Stumbling on Happiness

Posted by on Jun 16, 2007 in Blog, Philosophy, Psychology, Review | 1 comment

I logged into the MDPLS (Miami-Dade Public Library System) website to check to see which books I had were nearly due, and I realized that I only have a few days to write a review on this book, so I decided what better time than now to write it. Stumbling On Happiness, written by renowned Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, is an interesting read that gets into the mind of the people we are to become. I wish I had read this book more in depth though than just skim it for interesting pieces. This review is going to have very few of the interesting pieces that I liked from the book. There are a lot of good pieces, though the book overall seems as if it could be more concise. If you want more substance than just this post, buy the book. The last paragraph in this post summarizes the whole book for the most part. And now, here’s the book:

What would you do right now if you learned that you were going to die in ten minutes? Hard to say, of course, but of all the things you might do in your final ten minutes, it’s a pretty safe bet that few of them are things you actually did today.

Now, some people will bemoan this fact, wag their fingers in your direction, and tell you sternly that you should live every minute of your life as though it was your last, which only goes to show that some people would spend their final ten minutes giving other people dumb advice. The thing we do when we expect our lives to continue are naturally and properly different than the things we might do if we expected them to end abruptly. We go easy on the lard and tobacco, smile dutifully at yet another of our supervisor’s witless jokes, read books like this one when we could be wearing paper hats and eating pistachio macaroons in the bathtub, and we do each of these thing in the charitable service of the people we will soon become. We treat our future selves as though they were our children, spending most of the hours of most of our days constructing tomorrows that we hope will make them happy. Rather than indulging in whatever strikes our momentary fancy, we take responsibility for the welfare of our future selves, squirreling away portions of our paychecks each month so they can enjoy their retirements on a putting green, jogging and flossing with some regularity so they can avoid coronaries and gum drafts, enduring dirty diapers and mind-numbing repetitions of The Cat in the Hat so that someday they will have fat-cheeked grandchildren to bounce on their laps. Even plunking down a dollar at the convenience is an act of charity intended to ensure that the person we are about to become will enjoy the Twinkie we are paying for now. In fact, just about anytime we want something – a promotion, a marriage, an automobile, a cheeseburger – we are expecting that if we get it, then the person who has our fingerprints a second, minute, day, or decade from now will enjoy the world they inherit from us, honoring our sacrifices as they reap the harvest of our shrewd investment decisions and dietary forbearance.

The human being is the only animal that thinks about the future. I do recognize that nonhuman animals often act as though they have the capacity to think about the future.

First, it doesn’t take a smart, self-aware, conscious brain to make simple predictions about the future.

The second thing to notice is that predictions such as these are not particularly far-reaching. They are not predictions in the same sense that we might predict the annual rate of inflation, the intellectual impact of post modernism, the heat death of the universe, or Madonna’s next hair color. Rather, these are predictions about what will happen in precisely this spot, precisely next, to precisely me, and we call them predictions only because there is no better word for them in the English language. But the use of that term – with its inescapable connotations of calculated, thoughtful reflection about events that may occur anywhere, to anyone, at any time – risks obscuring the fact that brains are continuously making predictions about the immediate, local, personal future of their owners without their owners’ awareness. Rather than saying that such brains are predicting, let’s say that they are nexting.

Yours is nexting right now. For example, at this moment you may be consciously thinking about the sentence you just read, or about the key ring in your pocket that is jammed uncomfortably against your thigh, or about whether the War of 1812 really deserves its own overture. Whatever you are thinking, your thoughts are surely about something other than the word with which this sentence will end. But even as you hear these very words echoing in your very head, and think whatever thoughts they inspire, your brain is using the word it is reading right now and the words it read just before to make a reasonable guess about the identity of the word it will read next, which is what allows you to read so fluently. It is only when your brain predicts badly that you suddenly feel avocado.

Surprise tells us that we were expecting something other than what we got, even when we didn’t know we were expecting anything at all.

What is the conceptual tie that binds anxiety and planning? Both, of course, are intimately connected to thinking about the future. We feel anxiety when we anticipate something bad will happen, and we plan by imagining how our actions will unfold over time. Planning requires that we peer into our futures, and anxiety is one of the reactions we may have when we do.

Gaining control can have a positive impact on one’s health and well-being, but losing control can be worse than never having had any at all.

Our desire to control is so powerful, and the feeling of being in control is so rewarding, that people often act as though they can control the uncontrollable.

So if the question is “Why should we want to control our futures?” then the surprisingly right answer is that it feels good to do so – period. Impact is rewarding. mattering makes us happy.

Research has shown that when volunteers are paying close attention to a stimulus at the precise moment that it changes, they do notice that change quickly and reliably. The point of these studies is not that we are hopelessly inept at detecting changes in our experience of the world but rather that unless our minds are keenly focused on a particular aspect of that experience at the very moment it changes, we will be forced to rely on our memories – forced to compare our current experience to our recollection of our former experience – in order to detect change.

