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Stumbling On Happiness

Your Ticket Away From the Self-Help Aisle Forever

As if to ward off the wrong kind of reader for his book, Gilbert warns in his introduction: “This is not an instruction manual that will tell you anything useful about how to be happy. Those books are located in the self help section and once you’ve bought one, done everything it says to do, and found yourself miserable anyway, you can always come back here to understand why.”

Gilbert is not a Buddhist guru or a makeover stylist. He is a professor of psychology at Harvard University. Yes, that one. Lucky for us, this professor can distinguish between writing for a dissertation committee in a publish-or perish mode and writing for an audience that simply needs something to amuse them for the flight from New York to L.A. He’s also enjoying a literary cycle established by The Tipping Point and Freaknomics where the public seems to be interested in trends and sociology. Good timing Professor Gilbert.

In this book, Gilbert promotes the theory that the frontal lobes of our brains are our servants and tyrants. The frontal lobe allows us to imagine the future, which often gives us great pleasure because we tend to imagine our futures brightly. We want to imagine our futures because we want to control and enjoy them. This is a point of sabatoge.

Gilbert illustrates in numerous ways how our decision making processes are often unreliable. We choose based on context and groupings because the brain has an inability to think about the absence or similarities in things. This is one reason why more people believe East and West Germany are more alike than Ceylon and Nepal. Our least likely experiences become our most likely memories. Our obsessions with only remembering how we felt at the end of an experience versus recalling the experience in its entirety clouds our memories. Gilbert uses his own experience of watching Schlinder’s List to elaborate here. He remembered hating the film but on second viewing he realized that he thoroughly enjoyed 98 percent of the film but because he hated the documentary-style ending so much, he had convinced himself that he had hated the entire film. Sorry Steven Spielberg. It’s all in the name of science here.

For those of us wondering how we could have possibly chosen "him" or "her" to make us happy in the romantic department, Gilbert introduces the brain’s “psychological immune system” which makes us see what we want to see. We have the tendency to find positive what we are stuck with (family member, spouse) and if we can’t change the experience, we change the view.

While this book promises not to be a flaccid self-help primer, it does offer a simple strategy for us to make better choices when our frontal lobes may get in the way. I could tell you what Gilbert advises, but then I would only be remembering the end of my experience of reading Stumbling On Happiness thereby highlighting one of the very things that leads us astray. If you’ve ever wondered what Shakespeare, Freud, Epicurus, the City Council of Manza, Italy, a pair of conjoined twins, and the father of the Kodak Camera may have to show us about the pursuit of happiness, then you'll find it here. While the text does not carry a single idea through to its end as with The Tipping Point or entertain us with a myriad of case studies as does Freaknomics, it will give you ample conversation for your next dinner date as you are quickly sizing up whether you should even be having the date in the first place.

Stumbling On Happiness by Daniel Gilbert
May 2, 2006
Hardback, $24.95
ISBN 1-4000-4266-6
277 pages