Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Stumbling on Happiness

This is the title of a new book by Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert. One quote from the N.Y. Times review by Scott Stossel in the May 7 book review section: "When we have an experience..on successive occasions, we quickly begin to adapt to it, and the experience yields less pleasure each time...Psychologists call this habituation, economists call it declining marginal utility, and the rest of us call it marriage."

His basic theme is that humans are very bad at predicting what will make them happy. Things we expect to give us joy make us less happy than we think; and things that we dread make us less unhappy, especially after some time has passed. There is a "psychological immune system" that starts up after big negative events.

From the book: "How do we manage to think of ourselves as great drivers, talented lovers and brilliant chefs when the facts of our lives include a pathetic parade of dented cars, disappointed partners and deflated souffles?...The answer is simple: We cook the facts." What gets us through life is just the right amount of delusion, enough to fool us into feeling relatively good about ourselves. Interestingly, the clinically depressed seem less susceptible to these basic cognitive errors.


  1. Anonymous12:35 PM

    I was about to ask you to comment, if you will, Dr. Bownds, on the new Mithen book, "The Singing Neanderthals: The Origin of Music, Language, Mind and Body"...when I happened on this most recent post re: "Stumbling on Happiness". What are your thoughts about the differences (comparisons, perhaps) between and among, contentment, happiness, ecstasy, nirvana, etc. As an ardent fan of yours, sir, I would love to hear your thoughts on why we even quest for this allusive (illusive, perhaps) thing called happiness. It seems to me that the more self-absorbed we are...the more we think we are entitled to some sort of identification (label, explanation)for the way we feel from time to time. Why not just live it and get on with it? Thanks for your always. Your fan...

  2. I have to admit that I've only read reviews of Mithen's book, it is still sitting in my 'to read' pile. In general I think his ideas are quite cogent and coherent. It is such a pity that one can only make reasonable speculations about language origins. I like the idea of no quantum jumps, but rather a continuous slow increase in the richness of gesture and vocalization used in communication.

    You clearly are on to the fact that the more we try to define and strive for happiness, the less likely we are to achieve it. It is not something you try to grab or work for, it is what happens if you simply respect and get on with your life.