Stumbling on Happiness (P.S.) Paperback – 5 Feb 2007
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‘“Stumbling on Happiness” is an absolutely fantastic book that will shatter your most deeply held convictions about how your own mind works. Ceaselessly entertaining, Gilbert is the perfect guide to some of the most interesting psychological research ever performed. Think you know what makes you happy? You won’t know for sure until you have read this book.’ Steven D. Levitt, author of ‘Freakonomics’
‘He does for psychology what Bill Bryson did for evolution.’ Scotsman
‘In “Stumbling on Happiness”, Daniel Gilbert shares his brilliant insights into our quirks of mind, and steers us toward happiness in the most delightful, engaging ways. If you stumble on this book, you’re guaranteed many doses of joy.’ Daniel Goleman, author of ‘Emotional Intelligence’
‘This is a brilliant book, a useful book, and a book that could quite possibly change the way you look at just about everything. And as a bonus, Gilbert writes like a cross between Malcolm Gladwell and David Sedaris.’ Seth Godin, author ‘All Marketers Are Liars’
‘Everyone will enjoy reading this book, and some of us will wish we could have written it. You will rarely have a chance to learn so much about so important a topic while having so much fun.’ Professor Daniel Kahneman, Princeton University, Winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics
From the Author
Q and A with Professor Gilbert
What makes you happy?
This is another question that people have trouble answering for themselves.
When you are truly happy you aren't noticing how happy you are, which makes
it difficult to recall later. With that said, I have the sense that I am
happiest when I am writing without interruption. I can wake up at 5 a.m.,
walk directly to my desk, and write for 10 hours without ever remembering
to eat or brush my teeth. My normal day is an endless series of
interruptions - email, telephone, family, students - so the occasional
uninterrupted day is (I think) my greatest pleasure.
What makes you unhappy?
I get snippy and sarcastic when people use language incorrectly. I
shouldn't, but I do. When a clerk at a store says, `That will be three
dollars', I say, `Really, when?' I know, I know. I should be shot.
You say that research shows that having children doesn't make us happier.
Do you think becoming a dad made you happier?
Intuitions and data often collide. The data say the earth is round, but it
looks flat to me. My intuition is that fatherhood increases my average
daily happiness, but the data say that unless I'm different from most
people, this probably isn't so. Of course, I'm not exactly like other
people inasmuch as I am 48 and my son is 30, so perhaps I'm free to believe
my intuitions - in which case, I believe that he makes me happy and that my
granddaughter makes me even happier.
Does what you know about the way the human brain works in any way help you
to be happy?
Knowing that people overestimate the impact of almost every life event
makes me a bit braver and a bit more relaxed because I know that whatever
I'm worrying about now probably won't matter as much as I think it will.
Do you intend for your book to help people to think differently?
My book isn't meant to make people happy. It is meant to make them smart
about happiness by telling them what science has discovered. I hope to give
people information that they can use (or not use) as they wish. I'm not in
the business of telling people what's right. I'm in the business of helping
them see what's true and then letting them decide for themselves what to do
What do you hope to accomplish with your research?
I'd like to say that I am trying to understand errors in affective
forecasting so that we can learn how best to overcome them. The trouble is
that forecasting errors are not clearly a `disease' that requires a `cure'.
Indeed, some people have suggested that inaccurate forecasts may play an
important role in our lives. Having said that, I'm willing to bet that on
balance we are best served by accurate estimates of the emotional
consequences of pains, tragedies and embarrassments. However, at heart I'm
just a guy who is curious about human nature, and what I really want from
my research is a deeper understanding of who we are and what we are doing
here. If my research has a practical benefit, I'm happy about that. If it
doesn't, I'm not even slightly worried. What is the practical benefit of
knowing how the universe began, or of understanding the evolution of the
You say that we regret not doing something more than something we did. What
do you regret not doing - and doing?
I regret not looking after my health a bit better back when it was easy to
do. The guy who had my body before me wasn't all that nice to it. I don't
have any Great Regrets of Action, though I suppose I would take back every
instance in which I made someone I love feel bad if that were possible.
You say it's the frequency not the intensity of positive events in your
life which makes you happy. What positive events reoccur in your life
regularly and therefore contribute to your happiness?
Three good things I do regularly: (1) drink freshly ground double-strength
coffee made in a French press every morning, (2) walk to and from my office
every day, and (3) listen to Miles or Jimi at least once a week (and if you
have to ask their last names then you are even less cool than I am).
Do you think that too much choice in modern life is making us miserable?
Well, we surely have too many stupid choices. A year or two ago I bought a
dozen pairs of identical cargo pants and identical black T-shirts and now
when I wake up in the morning I never think about what to wear. Why should
we waste our lives deciding whether to have Coke or Pepsi, with or without
caffeine, with or without sugar, with or without lemon, in a can or a
bottle or a litre or a cup, with or without ice, and a straw thank you?
