stumbling on happiness

I don’t usually recommend books, likely because I don’t usually finish books, but I just finished listening to the audio book of Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness, and found it quite intriguing. As Gilbert says, “Despite the third word in the title, this is not an instruction manual that will tell you anything useful about how to be happy. Those books are located in the self-help section two aisles over, and once you’ve bought one, done everything it says to do and found yourself miserable anyway, you can always come back here to find out why.”

Here’s an extended quote from the end of the first chapter:

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. The act of steering one’s boat down the river of time is a source of pleasure, regardless of one’s port of call. Now at this point you probably believe two things: first, you probably believe that if you never heard the phrase, ‘the river of time’ again, it would be too soon. Amen. Second, you probably believe that even if the act of steering a metaphorical boat down a clichéd river is a source of pleasure and well being, where the boat goes matters much, much more. Playing captain is a joy all its own, but the real reason why we want to steer our ships is so we can get them to Honalee instead of Jersey City.

The nature of a place determines how we feel upon arrival, and our uniquely human ability to think about the extended future allows us to choose the best destinations, and avoid the worst. We are the apes who learned to look forward because doing so enables us to shop among the many fates that might befall us, and select the best one. Other animals must experience an event in order to learn about its pleasures and pains, but our powers of foresight allow us to imagine that which has not yet happened, and hence spare ourselves the hard lessons of experience.

We needn’t reach out and touch an ember to know that it will hurt to do so, and we needn’t experience abandonment, scorn, eviction, demotion, disease or divorce to know that all of these are undesirable ends that we should do our best to avoid. We want, and we should want, to control the direction of our boat, because some futures are better than others, and even from this distance, we should be able to tell which are which.

This idea is so obvious that it barely seems worth mentioning, but I’m going to mention it anyway. Indeed, I’m going to spend the rest of this book mentioning it, because it will probably take more than a few mentions to convince you that what looks like an obvious idea is, in fact the surprisingly wrong answer to our question.

We insist on steering our boats because we think we have a pretty good idea of where we should go, but the truth is that much of our steering is in vain, not because the boat won’t respond, and not because we can’t find our destination, but because the future is fundamentally different than it appears through the perspecti-scope.

Just as we experience illusions of eyesight – isn’t it strange how one line looks longer than the other even though it isn’t? – and illusions of hindsight – isn’t it strange how I can’t remember taking out the garbage even though I did? – so too do we experience illusions of foresight, and all three types of illusion are explained by the same basic principles of human psychology.

To be perfectly honest, I won’t be just mentioning this surprisingly wrong answer, I’ll be pounding and pummeling it until it gives up and goes home. The surprisingly wrong answer is apparently so sensible and so widely believed that only a protracted thrashing has any hope of expunging it from our conventional wisdom. So before the grudge match begins, let me share with you my plan of attack:

In Part 2, Subjectivity, I’ll tell you about the science of happiness. We all steer ourselves toward the futures that we think will make us happy, but what does that word really mean, and how can we ever hope to achieve solid, scientific answers to questions about something as gossamer as a feeling? We use our eyes to look into space and our imaginations to look into time. Just as our eyes sometimes lead us to see things as they are not, our imaginations sometimes lead us to foresee things as they will not be. Imagination suffers from three shortcomings that give rise to the illusions of foresight with which this book is chiefly concerned.

In Part 3, Realism, I’ll tell you about the first shortcoming. Imagination works so quickly, quietly, and effectively, that we are insufficiently skeptical of its products.

In Part 4, Present-ism, I’ll tell you about the second shortcoming. Imagination’s products are, well, not particularly imaginative, which is why the imagined future often looks so much like the actual present.

In Part 5, Rationalization, I’ll tell you about the third shortcoming. Imagination has a hard time telling us about how we will think about the future when we get there. If we have trouble foreseeing future events, then we have even more trouble foreseeing how we will see them when they happen.

Finally, in Part 6, Corrigibility, I’ll tell you why illusions of foresight aren’t easily remedied by personal experience, or by the wisdom we inherit from our grandmothers. I’ll conclude by telling you about a simple remedy for these illusions that you’ll almost certainly not accept.

By the time you finish these chapters, I hope you’ll understand why most of us spend so much of our lives turning rudders and hoisting sails, only to find that Shangri-La isn’t what, and where, we thought it would be.

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