Sunday, September 21, 2008

Stumbling On Happiness

I finished reading the book Stumbling On Happiness by Daniel Gilbert last week. It was pretty good. I enjoyed the beginning especially, because he has a humorous way of telling stories and the subject matter is quite interesting. However, as I continued to read, I noticed that there were A LOT of similarities between this book and the last book I read, The Paradox of Choice. Well, it seemed that way anyway. I was going to go through both books and try to figure out just how many of the same studies were cited, but that turned out to be a really tedious task. Plus, both books are made up almost entirely of statistics and studies, so even if 5 or 6 of the studies cited were the same, that's not really a huge percentage of similarity. It was really noticeable to me, but I guess that's just because I read them in tandem, so it probably wouldn't be a big deal -- or any deal at all -- to most readers. What is a big deal, however, is that once I got to Gilbert's main conclusion, I found it amazingly disappointing and lame. The gist of the book is that our brains are not capable of predicting what will make us happy in the future because we have a tendency to remember selectively in a way that is not at all accurate and therefore doesn't aid us really in any way when we are trying to make decisions. And, our ability to imagine the future is equally flawed. Most of the book is made up of amusing and interesting examples to prove this. However, all goes sour when towards the end of the book he presents his solution to this problem. He oh-so-thoughtfully concludes that since we can't reliably use our imaginations to predict what would make us happy in the future, we should find someone else who is doing the thing we think we want to do and see how happy they are, which will help us to determine how happy we might be. When I got to this point, I was like, "What?! That's what all of this has been leading up to?!" He makes a concerted effort following this to explain that we humans are much more alike than we are different, so if you think you couldn't judge how happy you would be based on how happy someone else is, you are wrong. Honestly, I thought this was a really dumb conclusion to come to. To be fair, much of the book was quite thought-provoking. The ending was what I found rather unimpressive. Interestingly, the TED Talk by Daniel Gilbert about happiness is good and in it he manages to totally avoid the conclusions from the book I found so inane, so you might want to just skip the book and check that out instead.

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As a side note, one of the findings discussed in both books that I found fascinating concludes that people are much happier with what they choose when they believe the decision is irreversible. So, the option to change your mind about something after you've made a decision (according to many studies) is a factor that will most likely cause you to be much less satisfied with what you have.

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