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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?

Comments

( 38 comments — Leave a comment )
redbird
Jan. 28th, 2007 11:03 pm (UTC)
2f. He's not a good enough author (or thinker?) to have taken into account that most people have reaction A, some will have reaction B, and that some of them will be reading the book. Further, unless there are implausibly strong correlations among his "suppose that…" examples, most of his readers will be in the minority often enough to notice, even if less than half the time. For example, there's going to be someone who picks B the first three times and is put off enough by that "of course you did" for what they didn't do that they won't be convinced by his thesis even if they pick A for every remaining choicee, assuming they haven't stopped reading before then.

3b. All else aside—all the reasons that a person might move for reasons beyond their control, from job transfers to natural disasters to family health issues—does he really believe that what would make me happy at 18 is necessarily what would make me happy at 37 or 64?
firecat
Jan. 28th, 2007 11:43 pm (UTC)
3b: Exactly. Why is he assuming change always means that the previous choice was a poor one?
bastette_joyce
Jan. 28th, 2007 11:08 pm (UTC)
Happiness *is* the most important thing to me. I can't relate at all to people who say that happiness isn't important to them. I don't understand what they want from life. I believe that everyone does things because they want something from that action, and that wanting something comes out of wanting some kind of happiness. Sometimes that's indirect - they're trying to lessen their suffering, or they're doing something that seems destructive to many other people, but that's the best way they know to lessen their pain, or give themselves some joy. Or maybe they actually feel that doing something will give them happiness and joy directly. But why would someone do something if it didn't bring them some kind of joy, relief from pain - something that feels *better* in some way? (Even if they believe this erroneously - ie, people who keep making the same mistakes because they believe what they're doing is going to bring them happiness, but it keeps bringing them pain again.)

But ultimately, what motivates behavior, if not a desire to feel better by doing what one does? Even if you live a completely altruistic, self-sacrificing life, maybe that's because that's what you NEED to do. You feel too miserable about other people's suffering to do otherwise, so you are compelled to sacrifice your own desires for other people's needs. Yes, that means you don't get to have many things you want, and perhaps that's difficult, but there is a stronger desire to give to others, and that is the desire that wins out, that is honored. Perhaps the pain that this person would experience by not living altruistically would be greater than the pain that might come from not having more immediate desires fulfilled.

I just don't see how else it could work, unless someone does things in a totally random way, without any sense of motivation for any particular act. This could happen with someone who has certain kinds of mental illness, I guess, where they don't even have a grasp on "doing the best I can to take care of myself" - where their actions don't reflect any concious state of mind. Or maybe someone who has a particular kind of brain damage which cuts their decision-making mind off from their emotions, might also do things without motivation, and therefore, without a goal of feeling better.

But for people whose minds and emotions are functioning properly, I believe that the need to go toward feeling better - happier, in less pain - is the only way our behaviors can be motivated. Otherwise we wouldn't do them.
firecat
Jan. 28th, 2007 11:51 pm (UTC)
Happiness matters to me, but I don't spend a lot of time strategizing how to maximize my level of happiness.

Here's an example. When I am thirsty I sometimes want to drink a diet cola. I like diet cola better when it has lemon in it. If I strategized to maximize my happiness, I would always add lemon. But sometimes I don't bother. It's not like adding the lemon would be a major increase in my effort or stress level, but it's like my mind is on something else and I don't think about adding it.
(no subject) - bastette_joyce - Jan. 29th, 2007 12:22 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - firecat - Jan. 29th, 2007 01:07 am (UTC) - Expand
xiphias
Jan. 29th, 2007 02:23 am (UTC)
"Happiness", in the sense of "an emotional state of pleasure", is among the things I seek out, but is by no means the top.

"Happiness", being used as a translation of "εὐδαιμονία", "eudaimonia" -- that's much higher on my list.

If you're saying that "happiness", meaning "eudaimonia", rather than "a transitory state of pleaure" is the most important thing to you, well, I'd say that's a very sane and reasonable state to be in.

Aristotle described eudaimonia as a state of life in which you live your life according to virtues, with good health, enough food and shelter, good friendships which are mutually beneficial (they're not mooching off of you; you're getting something out of it, too), respect and a good reputation from your community, and learning of scientific knowlege.

Which, frankly, all sounds pretty damn good to me.

Epicurius disagreed and said that eudaimonia had to do with simple pleasure. However, he also said that a thinking being should make choices to maximize his pleasure over his lifetime, and so, really, in practice, a life lived by Epicurius's principles would probably not look THAT much different from Aristotle's. And that also sounds like it could be pretty similar to what you're saying.

But, me, I'm more in Aristotle's camp on this one. And, for that matter, the camp of the Stoics.

For me, I make my choices first on what is honorable, ethical, moral, and right. My second area of choice is what is best for people and causes important to me (don't get me wrong: I am one of those people and causes important to me; just not the only one). My third area of choice is if I believe it will bring me pleasure.

Now, naturally, the vast majority of choices I make have no real honor, ethics, moral, or "best interest" factors. None of those things are going to determine whether I have coffee ice cream or vanilla ice cream -- those decisions are going to be based simply on which I believe will bring me more pleasure.

