Skip to content

Stumbling towards Happiness

[Anne:] I have added yet one more text to our reading list, Daniel Gilbert’s 2006 Stumbling on Happiness, which I found interesting and useful, so I want to append my reading notes for that text to our conversation here. Gilbert’s argument is that when we make decisions “in the charitable service of the people we will soon become,” we are woefully inept in imagining who those selves will be, and what they will want and need. Ours are mistakes of “realism” (being insufficiently skeptical of the products of our imagination, which fills and leaves out–like memory does–without telling us what it’s up to), “presentism” (our tendency to project the present onto the future, rather than imagining something much different), and “rationalization” (our failure to recognize that things –especially bad things– will look a whole lot different once they actually happen). Gilbert also offers a remedy for these shortcomings: give up on remembering and imagining, and use other people as surrogates for our future selves. Thinking of ourselves as unique, we mistakenly reject the lessons we could learn from the emotional experience of others, but “the best way to predict our feelings tomorrow is to see how others are feeling today.”

That’s the overview, but there were many particular moments of illumination throughout. Perhaps the one of most use– because so clarifying– to me came in the first section, on “realism”: “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. Seeing in time is like seeing in space. But there is one important difference between spatial and temporal horizons…. our brains seem to overlook the fact that details vanish with temporal distance….. For example, have you ever wondered why you often make commitments that you deeply regret when the moment to fulfill them arrives?… When we said yes we were thinking… in terms of why instead of how, in terms of causes and consequences instead of execution, and we failed to consider the detail-laden babysitting we would ultimately experience….

Posted in Uncategorized.