Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Review: Stumbling on Happiness

Stumbling on Happiness, by Daniel Gilbert
9/10, an entertaining look at the psychology of decision making

If you want to predict how happy you will be after a meal at a restaurant you've never been to before, would you rather look at the restaurant's menu, or at a review by an anonymous person on the internet? If you're like most people--me included--you would choose the restaurant menu, on the theory that Anonymous Joe might be some weirdo who likes raw squid, mouth-searing hot sauce, and/or SPAM. Gilbert demonstrates, methodically and fairly convincingly, that even though that might be the case, Anonymous Joe's happiness during the actual experience of his meal is a better predictor of your happiness than your own imagination given the restaurant's menu.

"Stumbling on Happiness" is a fascinating, detailed look at the way our unique and important ability to imagine the future is far from perfect. We allow our present state to influence our future imagining (compare the difference between grocery shopping when hungry and grocery shopping just after a meal), selectively edit memories, and attribute our mistakes to other factors, leaving us open to making the same mistakes again.

Gilbert explores this territory with authority and humor, slipping in wry observations and amusing remarks between the engaging discussions of how we trick ourselves. He offers many concrete examples (the restaurant example above is only one) for each progressive step of his journey, so that by the end, you emerge convinced that you can be happier by following his advice. Despite this, he observes with some weary resignation, you will probably not do it. To quote the late, great Douglas Adams: "Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so."

This is a quick read, and an entertaining one. It provides a few gems for writers, such as confirming that people's impressions of an experience are disproportionately colored by their impression of the ending (something I have been saying for years--I wrote an article about it for Sofawolf Press, which I may re-post here in the future). It's also a great window into decision-making and all the ways a character might go wrong with it. If you don't read it for yourself, read it for your characters.

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