Book Review: Stumbling On Happiness

Auto Date Thursday, December 28th, 2006

StumblingOnHappiness-coverLast summer I read Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert I can’t say it changed my life; I think my life was already changing. But it did significantly change the way I think about the events that impact my life and the decisions I have to make to cope with them.

In the foreword to the book, the author invites us to view our future selves (ten minutes from now or ten years from now) as our children and to consider that the things we do now, such as buy an ice cream cone or put money into our retirement account, are for their benefit. And he reminds us that, like our children, our future selves are rarely as grateful for our efforts as we would expect. He spends much of the rest of the book addressing the question “Why are we so bad at predicting what will make us happy and what will make us unhappy?” His answer is carefully constructed, with details and supporting evidence provided by a variety of psychological studies.

Now you might be worried that a Harvard professor equipped with studies and evidence could easily make even the subject of happiness dry and uninteresting. Fear not. Stumbling on Happiness reached the New York Times best seller list because it is both edifying and entertaining as well as educational. (And not because people thought it was a self-help book, which it most certainly is not.) Gilbert writes as well or better than the best of our recent bestselling non fiction writers. (Think of Steven Levitt or Malcom Gladwell, both of whom enthusiastically endorse the book on the front of the current edition’s dust cover.)

If you want an idea of how engaging Gilbert can be, before you read this book, I recommend that you spend twenty minutes watching a video of his presentation at the 2005 TED conference ( ). It’s a perfect example of how a person who knows how important entertainment is to teaching, and who has had lots of practice, can present scientific arguments, backed up by lots of data, and hold your attention for as long as he needs it. If you don’t want to watch it on your computer, download the audio to your mp3 player and listen to it while walking; he doesn’t depend on visuals to succeed.

I won’t tell you about the book’s answer to the question “Why are we so bad at knowing what makes us happy or unhappy?”. Gilbert doesn’t think we can (or will) get better at that anyway. But I’ll tell you the punch line of the TED talk which is this: If we human beings were aware of how consistently we overestimate how happy good things will make us, or how unhappy bad things will makes us, we would be better, more moral people. We wouldn’t react with an exaggerated fear of bad consequences nor would we be overly motivated by greed (or lust or envy). And we wouldn’t saddle our future selves with shame or embarrassment (or jail time) because of decisions we made while reacting to our poorly informed estimates of our future happiness.

If you know this, it helps you to make decisions without fear of making the wrong decision (you’ll be happy anyway) and allows you to face an unexpected and unpleasant change in your life (e.g. the loss of your job) without a complete sense of panic.

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