Stumbling on Happiness

Cover image for Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbertby Daniel Gilbert

ISBN 978-1-4000-7742-7

“This is a book that describes what science has to tell us about how and how well the human brain can image its own future, and about how well it can predict which of those futures it will most enjoy.”

Realism is the belief that things are in reality as they appear in the mind, provided that all the relevant equipment is working correctly. However, the brain relies on a number of tricks and shortcuts to do its job; otherwise we would always be seeing the blind spot in our field of vision where the optic nerve connects to the retina, and reviewing our memory of something that happened in the past would take precisely as long as the original event. Most of the time, we aren’t even aware of the tricks our brains perform to give us an apparently seamless experience of the world, but they are numerous. These quirks and tricks develop because they are generally useful, but sometimes have unusual or detrimental side effects. In Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert explores how certain elements of cognition contribute to the human tendency to be extremely bad at accurately predicting what will make us happy in the future.

Stumbling on Happiness is an opportunity to explore mental processes we normally take for granted, or accept at face value. For example, people like completion and closure, believing that it is always better to have more information. When asked, people almost always choose certainty over uncertainty. Yet we are more likely to keep thinking about a story if it has an ambiguous ending, since it leaves us with a kernel to turn over in our minds. Would Eleanor & Park be the same if Rainbow Rowell had revealed the three words on the post card? Would Inception have been such a big hit if the totem in the final shot could not be ambiguously interpreted? Would Blade Runner remain popular to this day if not for the question about whether or not Deckard is a replicant? Our love of explanation generally works in our favour because it helps us to understand why negative events occurred, thus reducing their traumatic impact, but applied to positive events, it can destroy our ability to savour those experiences.

Gilbert approaches his topic with a healthy dose of humour. Writing about the potential differences between two peoples’ subject emotion experience of the same thing, he comments that “philosophers have flung themselves headlong at this problem for quite some time with little more than bruises to show for it.” Sometimes the jokes and puns are bad, but mostly they are entertaining, and help make this book accessible for the general reader. However, those who prefer their straight science in their non-fiction reading may grow tired of Gilbert’s humourous tangents, which persist throughout.

Despite the humourous tone, Stumbling on Happiness is rooted in research. In addition to backing up his ideas with numerous studies, Gilbert frequently sets up tests and diagrams that demonstrate the shortcuts our brains take, rather than merely asking the reader to trust his word that they exist. These proofs do have a tendency to prolonging each section, because Gilbert cannot reveal too many details until after the reader has tried the test or thought experiment, but the increase in understanding seems well worth the initial ambiguity.

By the final chapter of the book, you will probably be thoroughly doubting your competency to go about life, and questioning your every prediction about the future. Unfortunately, learning about the foibles of the human mind won’t necessarily help you overcome them, or make you happier. After all, the clinically depressed make some of the most accurate predictions about their future happiness, so a certain amount of delusion appears to be healthy. Gilbert does have an answer about the best way to make the most accurate prediction about how happy something will make you, but unfortunately, some of the same cognitive errors that make us bad at predicting our futures also tend to make us prejudiced against this method, because it is predicated on the idea that we are much more like other people than we are willing to believe.

Highly readable and full of insight, Stumbling on Happiness is illuminating, but its lack of applicability will probably discourage many readers who want a prescription for happiness rather than an explanation of why it is so difficult to achieve. Provided you go in expecting a book about cognitive science and psychology, it is an excellent read that will increase your understanding of the workings of your brain.

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Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszenthmihalyi

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach

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