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on 17 April 2017
For reasons that will become apparent if you read this book, you would have done better to ask me about it while I was reading it. That being said, I'm reasonably sure I enjoyed it a lot. If you randomly selected this review, chances are how much I enjoyed it is a better indicator of how much you'll enjoy it than how much you predict you will. If you're interested in knowing what the hell any of what I'm saying means, then you should read this book.

If you find value in psychology, linguistics and philosophy (better yet all three) there's a very good chance you'll love this book as much as I do.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 14 April 2014
I have reviewed several books on this and related subjects. This one is unusual because it is written in an extremely chatty style but it is deceptively intelligent. Unlike some popular psychology books, this is based on the most respectable scientific research.
The author takes care to tell you at the beginning that there is no simple or clever way to increase your happiness. He warns you that he is going to delay the best advice to the end and that when it comes you won't like it. In the meantime he devotes much of the book to preparing you so that when it does come you realize that, frustrating as it is, his advice is exquisitely good.

{I never write spoilers in my reviews but if requested I will say more in a comment.)
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on 10 April 2016
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 and useful out of it.
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on 13 April 2017
Best book I've read in a very long time.
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on 6 December 2016
I didn't mind his jokes and style of writing . What left me disappointed however was that I didn't learn much from the book other than we over estimate in advance what we think will make us happy in the future. That is very true, as like happiness, I over estimated in advance how useful this book would be.
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on 6 March 2010
Gilbert chooses to deal with happiness because it is a fundamental aim and indisputable right of human life, a fact which is sometimes stated in a clear, constitutional way (like in the Declaration of Independence) and sometimes inferred from our actions.

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. "Rationalization", our ability to cope without unpleasant experiences, is the third shortcoming which completes the game that our own brains play on us.

The errors of prediction are difficult to cure by means of our personal experience, which is limited in any case. It is even more difficult to overcome them using the "wisdom" of past generations. And this is because this "wisdom" consists of ideas that flourish when they sustain the social systems that enable them to be transmitted - something they achieve by disguising themselves as recipes for individual happiness.

Instead of these approaches to happiness, the author suggests something simple: do not try to imagine how happy or satisfied you will be in a future situation, but observe, ask, learn how happy the people are who have already achieved happiness. And yet, it is sobering to note that this simple solution fails due to two barriers: our conviction that we are unique and our desire for control. Hence Gilbert is himself pessimistic regarding the adoption of his proposal.

One of the most interesting moments of the book is the discussion about the distinction between emotional and moral happiness. The author understands why philosophers feel it their duty to identify happiness with virtue as the particular type of happiness that we should be aiming at. He stresses, however, that "if a virtuous life is a cause of happiness, it is not happiness itself" and that the identification of virtue and happiness is misleading, because it mistakes the reason for the outcome. He concludes: "Happiness refers to feelings, virtue refers to actions and actions may lead to these feelings. But not necessarily and not exclusively."

Also very interesting is the discussion about the methodology used to approach the subject. The will for a scientifically rigorous study creates the need for measurement - even for such a subjective experience as happiness. Measurement, in turn, demands appropriate tools, however imperfect these are. It also requires the right timing, the right (i.e. high) frequency of measurement and a validation method that will make inter-subjective comparison possible.

The language of the book shows the sharpness of its author, who handles scientific concepts in a way that attracts lay readers without compromising the seriousness of the material. The unpredictable and witty sense of humour contributes to the enhanced enjoyment of reading. The real surprise, however, is its unconventionality - something you would not expect from a professor of a leading university. Gilbert does not hesitate to question two of the most powerful institutions of western societies: family and money. Referring to the family, and more specifically to the common belief that children bring happiness, he presents four different studies which show that happiness decreases dramatically after the birth of the first child and increases again only when the last child leaves home.

As for economy, the professor's sharp eye gleans from the work of Adam Smith, father of modern Economics:

"In what constitutes the real happiness of humans, [the poor] are in no respect inferior to those who would seem to be much above them... The joys of wealth and greatness...strike the imagination as something grand and beautiful and noble, of which the attainment is well worth all the toil and anxiety which they are apt to bestow upon it...It is this deception which rouses and keeps in continual motion the industry of mankind."

As Daniel Gilbert is well aware, it is not certain that in finishing this book people will feel happier or more ready to find happiness. However, it is very likely that their attitude towards many things will change - and they will surely feel they have made a large step towards self-knowledge.

Panayiota Chatzipanteli
Athens, Greece
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on 21 December 2014
Annoying style which irritated me so much I gave up! Give your hard earned dosh to the needy
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on 5 October 2007
What a relief to read a book that spares us the drivel and indulgent thinking that pervades most 'self-help' literature on the shelves.

For anyone prepared to take a direct look at themselves (which includes recognising that most of us are, by definition, fairly average - and that it's OK to be fairly average), this book is an accessible exploration of some important ideas about how we think about the past, present, and future. It demonstrates very neatly how prone we are to self-delusion, and how reluctant we are to learn from the experience of others.

