Book Report: Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert

Happiness is a subject dear to almost all clients of psychotherapy and counseling.
How do I get it? 
Why am I not feeling it? 
Why do other people have it?

Daniel Gilbert attacks these questions from a unique and scientific standpoint in his clever bestseller Stumbling on Happiness .  He purposefully eschews the “self-help” style of giving advice, proclaming what works, and teaching how to be happy.  Usually these types of suggestions and “guide-books” are a great answer for some specific people and can become their "bible" on how to lead a happier life. 

The reason Self-Help books do work for some people is that they are generally written from a subjective experience by an author who “stumbles” upon happiness by making changes to their own lives.  If you, the reader, happen to have a similar personality, than you too may benefit from the author’s odysses toward happiness.  If that happens, all the best, I truly and deeply thank that author for providing a roadmap to happiness for all of the specific people that it reaches.  However, for those individuals who read the book and do not find happiness, I feel great empathy, for what it leads to is less hope, more self-doubt and…less happiness.  The complexity of the human experience makes it nearly impossible to write a book that will help everyone be happy.  Nobody can provide an all encompassing solution to the problem of unhappiness.  I agree that reading self-help books on happiness is a great solution for those who have time and money to spend because for many people if they can find that needle in a haystack and do end up feeling better...what a great result!

Gilbert supposes early in his book that it is the very act of “steering our ship” in whatever direction we choose that makes us happy.  He asserts that humans like to feel a sense of control in their lives and that picking a path, setting a goal, and striking out on a journey are good for the soul.  So, again, pick up a self-help book, throw away your doubts as to whether it will be helpful, and naively dive into the program.  At the very least, it will make you temporarily happy to be in charge and to be effecting change.  Alas, happiness is fleeting anyway because unfortunately it is just another emotion like anger, sadness, or joy, and all of our emotions are designed to be ephemeral.  Just packets of information sent to the psyche jumbled up with all of the other information that is sent from any of our senses such as sight and smell.

Where Gilbert diverges from the classic self-help book is that he begins to point out what is wrong with our thinking about the future and our hopes for happiness.  Put simply, he takes my previous advice about diving into a self-help book and adds the following supposition: it won’t make you lastingly happy because our brains are terrible at predicting our future experience of emotions.  He posits that we are wonderful at creating imagined and possible futures filled with concepts and conclusions, but when we try to fill in the guesses at how our future selves will actually feel in this imagined future, we stink it up pretty bad.  Kind of a funny juxtaposition when you let your mind boil it down.  A sort of comedy of errors to imbue the brain with a powerful simulation engine that allows us to travel in time ahead 1 day, 10 weeks, or even 30 years; and then rob it of the ability to accurately simulate how we will actually feel in the simulation. 

With great humor and humility, Gilbert logically unfolds his reasoning at an engaging pace as to why our great brains have these Achilles heels.  Through ideas on how our brain handles missing information, to how it invents information, from how it compresses memory, to how it confuses present and future; he leads the reader on a journey through the mind and its limitations.  As he demonstrates the actual limitations of our minds through exercises and story-telling, he helps transmit his sense of humility to the reader as they begin to realize that all their efforts to plan for happiness are being inadvertently subverted by the limitations of our brains. 

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