Thursday, July 16, 2020

Stumbling on Happiness- A Book Review


by Daniel Gilbert

Reviewed by

  Geoffrey W. Sutton

Harvard psychology professor, Daniel Gilbert, will make you laugh as he weaves witticisms and humorous stories into an entertaining account of scientific research as we join him in Stumbling on Happiness. Essentially, Gilbert argues in chapter one, that we spend much of our time planning and executing unsuccessful strategies to attain an elusive state of happiness. In six sections, we learn why such a quest often proves beyond our grasp.

In part one, Gilbert provides a brief overview of the philosophical foundations of the problem of subjective analysis of happiness. He gradually leads us to an operational definition by illustrating how common human experiences can deliver shared feelings of happiness. However, he illustrates how the elusive and subjective aspect of happiness can produce self-deception by demonstrating how the human brain misperceives visual phenomena and similarly misperceives the imagined happiness value of a future event.

In part two, Gilbert builds on the results of cognitive science to show how we mistakenly recall previously recorded feelings and struggle to make affective  comparisons between experiences. He concludes the section with an appropriately humble appreciation of the problems in measuring happiness. Nevertheless, he urges us to forge ahead with the assessments we have because of the important role feelings play in our lives. Caveats aside, Gilbert has set the foundation for the next three parts that address the attitudes of realism, presentism, and rationalization to an understanding of happiness.

REALISM is the focus for part three. Gilbert argues from research data that imagination provides the illusion of foresight and a sense of.realism that is in fact unreal because we routinely fail to realize how many event-related details are filled in by our brains. He summarizes memory research to demonstrate how the brain forms imprecise memories of past events in such a subtle manner that people do not realize the inaccuracies. Thus, he expertly explains how our perceptual processes not only miss important details but also fill in nonexistent information based on previous experience and environmental cues. He also reviews the important dynamics of memory reconstruction especially as related to the accuracy of memories. Although many of these studies will be familiar to undergraduate
psychology students, Gilbert shows how these findings are relevant to an accurate
appraisal of experiences that we may or may not construe as a basis for happy feelings.

PRESENTISM. In part four, readers learn about the problems people have in accurately predicting their future feelings, which are largely based on the present (hence the name Presentism for this section). Beginning with illustrations of failed predictions and humorous past images of what the future (now past) would be like, Gilbert guides readers into an appreciation for the problems of using present experience to extrapolate to the future.

In addition, he includes research that illustrates the relatively poor job people do when asked to assess how they will feel following various events. By this time most readers should be fairly well convinced that their predictions about a given pursuit of happiness may not materialize. Even if it did, they cannot be sure that they will indeed feel happy! Finally, he builds a subtle argument for the similarity of space and time dimensions of experience in order to use research about misperceptions of distant events in spatial dimensions to illustrate the problem of appraising affective outcomes of events on near and distant time horizons.

RATIONALIZATION. Paradise Glossed, the chapter that begins part five (Rationalization), opens with a familiar Shakespearean line, "For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so (Hamlet)." Here we learn of the human penchant for recasting personal events and facts so they present a favorable impression. In Gilbert's words, we cook the facts (read confirmation bias). An interesting aside for therapists is that people end up handling trauma and disaster much better than they predict they would. So what do people commonly regret? Interested readers will find the answer on page 197

In the last section, Gilbert illustrates how personal theories and problematic information add to the difficulty of predicting which event sequence will lead to any particular future, let alone one that affords us happiness. He concludes with a chapter suggesting that learning from the experiences of others may actually improve our odds of a happier future more than relying on our "faithless" memories or memory dependent imaginations.

Scholarly readers will appreciate the extensive chapter-by-chapter notes that include studies from the highest quality psychology journals. The notes are followed by an adequate index. On the book's website, there is a basic 12-week outline for those who wish to teach a unit on the subject ( .html)..Pragmatic readers will benefit from a current overview of a topic relevant to an understanding of human behavior—at least for those of us who believe that a good deal of human behavior is motivated by the pursuit of happiness. 

Worth Quoting

“Impact is rewarding. Mattering makes us happy.”
― Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness

“Surprise tells us that we were expecting something other than what we got, even when we didn’t know we were expecting anything at all.”
― Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness

“Memory uses the filling-in trick, but imagination is the filling-in trick,”
didn’t know we were expecting anything at all.”
― Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness

“Imagination cannot easily transcend the boundaries of the present, and one reason for this is that it must borrow machinery that is owned by perception. The fact that these two processes must run on the same platform means that we are sometimes confused about which one is running. We assume that what we feel as we imagine the future is what we’ll feel when we get there, but in fact, what we feel as we imagine the future is often a response to what’s happening in the present.”
― Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness

“Among life’s cruellest truths is this one: wonderful things are especially wonderful the first time they happen, but their wonderfulness wanes with repetition.”
― Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness

“the feeling of control—whether real or illusory—is one of the wellsprings of mental health.”
― Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness

“When we imagine future circumstances, we fill in details that won’t really come to pass and leave out details that will. When we imagine future feelings, we find it impossible to ignore what we are feeling now and impossible to recognize how we will think about the things that happen later.”

― Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness

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Here is a YouTube talk on happiness by Dan Gilbert

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