‘One cannot divine nor forecast the conditions that will make happiness; one only stumbles upon them by chance, in a lucky hour, at the world’s end somewhere, and holds fast to the days, as to fortune or fame.’ Willa Cather, ‘Le Lavandou’, 1902
Don’t read this book in the expectation you will learn to be happier. Daniel Gilbert, the author, says so himself in his foreword. Rather, his objective is ‘to describe what science has to tell us about how and how well the human brain can imagine its own future, and about how and how well it can predict which of those futures it will most enjoy.’
Why does this matter? Because we make decisions now that will affect how we will feel later, such as which degree to undertake, which city to live in, which job offer to accept and so on. But right now we are locked into our present selves and cannot see past them, and our recollections of the past are unreliable. If we are to make realistic choices over our destiny, Daniel Gilbert would like us to understand our cognitive limitations so we can factor them into our decisions. And this may well allow us to stumble on happiness.
Gilbert is the Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. His research speciality is affective forecasting — the rational and emotional processes that govern predicting the future. He puts his research to good use here, translating it into practical, everyday language with a generous sprinkle of humour. As you would expect from a professor, he builds a systematic structure. There is a sense of academic rigour at play, each point is meticulously illustrated with evidence and examples. He asserts there is no simple formula for finding future happiness and for this he builds a coherent and persuasive case, chapter by chapter.
Gilbert is a cheerful Virgil to the reader’s Dante. But the solid structure he so carefully constructs reveals itself too obviously at times in the repetitiveness of key features. The studies he presents to support his contentions become tedious. A study has to be explained carefully — the set-up, the methodology, the results — and these necessary details are rarely riveting. And there are so many studies here … Given his integrity-in-research is impeccable throughout, I found myself skipping through them in later chapters. He’s a Harvard professor. I trust him. What’s the take-home?
His sentence structure also becomes repetitive, particularly his habit of providing humorous examples in a list of 3-4 items with the last one being absurd: ‘The sauce could have been tomato, cream, clam or even grape jelly’; ‘Psychologists call this habituation, economists call it declining marginal utility, and the rest of us call it ‘marriage.’ He’s also fond of alliteration: ‘It cannot be poked, peeled, prodded, pushed, painted or pierced.’ There was a predictability to the way in which arguments proceeded — offbeat anecdote, exposition, supporting study, conclusion — and their power was sometimes diluted by the humour. Again, I took to skipping ahead to the conclusions when I felt bogged down in his determination to amuse.
But these are quibbles, and reflect my taste more than constituting serious flaws in Gilbert’s writing style. By the end of the book, I could re-assess events in my life in light of his insights: a gift. I was particularly moved by his discussion of the essential ambiguity of experience and the way our ‘psychological immune system’ helps us to reconstruct difficult events as meaningful. I now find it strangely comforting to accept that life is ambiguous more often than not and to leave it at that.
Happiness not guaranteed
His final conclusion seems anticlimactic, if reasonable, after the long build-up of 10 chapters — there is no simple formula to future happiness, but if we cannot go forward ‘surefootedly’ then we can at least proceed with a full awareness of what causes us to ‘stumble’. And there is much wisdom in what he offers, especially the insight that we tend to overvalue our uniqueness. One aspect of the book I loved were the quotes from Shakespeare at the opening of each chapter. They were all so apt for the content that followed that they pointed to the enduring power of the poetic imagination to intuit enduring patterns in behaviour that psychologists such as Daniel Gilbert can now ascribe to cognitive processes. Gilbert’s refusal to provide glib promises is a mark of his sincerity and this is a book to trust and to re-read.