Stumbling on Happiness

October 9, 2007

Have you ever tried to help a young person, say a teenage child or a college student, make a big decision?

To someone between 18 and 22, every problem seems to involve one of life’s major crossroads. Should I go out with Tim? Should I major in biochemistry? Should I sign up for morning classes or night classes?

These are heavy problems and, in the right company, they can be discussed endlessly. For my part, I decided a long time ago that I should try not to get too involved in my students’ lives. Everyone has different likes and dislikes. I have no business interfering in personal decisions about personal happiness.

I might have been mistaken.

In Stumbling on Happiness, Professor Daniel Gilbert makes a persuasive (and highly entertaining) case that individuals are remarkably incompetent when it comes to predicting how “crossroad” type choices will affect their future happiness. Referring to imagination, our ability to see the future, he writes:

“Imagination has three shortcomings.

[Its] first shortcoming is its tendency to fill in and lave out without telling us. No one can imagine every feature and consequence of a future event, hence we must consider some and fail to consider others.

Imagination’s second shortcoming is its tendency to project the present onto the future. When imagination paints a picture of the future, many of the details are necessarily missing, and imagination solves this problem by filling in the gaps with details that it borrows from the present.

Imagination’s third shortcoming is its failure to recognize that things will look different once they happen – in particular, that bad things will look a whole lot better. When we imagine losing a job, for instance, we imagine the painful experience without also imagining how our psychological immune system will transform its meaning (“I’ll come to realize that this was an opportunity to quit retail sales and follow my true calling as a sculptor”).” from Chapter 11, “Reporting Live from Tomorrow: Finding the Solution”

Since we can’t anticipate our future feelings reliably, he recommends finding someone who is going through the things we are considering and asking them how they feel. He also admits that few, if any of us, will take his advice.

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