Jaded's Pub

Stumbling on HappinessI picked up Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness on a whim a while back. I didn’t even look at it carefully. I think I must’ve been depressed that day and saw this as some kind of self-help book. Which it isn’t. Instead, it’s a kind of “How Things Work” manual for your mind, focusing on what and why things make us happy.

Gilbert’s argument (and he backs it up with lots of research; there are many pages of footnotes at the back of the book) is that people make choices according to what they think will make them happy, but that these choices are often at least partially wrong. In other words, they make a prediction as to their future happiness basing the prediction on the assumption that they’ve made a particular choice. The problem is that people are lousy at making these predictions, and Gilbert explains why that is. Picking a random example, he cites a study where college students were asked to predict in advance how happy they’d be if their team won a big upcoming football game. Then after the game, they were asked how happy they were. It turns out that they weren’t nearly as happy as they’d predicted they would be. Why? Because when they made their predictions, they imagined the end of the game, the final play and all the hoopla. But they neglected to imagine that they still had a test to study for, piles of laundry waiting to be done, or financial woes. Their imaginations didn’t paint the whole picture when making the prediction of happiness.

That’s just one of many, many examples. Throughout the book we learn all kinds of things about our minds that we might already know if we ever stopped to think about it. For example, how bad we are at noticing things that aren’t there. A classic example is this card trick that made the rounds of the web a while back. If you haven’t seen it, go on and try it. I’ll wait.
Back? OK, so what’s the trick? I already gave you a clue. The trick is that none of the cards on the first page are also on the second page. But under normal circumstances we don’t notice that. We’re focused on ‘our’ card and ignore the others, so when we get to the reveal page, it (normally) never occurs to us to check the other cards. We see that our card isn’t there and we’re amazed! OK, well, we’re puzzled at least.

Anyway, back to Stumbling…. In spite of all the footnotes and citations, Gilbert has a breezy, conversational style that makes the book easy going for us laymen. He’s pretty funny at times, too. I will admit that after a while the book starts to feel a bit repetitive as he describes study after study that support what he’s telling us. It’s the kind of book that’s best read a chapter or two at a time, interspersed with other reading materials. And the focus here is on why we make the (often wrong) predictions that we make; there’s very little in the way of self-improvement tips.

And yet, I came away feeling as if at least a few scales had fallen from my eyes. Once you’ve been made aware of the way your imagination can paint an inaccurate picture of the future you can (in theory) allow for that. Perhaps more importantly, it’s encouraging to know that we’re not alone. That almost everyone who tilts at the gold ring isn’t nearly as happy to capture it as they thought they’d be. Knowing ourselves better is never a bad thing. Stumbling on Happiness teaches us about ourselves in a fairly entertaining way, and so gets a big thumbs up.

  • I’m fascinated by how our minds work. It is always interesting to get a new glimpse into another aspect. I tend to notice the ‘tricks’, like the card trick because I like to analyze so I scrutinize instead of just flowing with the trick. I’m also a huge fan of Derren Brown, in the U.K. and have learned an amazing amount of information about the mind from his form of magic which primarily involves misdirection on a high level. If you ever have the chance to view any of his dvds, it is baffling when he recounts the steps slowly afterward and you realize how much you miss. He gets me nearly every time even though I pay close attention. Probably too close for his style of delivery.