Before reading it, I imagined that the 2005 book Stumbling on Happiness, by Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard psychologist, was about the role of chance or serendipity in the pursuit of happiness.  Do we just come upon happiness without seeking it, or does it take an effort on our part?  Gilbert isn’t particularly interested in that question, though he does think that seeking happiness isn’t likely to get us anywhere. Specifically, we are lousy at figuring out what will make us happy, so our efforts to become happy usually are just shots in the dark.  Since we can’t predict at all well what will satisfy us, Gilbert advises us to read the research and take an empirically validated approach to planning our futures.


I’ll give my thoughts about the book, but first it seems only fair to evaluate my experience reading it by the standard Gilbert uses to weigh every other experience.  For him, the only useful standard is whether the experience produces happiness or pleasure, measured by asking for “the honest, real-time report of the attentive individual.” (page 71 in the Vintage paperback edition of the book)  This, he thinks, is all that people care about:


“Wealth doesn’t matter; utility does.  We don’t care about money or promotions or beach vacations per se; we care about the goodness or pleasure that these forms of wealth may (or may not) induce.  Wise choices are those that maximize our pleasure, not our dollars, and if we are to have any hope of choosing wisely, then we must correctly anticipate how much pleasure those dollars will buy us.”  (p. 260)


Using a methodology that would have pleased Gilbert, the minute I finished the book I answered the following question using a scale of 1 to 10:  “How much did you enjoy reading this book?”  I gave it a 2. 


According to Gilbert, you should take my rating seriously.  He claims that the best strategy to determine whether or not you would find some experience pleasant is to assume that you would like it about as much as someone else who already had the experience.  So, there you have it, if the book is in your reading list, you can just rate it as a pretty dismal read and move on to the next item.


Actually, I don’t particularly like Gilbert’s evaluative strategy, and I suspect that many of you would rate his book somewhat higher than I did.  Gilbert tried to be clever and entertaining in the examples he used; I was annoyed by this, but some of you may have enjoyed his efforts to amuse.  More significantly, I was disaffected  early on with Gilbert’s dismissal of eudaimonia, the notion (discussed in an earlier post) that a happy life is one that is well-lived or virtuous.  Gilbert quickly dismisses eudiamonia as not reflecting what we typically mean by the word “happiness” at all. (Why can’t we use two words, then?)  I suspect that a main reason he prefers to define happiness according to immediate subjective experience is that such experience is more easily measured than is the ethical quality of one’s life.  We psychologists are notorious for starting out trying to measure what’s important, but ending up deciding that what is important is what we’ve measured.  Gilbert seems to have made that error. 


Some of the studies that Gilbert cites seem to undermine the significance of the subjective measures of well-being that he prizes.  In one study, researchers used telephone interviews to ask people in different parts of the country how satisfied they were with their lives.  The researchers then compared the ratings obtained to the weather that day in each locale.  People who could look outside and see the sun reported that their lives were relatively happy, while people being rained on gave lower ratings of happiness.  Why should we be interested in maximizing a type of experience that is so ephemeral?  In another study, begun when the 2000 presidential election was still undecided, supporters of George Bush and Al Gore were asked how they would feel the day the election was decided either in favor of their candidate or his opponent.  The researchers contacted participants again on December 14, the day after Gore conceded, to assess their actual happiness, and, finally, assessed four months later what they remembered their happiness level had been on December 14.  In advance of Bush’s victory, his supporters overestimated how happy they would be, and conversely Gore supporters overestimated their eventual misery.  However, four months later both groups remembered having been much more elated or devastated than they actually had been.  So the supporter’s prediction of how they would feel and subsequent memory of how they felt actually corresponded, but didn’t match their emotions on the day itself.  We not only don’t know how happy we will be, we don’t know how happy we were.  Gilbert doesn’t ask the question that I would have asked: what has more significance in our lives, the months and years we anticipate and reminisce about how we will or did feel at a particular moment, or the feeling we had at that exact moment?  I don’t place as high a value on the pleasure of the moment as Gilbert does, and am inclined to consider the expectation and memory of events more important to the lives that each of us are constructing.


I guess it’s obvious that I don’t much like Gilbert’s emphasis on momentary feeling states.  I haven’t yet described the main features of his argument, though.  That will have to wait until a subsequent post.