Daniel Gilbert takes the psychobabble out of psychology.
The topic of happiness is so hot nowadays that it's even infiltrated the ivory tower. A growing number of academics, including economists, philosophers, neuroscientists, sociologists and psychologists, are writing books that contribute to the burgeoning interdisciplinary field of happiness studies.
What distinguishes these books from their glossy counterparts in the self-help aisle is their commitment to the analysis of happiness by means of empirical investigation and research. Speculative reflection is tethered to scientific methodologies in
the attempt to identify and explain the complex factors that influence perceived levels of well-being. Thankfully, these happiness researchers seem to believe that few of us are made happy by arduous academic prose, and their books are often written in a relaxed style that minimizes technical jargon.
Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert's
Stumbling on Happiness
is one of the most compelling and instructive of these works. The central question is: Why do we so frequently fail to understand what will make us happy-or unhappy-in the future? We all have a lot of practice imagining possible events and our emotional responses to them, such as a job promotion or the death of a loved one. And yet, if asked to predict how you would feel in six months if, tomorrow, you either won the lottery or became paralyzed, it is almost certain that you will overestimate the subsequent happiness of the first scenario and the ensuing misery of the second. Why? According to Gilbert, we should blame our brains.
After effectively exhibiting the similar characteristics of imagination, perception and memory, Gilbert demonstrates that "foresight is just as fallible as eyesight and hindsight," and that all three are susceptible to errors caused by blind spots. "The futures we imagine contain some details that our brains invented and lack some details that our brains ignored," and both these made-up and omitted features will significantly affect how accurately we foresee our future emotional states.
Our imaginations also tend to project our present circumstances and concerns onto the future, and we do not recognize that these concerns will likely shift by the time that future arrives. Hence, actions that we take now for the sake of future happiness often disappoint. "Most of us have a tough time imagining a tomorrow that is terribly different from today, and we find it particularly difficult to imagine that we will ever think, want, or feel differently than we do now." Working 70-hour weeks so that you can retire on a boat will come to seem foolish when you're standing on the bow, bored. The best-laid plans, even when they don't go awry, may not produce the happiness that we fully expected.
When Gilbert states that "studies of those who survive major traumas suggest that the vast majority do quite well, and that a significant portion claim that their lives were enhanced by the experience," you may be less likely to shake your head in disbelief if you've read his take on the "psychological immune system." Negative events "generally don't affect us as much or for as long as we expect them to," primarily because of our brain's natural, largely unnoticed, tendency to reinterpret distressing events in less upsetting ways. Our emotional states tend to be rather elastic. We experience heightened moments of sorrow, but eventually, and often rather quickly, we snap back to a relatively even emotional plane.
Paradoxically, we may have a harder time getting over events that are merely annoying rather than truly painful, because "intense suffering triggers the very processes that eradicate it, while
mild suffering does not, and this counterintuitive fact can make it difficult for us to predict our emotional futures." Watching our team lose may gnaw at us for days, while learning that a close friend has been badly hurt in an accident may leave us remarkably collected and ready to help.
These are just a few of the insights to be found in
Stumbling on Happiness
, and Gilbert's discussions of other topics are equally valuable, such as the role of variety in determining happiness, the difference between the regret of a past action versus the regret of inaction and the reasons why we often (and why we shouldn't) disregard the "lessons that the emotional experience of others has to teach us."
At times, Gilbert might try a little too hard to be funny, but his intention is clearly to charm a wide audience into reading a book about brain science. While some of the jokiness could have been dialed down, he succeeds in producing an engaging account of an enduring subject. As a result, we can become more familiar with the inner workings of our emotional responses and perhaps a little less inscrutable to ourselves.