StumblingOnHappiness

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Unformatted text preview: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/07/books/review/07stossell.html The New York Times Printer Friendly Format Sponsored By May 7, 2006 'Stumbling on Happiness,' by Daniel Gilbert The Joy of Delusion Review by SCOTT STOSSEL What would have happened if, at the end of "Casablanca," Ingrid Bergman had stayed with Humphrey Bogart in Morocco, rather than boarding the plane to Lisbon with her Nazi-¡ghting husband? Would she have regretted it? Or did she end up lamenting the decision she did make? According to Daniel Gilbert, odds are that either decision would have made her equally happy in the long run. If this sounds like an odd question for a professor of psychology at Harvard to ask in a serious book about cognitive science, there are dozens more where that came from. Is it really possible that Christopher Reeve believed himself in some ways better off after he became a quadriplegic, or that Lance Armstrong is glad to have had cancer, or that cancer patients in general tend to be more optimistic about the future than healthy people? (Answers: yes, yes and yes.) Which raises another question: If people who we think should be unhappy are not, is it also possible that some people are happy and don't know it? (Clinically speaking, yes. There is a syndrome called alexithymia in which a person experiences the same physiological response associated with an emotion as a normal person, as recorded by an M.R.I. scan, but is unaware of having the emotion.) Gilbert is an in¢uential researcher in happiness studies, an interdisciplinary ¡eld that has attracted psychologists, economists and other empirically minded researchers, not to mention a lot of interested students. (As The Boston Globe recently reported, a course on "positive psychology" taught by one of Gilbert's colleagues is the most popular course at Harvard.) But from the acknowledgments page forward, it's clear Gilbert also fancies himself a comedian. Uh- oh, cringe alert: an academic who cracks wise. But Gilbert's elbow-in-the-ribs social-science humor is actually funny, at least some of the time. "When we have an experience . . . on successive occasions, we quickly begin to adapt to it, and the experience yields less pleasure each time," he writes. "Psychologists calls this habituation, economists call it declining marginal utility, and the rest of us call it marriage." But underneath the goofball brilliance, Gilbert has a serious argument to make about why human beings are forever wrongly predicting what will make them happy. Because of logic-processing errors our brains tend to make, we don't want the things that would make us happy — and the things that we want (more money, say, or a bigger house or a fancier car) won't make us happy. Happiness is a subjective emotional state, so when you and I say that we are "extremely happy" we may mean completely different things. Most people would Fnd the idea of being a conjoined twin to be a horrible fate. You couldn't possibly be happy in that condition, right? Then how twin to be a horrible fate....
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