Jesse Jarnow

stumbling on happiness

There’s an old SubGenius maxim that runs that if Satan can use the Scriptures to his own ends, then SubGenius slackmaster J.R. “Bob” Dobbs can quote anything to prove anything. Reading pop psychology can sometimes feel like that. Harvard prof Daniel Gilbert and his thoroughly enjoyable Stumbling on Happiness are cut from the same contrarian cloth as New Yorker staffer Malcolm Gladwell (who gives good blurb on http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1400042666/102-5657614-4424918?v=glance&n=283155">the book’s Amazon page).

Gilbert hangs his arguments about what makes humans happy from a narrative of anecdotes. In short, he says, “when we think of events in the distant past or distant future we tend to think abstractly about why they happened or will happen, but when we think of events in the near past or near future we tend to think concretely about how they happened or will happen.” This is what we must consider, he argues, when we think about how to be happy (which, presumably, is what we want).

The endless stream of footnoted studies is powerfully dizzying. In one test, subjects “imagined the poster on their wall, noted how they felt when they did so, and assumed that if imagining the poster on the wall made them feel good, then actually seeing it on their wall would probably do the same. And they were right.” Score one for intuition. But 25 or so pages earlier, Gilbert writes that “when humankind imagines the future, it rarely notices what imagination has missed — and the missing pieces are much more important than we realize.” So… we shouldn’t trust intuition?

At one point, Gilbert uses graphs to show that eating at the same restaurant over and over can be clinically more satisfying than eating at a variety of restaurants over the same period of time — which goes a long way towards justifying my San Loco obsession, but could just be rhetorical fancy-pantsing (or, in other words: anything to prove anything).

Surprisingly, the end result of Stumbling on Happiness is a cohesive composite of a deeply elusive emotion. Gilbert never puts his finger on exactly what happiness is, but who could? Instead, he provides a vocabulary (see: “presentism,” “pre-feeling,” etc.), to chart its idiosyncratic dartings. If that all sounds a l’il fuzzy and self-helpy, then I suppose it is, but Gilbert offers no cure-alls, just methods of observing one’s own thoughts mid-flight. Sure, Dobbs or Gilbert can use anything to prove anything, but Gilbert has chosen to prove the existence of happiness, and that’s not such a bad goal to have.

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