Sunday, April 29, 2007

Stumbling on Happiness: why we suck at being happy

When Cory Doctorow recommends a book with this much enthusiasm, it's usually worth checking out. Here's his review from Boing Boing:

Stumbling on Happiness: why we suck at being happy:

"Cory Doctorow:

Daniel Gilbert's Stumbling on Happiness is one of those pop-science books that delivers a serious a-ha punch at least once a chapter, a little insight into the way that the world works that stops you right where you are and makes you go back and reevaluate how you got there.

Gilbert is a Harvard Psych prof, and in this book, he doesn't seek to explain how to be happy -- in fact, the introduction specifically disclaims this intention -- but rather, how happiness happens. And why happiness is so elusive.

Happiness is certainly elusive. How many times have we chased some goal, some purchase, some strategy, sure that we needed it to be complete, only to discover later that we're no happier than we were when the whole steeplechase started? This is the crux of Gilbert's thesis: why are we so consistently bad at estimating how happy some course of action will make us?

For Gilbert, the answer lies in our faulty perceptions. We misremember how happy we've been in the past, we mispredict how happy we'll be in the future (his section on futurism should be mandatory reading for every science fiction writer and tech journalist). Citing study after study, Gilbert lays out the lucid and funny case for the idea that our brains aren't very good at measuring what's going on in our brains.

Gilbert's funny, conversational style reminds me of Freakonomics, as does his subject-matter. For happiness is at the core of more than psychology -- it's also at the heart of justice, economics, political science, ethics, and many other key organizing disciplines that set the Earth in motion. This was the kind of book that made me reexamine more than my life's goals -- it made me re-think my politics and economic activity, too.

I listened to an unabridged edition read by the author, and it was very fine. Gilbert has the timing of a stand-up comic, and the book itself is just so funny to begin with. Highly recommended.

Link to book,

Link to audiobook

Update: Louis sends in this video of the author speaking at the TED Conference

(Via Boing Boing.)

1 comment:

Michelle Black, M.Ed said...

Hi Dave!

Yup, indeed Gilbert has repackaged an idea that has not likely made nearly as much money as the idea that there is a magical answer that will erase our "misremembering" minds of all dissatisfaction (The Secret seems to be the current one people are giving energy to).

I write "dissatisfaction" rather than "unhappiness," because I agree that it's not lack of happiness itself, but rather our "developed" society's general dissatisfaction with everything once we've achieved it. I agree that we've been happy many times, but that in general we tend to move on from that happiness very quickly, replacing it with yet another dangling carrot we must now chase. So much for it being the journey and not the destination that's important.

A good article that this recalls for me is "Overcoming Self-Esteem," by behavioural therapy subscriber David Mills. In it, he recalls the notion that we spend much more time beating ourselves while accomplishing those elusive goals that we think make us complete, than we do actually "esteeming" ourselves once we've met those challenges.

Check it out at: