With Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert has not written a prescription for how to be happy. Rather, this Harvard psychologist has written a description of the psychological stumbling blocks we face in our pursuit of happiness.
Gilbert is one of the funniest authors I have had the pleasure to read. In the Foreword’s second paragraph he sagely points out that “some people will… tell you sternly that you should live every minute of your life as though it were your last, which only goes to show that some people would spend their final ten minutes giving other people dumb advice.” It’s a winning combination of thought and humour and continues throughout the book.
We are unique, Gilbert asserts, from other animals, in our ability to envision the future. Which is great – it helps us make decisions and act for the benefit of our “future selves”. There’s a problem – and that is, we’re just not very good it. We make persistent, predictable, consistent mistakes when we try to do so.
He points out that our perception of the current moment is flawed. This is exacerbated when we look to the past. Memory is a reconstruction, influenced as much by the present (our current mood and knowledge) as our actual past experiences. And the future; a product of our imagination? Well, that’s where things really start going pear-shaped.
Our imagination, especially when it comes to imagining our emotional futures, is flawed. We are shocking affective forecasters: meaning, when we try to predict how certain events will affect us emotionally, we often get it wrong.
And he goes on to explain how we get it wrong in systematic, consistent, predictable, ways.
In the Foreword, Gilbert says the following:
“Writing a book is its own reward, but reading a book is a commitment of time and money that ought to pay clear dividends. If you are not educated and entertained [by this book], you deserve to be returned to your original age and net worth. That won’t happen, of course, so I’ve written a book that I hope will interest and amuse you, provided you don’t take yourself too seriously and have at least ten minutes to live.”
With Stumbling on Happiness, he has certainly achieved that. It’s an easy, entertaining, and informative read.