Wonderful things are especially wonderful the first time they happen, but their wonderfulness wanes with repetition. One way to beat habituation is to increase the variety of one’s experiences. Another way to beat habituation is to increase the amount of time that separates repetitions of the experience.

After just a few days of wearing our new sunglasses we stop comparing them with the old pair, and – well, what do you know? The delight that the comparison produced evaporates.

The fact that we make different comparisons at different times – but don’t realize that we will do so – helps explain some otherwise puzzling conundrums. For instance, economists and psychologists have shown that people expect losing a dollar to have more impact than gaining a dollar, which is why most of us would refuse a bet that gives us 85 percent chance of doubling our life savings and a 15 percent chance of losing it.

In the long run, people of every age and in every walk of life seem to regret things they did, which is why the most popular regrets include not going to college, not grasping profitable business opportunities, and not spending enough time with family and friends.

But why do people regret inaction more than actions? One reason is that the psychological immune system has a more difficult manufacturing positive and credible views of inactions than of actions. When our action causes us to accept a marriage proposal from someone who later becomes an axe murderer, we can console ourselves by thinking of all the things we learned from the experience (“Collecting hatchets is not a healthy hobby”). But when out inaction causes us to reject a marriage proposal from someone who later becomes a movie star, we can’t console ourselves by thinking of all the things we learned from the experience because . . . well, there wasn’t one. The irony is all too clear: Because we do not realize that our psychological immune systems can rationalize an excess of courage more easily than an excess of cowardice, we hedge our bets when we should blunder forward.

Every parent knows that children are a lot of work – a lot of really hard work – and although parenting has many rewarding moments, the vast majority of its moments involve dull and selfless service to people who will take decades to become even begrudgingly grateful for what we are doing. If parenting is such a difficult business, then why do we have such a rosy view of it? One reason is that we have been talking on the phone all day with society’s stockholders – our moms and uncles and personal trainers – who have been transmitting to us an idea that they believe to be true but whose accuracy is not the cause of its successful transmission. “Children bring happiness” is a super-replicator. The belief-transmission network of which we are a part cannot operate without a continuously replenished supply of people to do the transmitting, thus the belief that children are a source of happiness becomes a part of our cultural wisdom simply because the opposite belief unravels the fabric of any society that hold it. Indeed, people who have believed that children bring misery and despair – and who thus stopped having them – would put their belief transmission network out of business in around fifty years, hence terminating the belief that terminated them.

The belief-transmission game is rigged so that we must believe that children and money bring happiness, regardless of whether such beliefs are true. This doesn’t mean that we should all now quit our jobs and abandon our families. Rather, it means that while we believe we are raising children and earning paychecks to increase our share of happiness, we are actually doing these things for reasons beyond our ken. We are nodes in a social network that arises and falls by a logic of its own, which is why we continue to toil, continue to mate, and continue to be surprised when we do not experience all the joy we so gullibly anticipated.

Studies suggest that  when people are deprived of the information that imagination requires and are thus forced to use others as surrogates, they make remarkably accurate predictions about their future feelings, which suggests that the best way to predict our feelings tomorrow is to see how others are feeling today.

If you are like most people, then like most people, you don’t know you’re like most people. Science has given us a lot of facts about the average person, and one of the most reliable of these facts is that the average person doesn’t see herself as average.

We don’t always see ourselves as superior, but we almost always see ourselves as unique.

The self considers itself to be a very special person.

Bernoulli’s brilliance lay not in his mathematics but in his psychology – in his realization that what we objectively get (wealth) is not the same as what we subjectively experience when we get it (utility). Wealth doesn’t matter; utility does.

So what’s a chooser to do? Without a formula for predicting utility, we tend to do what only our species does: imagine. Our brains have a unique structure that allows us to mentally transport ourselves into future circumstances and then ask ourselves how it feels to be there. Rather than calculating utilities with mathematical precision, we simply step into tomorrow’s shoes and see how well they fit. Our ability to project ourselves forward in time and experience events before they happen enables us to learn from mistakes without making them and to evaluate actions without taking them. If nature has given us a greater gift, no one has named it. And yet, as impressive as it is, our ability to simulate future selves and future circumstances is by no means perfect. When we imagine future circumstances, we fill in details that won’t really come to pass and leave out details that will. When we imagine future feelings, we find it impossible to ignore what we are feeling now and impossible to recognize how we will think about the things that happen later. Daniel Bernoulli dreamed of a world in which a simple formula would allow us all to determine our futures with perspicacity and foresight But foresight is a fragile talent that often leaves us squinting, straining to see what it would be like to have this, go there, or do that. There is no simple formula for finding happiness. But if our great big brains do not allow us to go surefootedly into our futures, they at least allow us to understand what makes us stumble.

One Response to “Stumbling on Happiness”

  1. Terrific read.. I will no doubt be finding the book in my local library or finding a copy online to rip ;] Love your work mate.

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