My first experience with Daniel Gilbert was an article that I can no longer find—a frustrating thing, especially since it was published only recently. Still, the article was in some ways a boiled-down version of Gilbert’s opening section in Stumbling on Happiness; that is, it dealt briefly with the direct connection between “happiness” and the uniquely (as Gilbert takes great pains to prove) human ability for long-term forecasting.
Don’t let the title fool you: Gilbert’s book isn’t a self-help tome, and Gilbert is neither a guru of inner peace nor the latest pop psychologist like that hack Dr. Phil. Gilbert is no happier than you or I—he couldn’t be, and that is really the point. Though it covers a lot of ground, Stumbling on Happiness proposes several things:
- The front lobe of the brain, a recent and uniquely human characteristic, seems to be the primary agent of forward thinking—most animals can understand immediate causal relationships, but humans seem to be the only create capable of thinking about, say, what they will feel like tomorrow.
- Everything you think you know—that is, your conscious thought—is largely imaginary. The majority of memory is a fabrication of the brain, immediately and transparently imagined so that the thinker doesn’t know the difference.
- Ergo, everything you think you know about being happy (hint: that you are or aren’t) probably isn’t true, and everything you think you know about other people’s happiness (his example is the happiness of conjoined twins) probably isn’t true, either.
I am immediately suspicious of any book which promises to be groundbreaking or controversial. The book’s cover prominently features a quote from a review by Freakonomics author Steven D. Levitt: “Think you know what makes you happy? This absolutely fantastic book will shatter your most deeply held convictions about how the mind works.” As I said in my review of Freakonomics, taglines like “Rogue Economist” are usually marketing ploys to make marginal science sound more appealing to market segments that still prefer to buy products with words like “Xtreme” in the name.
Despite my misgivings going into the book, I found I was delightfully surprised. Gilbert’s scholarship is excellent (I should hope so: he’s a Professor of Psychology at Harvard), and even though the book’s premise does indeed challenge preconceptions about self-awareness and emotion, it doesn’t do it in grand, sweeping gestures as the blurbs would have you believe. Actually, it simply chips away with study after study, example after example—one comes to realize, by the end, that we are very good at fooling ourselves, better than we would have ever imagined.
What most impressed me was Gilbert’s flair for rhetoric, which far and away exceeded the expectations I had for a Professor of Psychology—he manages not to to write succinctly and convincingly, but is often funny as well, which made the book a pleasure to read. It won’t Change Your Life and it won’t Rock Your World—or even Shatter Your Most Deeply Held Convictions, for that matter—but Stumbling on Happiness is a damned interesting read.