Stumbling on Happiness: Book Review

I will begin with the conclusion: Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert is a must read. It is important however, to read it with the right expectations.

While I was expecting to read about happiness, how it is measured and how I can increase it and become happier by the end of the book, the opposite happened. The book is a bleak report of how hard it is to be truly happy. When I finished the book I had the feeling it is surprising that even though, as Gilbert puts it: “people are strongly, perhaps even primarily, perhaps even single-mindedly, motivated to feel happy”, there are in fact happy people. The book describes so accurately the fallibility of the human mind and more importantly our complete unawareness to this fallibility and our illusions of its accuracy that you end up feeling a bit down. Here is a short paragraph describing exactly this phenomenon:

Any brain that does the filling-in trick is bound to do the leaving-out trick as well, and thus the futures we imagine contain some details that our brains invented and lack some details that our brains ignored. The problem isn’t that our brains fill in and leave out. God help us if they didn’t. No, the problem is that they do this so well that we aren’t aware it is happening. As such, we tend to accept the brain’s products uncritically and expect the future to unfold with the details—and with only the details—that the brain has imagined. One of imagination’s shortcomings, then, is that it takes liberties without telling us it has done so.

I think one of the main lessons I learned while reading the book is that our ability to predict the future in the most personal and subjective sense of it, is highly distorted. Gilbert skillfully (and humorously) takes us through a journey that explains that we are unable to think accurately about the future. And as happiness, in a sense, is always future oriented, this becomes highly problematic:

One of the hallmarks of a visual experience is that we can almost always tell whether it is the product of a real or an imagined object. But not so with emotional experience. The emotional experience that results from a flow of information that originates in the world is called feeling; the emotional experience that results from a flow of information that originates in memory is called prefeeling; and mixing them up is one of the world’s most popular sports. We cannot feel good about an imaginary future when we are busy feeling bad about an actual present. But rather than recognizing that this is the inevitable result of the Reality First policy, we mistakenly assume that the future event is the cause of the unhappiness we feel when we think about it.

Not everything is so bleak after all. Because part of our inability to predict our future feeling is due to the fact that our mind includes an immune system that protects us and moderates the effects of extreme events. Gilbert explains:

We cannot do without reality and we cannot do without illusion. Each serves a purpose, each imposes a limit on the influence of the other, and our experience of the world is the artful compromise that these tough competitors negotiate.

And this is for me the main point of the book. Yes, we are fallible. But yes, we are also magnificent. The question is not whether we are perfect or not. The question is how we realize the limitations and benefits of the way we work and learn to optimize what we have. Here is Gilbert again:

And if we are purging ourselves of all things that afford us only imperfect approximations of the truth, then we need to discard not only psychology and the physical sciences but law, economics, and history as well. In short, if we adhere to the standard of perfection in all our endeavors, we are left with nothing but mathematics and the White Album. So maybe we just need to accept a bit of fuzziness and stop complaining.

Human life is fuzzy. Happiness is a fuzzy concept. Our mental abilities to evaluate and express our current feelings and especially estimate our future feelings are highly limited. But these are the cards we were dealt. There is no point in complaining about them, claiming they are different or fighting them. If we truly want to aspire for happiness we need to realistically understand our limitations and work within them and not against them. Gilbert is, in my view, a bit pessimistic about the prospect of people achieving this realistic view. I for one, think that reading his book is a great starting point to embark on a life with fuzzy happiness.


One Response to “Stumbling on Happiness: Book Review”

  1. Thoughts about perceptions, imagination and communication inspired by Stumbling on happiness « The Comparative Advantage Says:

    […] few days ago I wrote about Stumbling on Happiness by Dan Gilbert and how revealing it is with regards to the fallibility […]

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