Friday, September 07, 2007

Daniel Gilbert: Stumbling on Happiness

Dan Gilbert's Stumbling on Happiness explains in great detail how most of us are confused about what will make us happy, and therefore (from our own perspective) we systematically make foolish choices. The book is written at a very approachable level, and has plenty of humorous asides that make it fun and easy to read. But if you're looking for a solution to the problems Gilbert points out, Gilbert himself doesn't hold out much hope. The ways our memory and imagination trick us are pervasive and hard to defeat. In a few ways, he points out ways to at least track which direction the failures tend to lead so you can try to overcompensate, but your deeper instincts will constantly be telling you that this time your hunches are right.

There were several examples throughout the book where I was able to say "I don't make that particular mistake." But I suspect that everyone can find 10% or maybe 20% of the examples that don't apply to them. But if each of us still has 80% of the foibles he describes (and presumably many more that weren't entertaining enough to get into print) that's still a lot of irrationality to go around. One way that I mostly do better than his prototypical reader is that I'm a self-aware optimist and happy person. I'm pretty confident that even if things don't go my way that I'll generally be happy. It's still hard to believe that I'd be as happy if I were blind or lame (and so I go to some trouble to avoid situations that make those kind of permanent damage too likely), but for all the other minor misfortunes, I'm usually willing to take chances, in confidence that I'll be happy enough even if things don't work out.

Gilbert's most common projection is that people expect to be unhappy if their team doesn't win, or they don't get the promotion. If you can make projections based on looking at the people around you, rather than trying to imagine how you'd feel, you'll do better. When you imagine, you focus on the causes of the scenario you're evaluating. If you look around for people who have suffered the fate you're considering, you'd discover, for example that half the teams lost last week, and there are few fans (whatever sport) whose morale level swings for more than an hour based on the latest results from their team.

This is a more useful book for people trying to understand the psychology of making choices than for people trying to learn how to be happy. People who are already happy most of the time will learn (if they read carefully) that it doesn't much matter what they do or choose; they'll likely be happy in any case. Gilbert's story doesn't have much to say about those who aren't generally happy, which is probably the biggest weakness of the book.

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