Battlepanda: Bookblogging: Stumbling on Happiness


Always trying to figure things out with the minimum of bullshit and the maximum of belligerence.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Bookblogging: Stumbling on Happiness

A good rule of thumb: If Prof. Tyler Cowen calls it "so far the best book this year," it's probably worth reading. Stumbling on Happiness, by Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert, does not dissappoint.

Like Francis Bacon with his listing in the Novum Organum of the "Idols," mental tendencies that lead us away from scientific truth, Gilbert lays out the ways in which our imagination fails us when trying to determine what courses of action will make us happy.

Gilbert lists three shortcomings of our imagination that systematically mislead us. First is that imagination, like memory and perception, fills in missing details in ways that are not always accurate. Subjects systematically overpredict how happy a good event will make them, and underpredict how unhappy a bad event will make them, because imagination does not take into account all the other background circumstances that affect our happiness.

Second, imagination tends to project the present onto the future. A hungry shopper will overpurchase food, and a full one will underpurchase it, even though how hungry one is while shopping has little to do with how hungry one will be at mealtimes over the coming week.

And third, imagination does not take into account our psychological defense mechanisms that help us cope with negative experiences.

The psychological studies Gilbert cites in support of his claims should be unsurprising to anyone who took Psychology 101 in college. Gilbert cites philosophy, literature, and popular culture as well. The only gaping philosophical error I saw was a very weak reading of Kant in chapter 4.

The one annoying thing about this book is Gilbert's constant barrage of jokes, which seem to average about one per paragraph. Many of the jokes fall flat, but there are enough genuinely funny jokes that by the end of the book I was able to gloss over the lame ones without so much as an eye-roll.

My favorite quote from the book was in one of the end notes. In the afterward, Gilbert writes, "Wealth may be measured by counting dollars, but utility must be measured by counting how much goodness those dollars buy." The end note for that sentence reads, "Most modern economists would disagree with this statement because economics is currently committed to an assumption that psychology abandoned a half-century ago, namely, that a science of human behavior can ignore what people feel and say and rely solely on what people do."

Not being as extensively read as Prof. Cowen, I can't tell you whether Stumbling on Happiness is the best book so far this year. But it's a quick read, and at $14.95 from Amazon it won't break your bank account, unless your bank account is very small. I recommend it as a fun introduction to the fascinating work being done in the field of happiness psychology.