taking them. If nature has given us a greater gift, no one has named it. And yet, as impressive as it is, our ability to simulate future selves and future circumstances is by no means perfect…. There is no simple formula for finding happiness. But if our great big brains do not allow us to go surefootedly into our futures, they at least allow us to understand what makes us stumble.”

Author: Daniel Gilbert
Published: New York: Alfred A. Knopf ©2006

Copyright ©2014 Jill J. Jensen | Clarity from Chaos