July 13, 2006

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C'mon, get happy
Part 2: Another rock in the avalanche of happy books

For some reason—I suspect it has to do with the resurgence of all things ’70s and those yellow smiley faces —there’s a flood of happy books hitting the market. The books aren’t happy; they’re about happiness. There’s The Science of Happiness and The Happy Plan and Happiness: A History and A Brief History of Happiness and lots more.

Last week I reviewed The Happiness Hypothesis, by Jonathan Haidt (Basic Books). This week, Stumbling On Happiness, by Daniel Gilbert (Knopf, May 2, 304 pages).

Gilbert is a professor of psychology at Harvard. He’s one of the good ones, which is to say he’s lively, engaging and personable; I know this because I listened to the audio version of the book, read by Gilbert himself.

Stumbling on Happiness is about how bad we are at knowing what makes us happy. We think we know what makes us happy but we’re often wrong, he says, and he’s got the research to prove it.

Gilbert describes study after study on perception, memory, reasoning and decision-making.

To read this book is to consume a good chunk of modern Introductory Psychology.

Which is extremely intriguing at first, but by spring break your attention might begin to wander, not because the material is any less fascinating but because you’ve had about enough for now. Enough, in particular, of all the “psychologists at [famous college or university] conducted an experiment in which [students / lab rats] were asked to [ridiculously contrived activity] for [some amount of time] and then asked how they felt.”

These experiments are kind of neat. The things they show us are neat. But describing them in written words can be like telling a joke that takes ages to set up—by the time you get to the punch line, fantastic though it might be, you will have lost the less attentive members of your audience.

The bright side is that the studies are kind of neat, and that there is a good chunk of modern intro psych here, and that the argument is convincing. Also, Gilbert is an excellent storyteller who brings an immediacy to the proceedings with his colorful anecdotes (“You’ve had an awful day—the cat peed on the rug, the dog peed on the cat, the washing machine is busted, World Wrestling has been preempted by Masterpiece Theatre…”). And he frankly acknowledges the frustrations of experimentation: “If the goal of science is to make us feel awkward and ignorant in the presence of things we once understood perfectly well,” Gilbert writes, “then psychology has succeeded above all others.”

So how well do we understand happiness after reading this book?

“There is a difference between being happy and knowing that you’re happy.” A-

— Lisa Parsons


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