“Stumbling on Happiness” by Daniel Gilbert provides an accessible overview of Dr. Gilbert’s work at Harvard in the field of psychology. It is written in a style similar to that of Malcolm Gladwell or Steven Levitt, taking interesting concepts and playfully exploring the consequences and justifications of them.
Gilbert’s central idea in the book is that we don’t really know what makes us happy and are remarkably bad at remembering what made us happy in the past or predicting what will make us happy in the future.
One amusing example he gives is on the “joys of parenthood”. He explains that people looking forward to having children envision playing with toddler, being proud at their graduation ceremony and feeding candy to beautiful grandchildren. People with children look back and remember the good times and do the best to forget the bad. When housewives are interviewed about the activities in their daily routines, taking care of the children is one of their least favourite, right at the bottom only slightly above doing housework. When the happiness of parents is charted over the course of a marriage, marital satisfactions decreases dramatically with the first child’s birth and doesn’t increase until the last child leaves home.
He explains that people still have children because it’s a belief system that propagates itself. A culture that believes it’s a joy to have children will exist longer than one that feels children are a burden (he gives the example of one religious group that was completely opposed to sex and now only a few elderly members remain).
He gives an example in the opposite direction of living with a major disability (being blind, deaf or in a wheel chair for example). Many people think that living such a life would be as bad as (or perhaps worse than) dieing, but when people who actually live with such disabilities are interviewed, they’re pretty much as happy as anyone else. Gilbert explains that we imagine the instant we first find out about the disability, and extrapolate that instant of horror and disappointment as what the rest of our lives will be like. Instead people with disabilities get used to their new capabilities, and derive satisfaction from all the things people normally do (time with friends and family, a good meal or the satisfaction in the completion of a major accomplishment).
In the book he proposes a solution to the problem of making choices that will lead to happiness (after he has shown that we’re miserable at doing so ourselves). He suggests talking to people who have made the choice we are considering and are currently living with the consequences. Gauge how happy (or unhappy) it is making them and use their experience as a predictor of your experience.
For example, if I was thinking about going to live in Costa Rica to live the cheap life of an expat in a developing nation, the best approach to figuring out if I’ll be happy there is to try to find and interview other expats who have done the same (ideally a number who have been there for the same length of time, perhaps a month). When I was a teenager I wanted to be a medical doctor, and the MDs I talked to discouraged me from pursuing this career (each one told the negatives of the profession). One told me that if I wanted to make lots of money and play around with blood, I should be a dentist and at least have regular hours. Years later I switched from pre-med into computer science when I finally convinced myself that they were right and I wouldn’t be happy in a career in medicine.
The author claims people won’t actually follow this strategy, even when it’s shown to them how effective it is, because we’re all so convinced that we’re special and that our experience is unique.
Overall I think this is an interesting book with some engaging concepts. The friend who gave it to me had the criticism, which I agree with, that it was one neat idea that had been padded to book length. I think Gilbert’s ideas could have worked better as a long article, rather than a book (it got fairly repetitious at points). If you think you might try to adopt the strategy of predicting your future happiness by talking to people who have already done what you are considering, or if you just have a general interest in psychology and what makes people happy I’d recommend reading it. Otherwise there are probably better books you can spend your time with.
Mr. Cheap is on vacation this week but eagerly looks forward to reading your comments when he’s back in town.
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