Not all of the messages in this book are cosy, but equally it is refreshingly honest, and for those people prepared to consider the ideas it explores, there is plenty of scope to come away better equipped to tackle life in a constructive way.

If you want to be told that you are precious and unique, and that positive thinking will make all your dreams come true, then you might find this like a bucket of cold water. Yet if you pick this book up wanting to learn how to be happier, then you might have taken a genuine step towards doing so.

Oh - and the practical demonstration of our blind spot is great. Never fails to entertain...
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on 20 April 2007
Did you ever wake up with a hangover on Sunday morning and say, "I'll never drink again," then go out and do it again the following weekend. Well, then Stumbling on Happiness can explain why that happens. I won't give away the plot though.

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.
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on 14 January 2012
One thing we know about happiness is that it comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes including, for me, this wonderful book. It does its best to hide its scientific credentials beneath a spray of kindergarten colours, and enjoys the kind of garish design more usually seen on the pop psychology and self-help shelves of bookshops. That might have put me off, if Daniel Gilbert had not already come highly recommended, by no less a figure than fellow psychologist Daniel Kahneman. (Gilbert returns the compliment on the jacket of Thinking, Fast and Slow, describing it as a "masterpiece".) Both are fascinated by how our minds work - or don't, as the case may be - hence the "stumbling" part of the title. The pursuit of happiness is no simple jaunt along a primrose path of sensuous indulgence. Whatever route we take, we cannot avoid the sometimes rocky road of cognition, designed by millions of years of evolution to improve our chances of survival but not necessarily to make us happy.

Some of the illusory boulders we regularly trip over include being made less happy by variety, not more, stopping loving new things soon after we buy them, and discovering that money really doesn't buy happiness. We all know this last one, of course, don't we? Once we've earned as much money as we can actually enjoy, we'll quit working and enjoy it, right? Wrong. For Gilbert, money is implicated in some dodgy cultural wisdom about happiness (it "looks suspiciously like a super-replicating false belief"). "In short, the production of wealth does not necessarily make individuals happy, but it does serve the needs of an economy, which serves as a network for the propagation of delusional beliefs about happiness and wealth."

So, the activities to which we devote most of our waking hours - shopping for shiny things, working to earn spondulits, getting through that list of fifty things to do before we die - may not bring about the one thing we all want from them: happiness. On the plus side, "most people are surprisingly resilient in the face of trauma" - if you're paralysed in a car accident, after a while life won't be all that bad. We have a kind of "psychological immune system" that defends the mind against unhappiness, only we tend to ignore its power: when volunteers in an experiment were asked "to predict their emotional reactions to rejection, they imagined its sharp sting. Period. They did not go on to imagine how their brains might try to relieve that sting."

There's a pattern emerging. When it comes to happiness, it's not only the objective events that matter, but what we make of them. This is why our remarkable ability to imagine - "to experience the world as it isn't and has never been, but as it might be" - is the key to understanding happiness. Being "the only animal that thinks about the future" is fantastic, but how good are we? Again, we're back on that rocky road, stumbling on happiness, and this book charts just how well the human brain "can predict which of those futures it will enjoy".

Happiness seems such a highly variable and personal emotion that science ought to have little to say about it, and introducing the imagination is hardly going to make things easier. However, Gilbert begins by recalling his childhood fascination with optical illusions, which are scientifically interesting because everyone makes the same mistake and the mistakes are compelling, even when you're aware you're making them. "The errors that optical illusions induce in our perceptions are lawful, regular and systematic. They are not dumb mistakes but smart mistakes - mistakes that allow those who understand them to glimpse the elegant design and inner workings of the visual system."

We make similar kinds of systematic error when "we fail to recognize that our future selves won't see the world the way we see it now" and we compound that error with our "inability to take the perspective of the person to whom the rest of our lives will happen". That things close up seem clearer is obvious; that this also happens in time as well as space less so, when it's not our eyes but our imaginations that are doing the looking. Then, "the clarity of the next hour and the fuzziness of the next year can lead us to make a variety of mistakes".

While people can be wrong about what they are feeling, what we can say is that all claims of happiness are claims from someone's point of view - "from the perspective of a single human being whose unique collection of past experiences serves as a context, a lens, a background for her evaluation of her current experience". There is no view from nowhere.

In "Stumbling on Happiness" Daniel Gilbert guides us through some of the latest scientific research in psychology as well as drawing upon the history of ideas and our understanding of the nature of science. He has written elsewhere about tracing his own theory of belief to the seventeenth-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza, and here he suggests that "Bernoulli's brilliance lay not in his mathematics but in his psychology" - in his realization that what we objectively get (wealth) is not the same as what we subjectively experience. "The sad fact is that converting wealth to utility - that is, predicting how we will feel from knowledge of what we will get - isn't very much like converting metres to yards... The simple, lawful relationships that bind numbers to numbers and words to words do not bind objective events to emotional experiences."

Unsurprisingly, there is no simple formula for finding happiness. In a universe like ours, perhaps we should be grateful to find any kind of happiness at all. Gilbert concludes that, "if our great big brains do not allow us to go surefootedly into our futures, they at least allow us to understand what makes us stumble".
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