Stef (firecat) wrote,

Interesting, annoying book

I saw a bunch of recommendations, I don't remember where, for Daniel Gilbert's Stumbling on Happiness, so I got it out of the library. Gilbert is a professor of psychology, and the premise of the book is that people can't accurately predict what will make them happy.

I am very interested in the psychology of happiness and other positive emotions. It's a field that began taking shape in the early 1980s - before that, psychologists almost always focused on negative emotions. If it had begun just a little bit earlier, before I graduated from college, I might just have continued on studying psychology.

I found Gilbert's book an interesting read but I was annoyed for several reasons.

1. He uses the first person plural all the time. I know that to non-persnickety people, the first person plural doesn't mean "everybody" but "many" or "most". But after over a decade of reading Usenet I can't read it that way, so I kept having this "It's not true that everybody reacts that way!" reaction to things the author said.

2. (This part both annoyed me and made me feel smug.) He uses various thought experiments in the book "Now suppose X...what will your reaction be? Would it be A or B?" Then he says, "Of course your reaction was A; most people react A because yada yada." But my reaction was more often B. I don't know if this is because
a. he got it wrong,
b. the studies he reported were lame,
c. the studies he reported were had non-representative samples (many psych studies use college students, and some subset of those use only male college students...I'd like to think I've learned a thing or two since college),
d. i'm more knowledgeable about psychology than most people because i have a degree in it,
e. i'm more knowledgeable about myself than most people,
f. something else

3. I finally got totally fed up when toward the end of the book I encountered these two statements on back to back pages:
a. "The six billion interconnected people who cover the surface of our planet constitute a leviathin with twelve billion eyes..." (there are several irritating things about that statement; a no-prize to anyone who guesses which one annoyed me the most)
b. "The average American moves more than six times, changes jobs more than ten times, and marries more than once, which suggests that most of us are making more than a few poor choices." (I assume I don't need to go into all the reasons that conclusion from the statistics given is ridiculous.)

What I did get out of the book is the notion that people often make decisions based on something other than maximizing their happiness. Gilbert spins it this way: this is is a failure; people are trying to maximize their happiness and failing because of lack of self-knowledge. But how I spin it is this: People understand that happiness isn't always the most important thing. I'm glad to know many people work this way, because I don't think it's the most important thing at all. I guess I kind of think it's like air, something you need a certain amount of and suffer if you don't have enough but you don't need to maximize.

I couldn't relate to many of the experiments he described and used to back up his theory, because they focus on people rating how happy they are and how happy they predict they will be over some small outcome. I've never been asked to participate in such an experiment, but thinking about it annoys me because I can't imagine being asked to rate my happiness. Unless something completely amazing or completely awful has happened, my happiness is more or less on neutral; I can usually identify happiness about one or two things happening in my life right at the moment but I can also identify several irritants; how do I rate that?
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