Stumbling on Happiness [Book review]

In Gilbert’s view, our hike to happiness is ungainly because we  use our powers of imagination as our compass – we imagine what will make us happy. Problem is,  imagination lets us down in three important ways:

1. Imagination is a kind of simplification – it fills some bits in and leaves others out – and the omissions can be crucial to how we’ll feel. As a result, we’re poor at gauging how happy something will make us.

2. Imagination leads us to project the present, including feelings and current levels of satisfaction or longing, onto the future. We can’t estimate how much we’ll enjoy a food tomorrow if we’re stuffed full now.

3. Imagination leads us to discount how different things will seem when they actually happen. A bad thing, like losing a job, will appear worse when pictured in the future than when experienced during the present, because in the present we tend to rationalize the loss.

According to Gilbert, his friends say he points out problems without suggesting solutions – but they never tell him what to do about it (boom-tish).

He does have a solution to the imagination problem, he says, it’s just not one that people like. He says we’d do well to rely less on our own imagined futures and more on others’ actual experiences in choosing what will make us happy. ‘It doesn’t always make sense to heed what people tell us when they communicate their beliefs about happiness, but it does make sense to observe how happy they are in different circumstances’ (page 233).

In short:
Gilbert’s book describes itself as ‘not an instruction manual for how to be happy’. Instead, it surveys recent scientific findings about how people imagine their futures and how effective they are in predicting what will be most enjoyable.

Gilbert takes a long route to do this, with pretensions (chapter titles include Journey to Elsewhen and Paradise Glossed) that may frustrate get-to-the-point readers. And his ultimate recommendation to be guided more by what brings happiness to others than by our own imagined outcomes, may feel inadequate to justify the whole book.

But if you’re happy to ramble long the research path, then this is a pleasant journey.

Title: Stumbling on Happiness
Author: Daniel Gilbert
Publisher information: HarperCollins Publishers, London, 2006

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