Do you think we have lost some primal ignorance that would have kept up
No, no, no. Did I mention no? Every generation has the illusion that things
were easier and better in a simpler past. Dead wrong. Things are better
today than at any time in human history. Our primal ignorance is what keeps
us whacking each other over the head with sticks, and not what allows us to
paint a Mona Lisa or design a space shuttle. The `primal ignorance that
keeps us happy' gives rise to obesity and global warming, not antibiotics
or the Magna Carta. If human kind flourishes rather than flounders over the
next thousand years, it will be because we fully embraced learning and
reason, and not because we surrendered to some fantasy about returning to a
world that never really was. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top Customer Reviews
Happiness is hot, which is probably a good thing. Now that science can measure what really makes us happy, some excellent books are coming out on the topic and with any luck they will help us to achieve it. Mind you, this involves dismantling a hundred years worth of western beliefs. Gilbert's take on it is that we think we know what's going to make us happy in future but we invariably get it wrong. Most of us can't predict what we're going to feel like in future; we can only imagine what life is like today, right now at the exact moment.
We can only feel pain when it's there; when it's not we don't plan for having it back again and vice versa. We plan for being in love while we're in love. We buy houses by the seaside when it's sunny. We order too much food when we're hungry and get stuck half way through. And we all think we're different from everyone else.
Except me, I know I am. But that's precisely his point.
This book is intelligent, fascinating, a little distressing - but only because it's full of observations which make you kick yourself for not noticing earlier. If you do manage to learn and internalise its message, then at the very least you won't over order next time you go for a Chinese meal and you may even avoid some terrible decisions about what you imagine will make you happy in future.
My view of Stumbling on Happiness upon finishing it seems to be rather different to that I had whilst actually reading it. I read most of the book in a single day, zipping straight through it, very interested in what Gilbert had to say. However, I felt disappointed after I'd finished.
That may well say more about my wish for Gilbert to distil the secrets of happiness into concentrated form for easy consumption - which, unsurprisingly, turns out to be rather unrealistic - than it does about his book.
Even so, I think he could have done a better job of the conclusion. For example, the best practical advice he gave for coping with the entire theme of his book (that humans are very poor at both predicting and remembering what makes us happy) didn't even make it into the book (except by inference). It is contained in the Q&A section at the back of the above edition:
"Q: Does what you know about how the human brain works in any way help you to be happy?
A: Knowing that people overestimate the impact of almost every life event makes me a bit braver and a bit more relaxed because I know that whatever I'm worrying about now probably won't matter as much as I think it will."
Gilbert is also clearly a man who finds himself pretty amusing. I did too - some of the time - but he often became irritating. Gilbert himself is well aware of this, as he says in the short autobiographical section at the back:
"Admirers of my book call it personal, warm and funny, and critics call it juvenile, self-indulgent and annoying. I suspect that all these adjectives describe me pretty well."
Overall, the book contains plenty of interesting material but the flaws I've described detract from it. However, I suspect that Gilbert's writing style will act as a polariser and some people will love it, whilst others will find him insufferably smug.
The title of the book derives from the author's central position: we usually find happiness not by conscious effort but by chance.
Gilbert's argument is straightforward: our imagination is flawed - and indeed it has flaws similar to those of other basic functions of our brain, such as memory, vision and perception. Therefore, our ability to predict what will make us happy or how happy we shall be in a future situation is limited.
Using the findings of a large number of empirical studies, the award-winning writer focuses on the shortcomings inherent in our imagination, on the inadequacies which cause our predictions to be wrong. "Realism" is the first of these shortcomings: according to Gilbert, our imagination works fast, quietly and effectively in order to convince us of the "reliability" of its products and to appease our skepticism. The process is reminiscent of optical illusions, as well as of the way memory fills-in the gaps with information it never received but which fits in with the rest of the puzzle.
"Presentism" is the second shortcoming of the imagination: the future we envisage is not very different from the present we live in, thus making the available choices seem fewer that the ones that actually exist.
And if it is hard to imagine future events, it is even harder to predict the thoughts and feelings that these events will cause.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Starts off well, but eventually I ran out of steam, wading through interminable summaries of psychological studies. Read morePublished 2 days ago by Self-help junkie
Not a self-help book. A neurology and psychology book that helps explain why we think the way we do.Published 1 month ago by HelenB
one of most enlightening and humorous books on subject of happiness research I have read, check out his ted.com videosPublished 2 months ago by THOMAS
This book grows on you. There's a lot of anecdotal information, backed up by theory usually. It took me some time to reflect on the information to feel that I'd got something new... Read morePublished 3 months ago by Mrs. B.
Very interesting book on how the mind evaluates happiness. It has a lot of examples and is a very entertaining read.Published 4 months ago by Greg Flinn
Not worth anyone's time. It is a pretentious compilation of 'wise thoughts' repeated too many times throughout the book. Read morePublished 5 months ago by crystal
Very interesting learnings about the construct of happiness and the human brain.Published 10 months ago by simon kennedy