Book review: Stumbling on happiness

Daniel Gilbert’s book Stumbling on Happiness is not about happiness so much as it is about why our pursuit of happiness so often has disappointing results. Gilbert (Harvard College Professor of Psychology at Harvard University) presents quite a bit of well-organized information about the foibles of the human psyche and imagination in this witty and enjoyable book.

We think we know what will make us happy, and yet sometimes the things we work so hard for bring only brief contentment, if not disappointment or outright misery, if we finally manage to get them. Gilbert puts this in terms of our future selves, whose cholesterol levels and job satisfaction and financial comfort we spend so much time fretting over and for whom we give up so much present pleasure, yet who so often look back and shake their heads and wonder, “What on earth was I thinking?” The book is about why we so often misjudge what our future selves will find satisfying.

The short answer is that our minds are subject to various failings when we try to imagine our futures, similar to the optical illusions to which our eyes are subject. Gilbert wrote the book to explore the ways that these failures, which are consistent from human to human, illuminate the process of cognition about the future (which is, he says, the thing separating us from all the other animals on the earth).

In the first section of the book, Gilbert goes into some of the problems inherent in the study of something as subjective as feelings of happiness, and illustrates that although the subject is indeed fraught with difficulties, personal descriptions of present feelings are as accurate a report as we’re going to get, and these reports become scientifically useful when we gather large numbers of them for comparison and averaging.

Gilbert then groups human errors of imagination into three types and describes each type, complete with lots of interesting and often amusing evidence from psychological studies of human behavior.

The first type of error is that when we are filling in gaps in reality with something imagined, we do it so quickly and effortlessly that we don’t even realize we’re doing it. Gilbert gives a number of frankly disheartening examples of how flawed our perceptions of reality are, and how prone to interpolations based on suggestion or expectation. For example, the subjects in one experiment who heard the word “eel” preceded by a cough in a variety of sentences thought they heard either the word “heel” or the word “peel” depending on which word fit into the context of the sentence, even if they couldn’t determine which word would fit better until the end of the sentence and the word “eel” occurred near the beginning. Imagination also kicks in and colors our perceptions of what an event will mean—in other words, we interpret generic concepts like parties in a particular way, rather than realizing that there are multiple types of party—and this happens so automatically that we don’t realize that what we’re picturing might not match reality when the reality gets here.

The second type of error is that when our imagination is filling in the gaps for us, it doesn’t go all that far for its material, and so we tend to see the future as more like the present than it really will be. For example, if you’re like many Americans, at some point last Thursday evening you probably thought that you might never eat again after all that Thanksgiving turkey and stuffing and pie. Or at least it would be awhile before you felt like eating. But maybe by the end of the evening, or certainly by the next morning, there you were at the table as usual. Gilbert gives other examples of studies that show how our present experience unrealistically influences our concepts of what we will want to do in the future. We forget that the context will change in a variety of ways and our feelings will change with it.

The third error of imagination involves the ways we adapt to something once it has happened through a variety of rationalizations that we don’t foresee. This was also a fairly disheartening section; it seems that we view not reality but a filtered reality that our brain judges to be positive enough to keep us going but with enough negative feedback to allow us to change course when necessary. Gilbert uses our physiological immune system as an analog for the psychological immune system that balances our view of reality by, for example, finding good in the painful things that we don’t have much choice about. The whole book, but this section in particular, left me feeling a bit discouraged about how well we humans can grasp reality. On the one hand, we do manage to muddle through with what we’ve got, and the mental mechanisms that Gilbert talks about do have some positive consequences. But on the other hand, as with some of our anatomical features, our perceptions of the world sometimes seem to be those of a creature whose software and hardware still contain some bugs.

At the beginning of the book, Gilbert promises that later he will give us a solution to our problems of faulty forecasting, but that we almost certainly won’t make use of it. At the end of the book he suggests that the best way to determine whether a particular situation or course of action will make us happy is to look at people who are presently in that situation and see what they say about how happy they are. He closes with some discussion of why most people will reject this suggestion: basically, we think we’re more distinctive and individual and our situations are more peculiar than they are. It’s interesting that in the book he quotes Tim Wilson, who wrote an excellent book (Strangers to ourselves) about the many ways that our brains process information outside of conscious awareness, and how this subconscious processing influences our behavior without our being aware of it. Wilson makes a similar suggestion in his book, namely, that we can understand ourselves better not by trusting our own feelings and perceptions about who we are or what would be best for us, but by listening to what close and trusted family and friends say about us (he also predicted that people would not act on his suggestion).

Whether you take Gilbert’s advice or not, you’ll probably enjoy reading the book and learn some fascinating things about how your mind works.