But, to me, the word "happiness" seems to correlate to "pleasure", and, while that's a good thing, it's not the most important thing to me.

"Right living" is more important to me, which correlates to eudaimonia -- and correlates to "joy", more than "pleasure" or "happiness".
(no subject) - firecat - Jan. 29th, 2007 04:19 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - xiphias - Jan. 29th, 2007 04:53 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - firecat - Jan. 29th, 2007 05:43 am (UTC) - Expand
Training in philosophy/lit - selki - Jan. 29th, 2007 08:23 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - sashajwolf - Jan. 29th, 2007 12:52 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - bastette_joyce - Jan. 29th, 2007 08:58 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - firecat - Jan. 29th, 2007 09:57 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - xiphias - Jan. 30th, 2007 03:31 am (UTC) - Expand
mjlayman
Jan. 29th, 2007 11:46 pm (UTC)
I would say that doing the right thing is the most important thing to me. I stay content most of the time and frequently have happiness and less frequently have sadness. I don't think doing the right thing causes either of those. I think it causes satisfaction.
(no subject) - bastette_joyce - Jan. 30th, 2007 12:14 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mjlayman - Jan. 30th, 2007 12:41 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - bastette_joyce - Jan. 30th, 2007 05:49 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mjlayman - Jan. 30th, 2007 09:01 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - bastette_joyce - Jan. 30th, 2007 08:33 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mjlayman - Jan. 30th, 2007 10:28 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - (Anonymous) - Jan. 30th, 2007 11:05 pm (UTC) - Expand
(Deleted comment)
firecat
Jan. 28th, 2007 11:44 pm (UTC)
[*hands you your no-prize*]
(Deleted comment)
(no subject) - firecat - Jan. 29th, 2007 12:55 am (UTC) - Expand
rmjwell
Jan. 29th, 2007 01:04 am (UTC)
I wouldn't have gotten the no-prize, because I was going to go with his misspelling of "leviathan."
firecat
Jan. 29th, 2007 01:10 am (UTC)
Actually, that was my typo. You get a no-prize for noticing it. :-)
selki
Jan. 29th, 2007 02:17 am (UTC)
1. He uses the first person plural all the time.

Thanks for this and other warnings! I had only read good stuff about it before.

I think people do make mistakes and make choices that make them unhappy because of a lack of self-knowledge sometimes, but it sounds like the author went way beyond that, based on poor science/experiments/analysis.

"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)

I haven't read comments yet. Here goes: I didn't think we were quite up to 6 billion yet; we're not all interconnected (certainly not everyone to everyone); we don't cover the surface, we don't even *cover* the *land* surface; "interconnected" does not imply "one" (leviathan); misspelled leviathan; if he WAS thinking "land surface" that doesn't go with a sea monster (common meaning of leviathan); "we" do not constitute a monolith (or leviathan); some folks aren't fortunate enough to have two eyes. I'm guessing the one that annoyed you the most was the cover-the-surface thing?
selki
Jan. 29th, 2007 02:21 am (UTC)
Ah, so I see the eyes have it and the misspelling wasn't the author's error. Did I get everything else on the list? :-)
firecat
Jan. 29th, 2007 04:28 am (UTC)
You get an extra no-prize for identifying a whole bunch of additional irritants I was too irritated about the rounding error to notice. (The "covering the surface" ones.)
(no subject) - selki - Jan. 29th, 2007 09:09 pm (UTC) - Expand
karenkay
Jan. 29th, 2007 03:35 am (UTC)
Thanks for saving me the trouble of reading this.:)

I think 3b is just classically stupid.

People make decisions about their lives for all kinds of reasons, and sometimes people take The Long View. I know several people that have sacrificed a lot for their children, but they don't think of their children as being detrimental to their happiness in the short term, though they were.

I guess I feel that way about Yale. It was deeply satisfying, but didn't make me happy--I expected it to make me happy later, but it never did in the ways that I expected. (I *am* grateful to Yale for making me unafraid of political machinations and shitheads at work.)

Also, this whole idea of predicting how happy you will be over something--that's just bogus. Or maybe I say that because I am particularly bad at predictions, who knows. I can have an idea about how something will make me feel, but I am often wrong about the extent of the actual feeling--sometimes because it's influenced by other things in my environment, like the amount of sunshine that day, or it will trigger my PTSD, or... something.
firecat
Jan. 29th, 2007 04:32 am (UTC)
I *am* grateful to Yale for making me unafraid of political machinations and shitheads at work.

As a fellow survivor of Yale (although I only worked at the press, didn't study there), I laugh uproariously.

I can have an idea about how something will make me feel, but I am often wrong about the extent of the actual feeling--sometimes because it's influenced by other things in my environment, like the amount of sunshine that day, or it will trigger my PTSD, or... something.

It sounds like you already know a large part of what the author is claiming none of us know.
(no subject) - karenkay - Jan. 29th, 2007 01:20 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - firecat - Jan. 29th, 2007 05:13 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - karenkay - Jan. 29th, 2007 05:38 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - firecat - Jan. 29th, 2007 05:43 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - karenkay - Jan. 29th, 2007 06:30 pm (UTC) - Expand
( 38 comments — Leave a comment )

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