Book: Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert

Excellent book on a fascinating subject

Daniel Gilbert
Stumbling on Happiness
Alfred A. Knopf, 2006
ISBN: 1-4000-4266-6
238 pages

The pursuit of happiness is a right enshrined in America's Declaration of Independence. It is arguably the fundamental motivation behind everything humans do. But for all our pursuit of happiness, we seem to be pretty bad at catching it. Even if staying happy is a hard problem, we have had ample time and motivation to work on solving it. And yet we don't seem to have come very close to succeeding. That, and why it's true, are what Daniel Gilbert's book Stumbling on Happiness is about.

This is no self-help book. The author is a professor of psychology at Harvard and it's clear from the text that what he has to say is based on a lot of careful academic research. It's also not a self-help book in another sense: It turns out that the problem becoming happy and staying that way is exceedingly intractable. He's not joking when he says "I will conclude by telling you a simple remedy for these illusions that you will almost certainly not accept" (p. 25).

The book is remarkably good. It belongs on that short list of books that are a pleasure to read and tell us new and remarkable things about what it is to be human. Most of Stephen Pinker's books also belong on that list and so does Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel. But very few others do. If you're like me, those books and Stumbling on Happiness answer important questions that you hadn't even thought to ask.

Professor Gilbert has a large number of useful facts, persuasive arguments, and illuminating studies at is fingertips. It turns out that, as with optical illusions, "The mistakes we make when we try to imagine our personal futures are also lawful, regular, and systematic" (p. xvi). It seems that we're not nearly skeptical enough about the things we imagine, that our imaginations aren't very good, and that we're lousy at predicting what we'll think about something when it does happen. Worse, we don't like to listen to people who are in a position to give us good advice. Of course, all of that is much more interesting to hear about when it's explained in detail and backed up with considerable evidence.

But all is may not be bleak. By becoming aware of the limitations and errors that Professor Gilbert describes, it may be possible to minimize them at least to some degree. We learn to recognize some optical illusions, after all. And it's always possible that we can persuade ourselves to accept his remedy.

Professor Gilbert has put more than a few small jokes in the book. It's no bad thing to treat a potentially dry subject in a light-hearted manner, but there are enough of them that it seems a bit forced. I think he'd have done just as well or perhaps a bit better with about two-thirds as many.

Posted: Thu - August 24, 2006 at 07:43 PM   Main   Category: