Stumbling on Happiness

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    Book’s Back Cover

    Why are lovers quicker to forgive their partners for infidelity than for leaving dirty dishes in the sink? Why will sighted people pay more to avoid going blind than blind people will pay to regain their sight? Why do dining companions insist on ordering different meals instead of getting what they really want? Why do pigeons seem to have such excellent aim; why can’t we remember one song while listening to another; and why does the line at the grocery store always slow down the moment we join it?

    In this brilliant, witty, and accessible book, renowned Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert describes the foibles of imagination and illusions of foresight that cause each of use to misconceive our tomorrows and misestimate our satisfactions. Vividly bringing to life the latest scientific research in psychology, cognitive neuroscience, philosophy, and behavioral economics, Gilbert reveals what scientists have discovered about the uniquely human ability to imagine the future, and about our capacity to predict how much we will like it when we get there. With penetrating insight and sparkling prose, Gilbert explains why we seem to know so little about the hearts and minds of the people we are about to become.

    Book Review

    Is it worthwhile to read a book review, to value anyone’s opinion on a book? Based on what Daniel Gilbert writes in Stumbling on Happiness, I would highly recommend that if you trust the source, then maybe you should read a book review before reading any book. So it goes for the rest of our lives. In struggling to find happiness, we discover a road full of obstacles. Gilbert’s main theme is that this road is not one that a person should take using only her imagination to plan her route.

    In our search for happiness, it is important to realize that happiness is fleeting and not achievable for any great length of time. Happiness is recognized in a moment when you say something like, “ah, I am truly happy, right now.” Instead of happiness, I like to think of satisfaction. To me, satisfaction is a more equilibrium state to achieve than a flash point of happiness. The wedding day is a flash point of happiness for the marrying couple. After that, is it continual happiness or continual satisfaction? The “happily ever after” fairy tale would say it is continual happiness. A fairy tale, I say. For me I think “satisfaction ever after” is more appropriate in real life.

    Everyone strives to control his or her own destiny. We do have intelligence so we cannot leave it all to higher beings, nor can we expect the work to be done by others when we want to achieve our pictured destiny. The funny thing about life is that we cannot foresee our future. What we see in our mind is a painted picture of our vision. That painted picture is an illusion that will need to re-stroked as our future unfolds. Gilbert writes that our future destination “isn’t what and where we thought it would be”. How can an individual’s future be solid and complete in her mind when so much is unknown?

    Children of today are taught that they are special, unique. That will be true within a family. Out in the real world, every child becomes average, fitting in on a large continuum of skills and abilities. Along with our “averageness” come emotional similarities. Our range of emotions is so basic: happy, sad, angry, and depressed, to name a few. The names of different emotions are quite limited, and apply to a huge variety of individual experiences. How many words do we have for happy and how varied is each? In Roget’s Thesaurus, there is fortunate, lucky, gay, contented, joyous, ecstatic, felicitous, apt, glad. Not a huge variety, is it? Each synonym is suited only for certain kind of happiness. Using research studies, Gilbert shows that we can trust that one person’s emotion in a particular circumstance would be similar to how “you” would feel. It is hard to believe when each one of us thinks we are so unique that our emotions are often very much the same.

    Gilbert suggests that our memory banks contain flaws. I like to think of these flaws as bad spots on a computer hard drive. We do not have a whole lot of ram space to remember all of the incidences, events and people. Can you replay the last 24 hours of your life? Generally, we remember snippets, key words, general moods, and the outline of the day, points that help us to recreate in our telling. Some memories will stay awhile, such as a birth of a child or a death of a loved one, or some other “abnormal” event. However, our normal everyday memories are like dreams, if you do not write them down when you first awake the dream will wisp away. Even traumatic events will wisp away in time. Our memories play a major role in imagining our emotional happiness in the future.

    Time can make the memories flit away. In Animal Farm by George Orwell, the animals remembered the time of rebellion. As time moved on, they believed their feed rations and working conditions had improved after the time of the humans. In reality, at the end of the book, the animals ate much less and worked much harder. It can be difficult to see the change before and after, or to remember the details, especially if we had not personally experienced it. The written word is tremendously helpful method to remember. Unfortunately, with Orwell’s animals only oral traditions kept alive the basic memory. With humans, our memories play tricks on us too. For us to remember a transitional event, for it to be etched in our memories, we need to experience the life-changing moment. Magicians will tell you that audiences are not wiser to their illusions after experiencing their performance. But immediately afterwards, the illusions will be fresh in the audience’s minds for retelling, including feelings of amazement and wonderment.

    So what is a person to do if a memories contain such faults. We cannot trust comparing our emotional state, for example whether we were happy as happy back then compared to now. Gilbert shows that the average “attentive person’s honest, real-time report is an imperfect approximation”. But that person immediate experience is the best way to figure out our own emotional state in those same circumstances. If you think moving to Alberta is the answer to your happiness, you best talk with someone who has recently moved there. And in Stumbling on Happiness, Gilbert says it only takes two steps to dismantle your idea that you are unique and your reaction would be different from anyone else.

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