Saturday, November 17, 2007

Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert

If you’ve ever had even the slightest inclination as to why you can’t seem to find happiness in your life, then I have a book for you—Stumbling on Happiness by renowned Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert.

The book begins with a few rants and raves, while providing a broad perspective outlining the various cognitive processes at work in your brain. Its chock full of scholarly studies, mind tricks, and everyday stories that build on his overarching theme: We are unable to accurately predict our future happiness, because we can’t even explain how we truly felt about our past experiences.

He uses numerous passages from former philosophers (some of which I studied in college) to help explain that happiness is something all humans seek, but few actually understand when they are truly happy.

From philosopher Blaine Pascal:

All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they
employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others
avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will
never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every
action of every man, even those who hang themselves.

Even those who hang themselves? In the end, they were seeking happiness too—although it’s nearly impossible for most people to imagine being happy in this situation.

An excerpt from Stumbling on Happiness:

The fact is, we misinterpret our emotional responses of future events. For
example, most Americans can be classified as one of two types: those who live in
California and are happy they do, and those who don’t live in California but
believe they’d be happy if they did. Yet, research shows that Californians are
actually no happier than anyone else—so why does everyone (including
Californians) seem to believe they are? California has some of the most
beautiful scenery and some of the best weather in the continental United States,
and when non-Californians hear that magic word their imaginations instantly
produce mental images of sunny beaches and giant red wood trees. But while Los
Angeles has a better climate than Columbus, climate is just one of many things
that determine a person’s happiness—and yet all those other things are missing
from the mental image. If we were to add some of these missing details to our
mental images of beaches and plan trees—say, traffic, supermarkets, airports,
sports teams, cable rates, housing costs, earthquakes, landslides, and so
on—then we might recognize that L.A. beats Columbus in some ways (better
weather) and Columbus beats L.A. in others (less traffic). We think that
Californians are happier than Ohioans because we imagine California with so few
details—and we make no allowance for the fact that the details we are failing to
imagine could drastically alter the conclusions we draw.

Some of the highlights:

- We have a tendency to recall and rely on unusual instances, which is one of the reasons why we often repeat mistakes

- We tend to remember the best of times and the worst of times instead of the most likely of times. This can drastically impact our happiness level tomorrow because we set unlikely expectations based on a misrepresentation of our happiness in the past.

- “Economists and psychologists have spent decades studying wealth and happiness, and they have generally concluded that wealth increases human happiness when it lifts people out of abject poverty and into the middle class but that it does little to increase happiness thereafter—“declining marginal utility”—it hurts to be hungry, cold, sick, tired, and scared, but once you’ve bought your way out of these burdens, the rest of your money is an increasingly useless pile of paper.”

- Imagination is an amazing gift. However, “when we imagine future circumstances, we fill in details that won’t 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.”

Okay, so how can we most accurately predict our future happiness? There is no simple formula—imagination often tricks us. The best method is to find people working and living in your estimated future and seek their mentorship. Find out everything you can about their jobs, lives, lessons learned, etc…..this is a simple concept, but most people fail to do it.

Please note: Although I thoroughly enjoyed the book, it failed for me on a spiritual level because Gilbert failed to acknowledge some form of higher power helping guide our lives. Do I mean if you are religious then you’ll be happy? Absolutely not. Your happiness level is ultimately in your hands. However, having a spiritual grounding can help formulate a plan for your life, which can give you hope for a better future….


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