Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Book Review: Stumbling on Happiness

Daniel Gilbert's book ought to be required reading for every college freshman, and for everyone considering a major life change... or where to go for dinner.

Gilbert says we're astoundingly poor predictors of what will make us happy in the future. As we decide on career pursuits, marriages, restaurant reservations, transportation, and what to plant in the garden this spring, biology conspires to make life simple, and in doing so, thwarts many of our efforts even as the electricity whizzes toward those little light bulbs in our brains.

Happiness! Who doesn't want it? But what is it, really, and how do we get there? Are there standards we can use to measure? Is there a blueprint for having more happiness in our lives?

Well, yes and no. Gilbert's hilarious book runs us through the processes of perceiving where we are, predicting where we want to be, and all the pitfalls along the way. From magicians to man-on-the-street, Gilbert describes the way brains sense and organize the present, imagine what will come next (seconds from now or years later), and how we think we'll bridge the gap between the two. It's fascinating and funny stuff.

What makes us happy? Is one person's idea of happiness different from another's? How do we make comparisons between where we are and where we want to be? Although we spend our lives thinking about this stuff, Gilbert illustrates how we think we think is largely an illusion; the brain covering its tracks to save us time and trouble.

With amusing and compelling stories, Gilbert shines the laboratory light on everyday decisions and planning strategies, and yes: He even provides a formula for attaining happiness, which he claims most readers will never accept or use.

(But if you're reading this, you're not "most readers," are you?)

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