Monday, May 31, 2010

Book Review: Stumbling on Happiness

I just finished reading Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert.

I have to say that I think I learned a thing or two about how the mind and imagination work, especially in regards to their relationship to the past and the future.

What I learned:

1.  When imagining the future or remembering the past the mind uses the current moment to substitute and fill in the gaps (and there are a lot of gaps).  So we mistakenly believe the past and future are closer to what we are currently experiencing aka as 'Presentism'.

2.  When imagining the future one tends to think abstractly, but not realize that one is doing so.  The more distant the future, the more abstract (I think of what I want to accomplish with the trip, not the bag-packing).

3. Two different kinds of happiness : emotional happiness (that cake tastes good!), virtuous happiness (Not eating the cake is the good thing to do).

4.  We can't think/reason about absences (the dog who _didn't_ bark).   This explains a lot to me about why people so easily fall into the broken window fallacy.  Could be the one big thing I learned from the book.

5.  We use our emotions during imagination to 'prefeel' our futures.  Unfortunately our current emotional state tends to override our 'prefeelings'.  So we flavor our preferences based more on what we are feeling right this moment, rather that the 'prefeeling' we are trying to feel.

6.  We are blessed with a psychological immune system which strives to keep us up-beat and positive-thinking.  Our minds naturally attempt to fit the facts around us in the happiest way possible.

7.  Our psych-immune system is only triggered if the affront to our well-being reaches a critical threshold.  So minor annoyances continue to annoy (toe stubbing), but for major traumas (toe loss) we actively seek to look at it the best way possible.

8.  The act of explaining (even if the explanation is poor) an event can make a very unpleasant event less unpleasant.  The same holds true for a very pleasant event (pleasant events become less pleasant).  Rationalization is a sort of emotional discharger.

9.  Our minds think that if something can be brought to mind more easily, then it is more likely (why people overcompensate for rare events that make good stories).

10.  We tend to use the end of an event to summarize the whole (good movies with bad endings are 'bad', while bad movies with good endings are 'good').

The end of the book Gilbert finally reveals the secret to not making the cognitive mistakes that lead people to choose futures where they are unhappy.

I have to say I was a bit disappointed with this secret.  He warns during the course of the book, repeatedly, that it is highly unlikely that we will take his advice.  However, the reason I'm disappointed is not because his advice is impractical or I'm unwilling to take it, but rather because it is so mundane and something that most people do all the time.

Drumroll please.....

His advice is not to trust one's imagination, and to rather ask someone who is _currently_ experiencing the event what their opinion is.  That is it.

We do this all the time:  movie reviews, restaurant reviews, heck, ANYTHING reviews.  There are opinion polls, and just plain old asking your friend what that new restaurant is like.   I have to say I'm a bit put-off that the advice would turn out to be so mundane and widely used already.

Now after reading this book, I do plan on asking for (and taking more seriously) peoples _recent_ opinions of things (and discounting heavily the more the current moment in time is separated from event).  So it was a good book/advice in that sense.  It just doesn't seem to warrant the big build-up and mystery Gilbert gave this 'shocking' advice.

Now of course I'm trapped.  I seem to remember enjoying most of the book (Gilbert is a pretty good writer and keeps the narrative flowing at a healthy clip).  However, that ending is pretty disappointing.  He built it up so much I was really hoping for something kind of spectacular.  Some advice or trick, that even though I was convinced I wouldn't use, would at least help me appreciate the problem in a new light.  Good advice? Yes.  Revolutionary, unthinkable-to-utilize advice?  No.

But now that I know that the ending is unduly flavoring my memory what do I do?

I think I'll leave it as is: undefined.  Maybe I liked the book and maybe I didn't.  :)

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