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Stumbling on Psychology

Friday, December 8, 2006

A new book about what makes us happy is fun to read, if not particularly substantial. That's the way readers like it.

Stumbling on happinessStumbling on Happiness, by Daniel Gilbert (Alfred A. Knopf, May, 2006)

For all I enjoyed reading Daniel Gilbert's Stumbling on Happiness, it did remind me of one thing: How much I hate psychologists and their experiments.

In college, I volunteered for several “human subject” tests run by the psychology department in order to earn cash for books and beer. I always emerged enraged. The researchers unfailingly used some element of trickery to lure me into doing something stupid or irrational. At the end of each experiment, they smugly revealed its secret. And yet, I kept returning, thinking the $10 I earned for turning my brain into a guinea pig for an hour would make me happy.

Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard, has something to say about this - both about all the weird and occasionally cruel experiments psychologists have foisted upon the public (at least he admits that people avoid him at parties), and about why I kept thinking my future $10 would make me feel better than it did.

All psychologists, he writes, must produce some work that completes The Sentence, namely, “The human being is the only animal that…” Phrases like “uses tools” and “uses language” are out, so his answer is that humans are the only animals with large frontal brain lobes – ones that lets us imagine and plan for the future.

Unfortunately, all our years of evolution have not made us very good at it. Psychologists, with their tricks, are only mimicking our own brains, which conspire to trick us in certain key ways. For starters, we assume that the future will be much like the present; Gilbert particularly enjoys mocking 1950’s futurist drawings that showed housewives in atomic kitchens, but didn’t show women with briefcases (while noting that “all the people of African, Asian and Hispanic origin seem to have missed the future entirely.”) Partly that's because when we think about the past, we also misremember it as being much like the present. We always distrusted that politician who is now indicted. We always thought Atkins was a crazy idea. Likewise, we swear up and down that we will never share our parents’ bourgeois values. We can't imagine even thinking that way. Then we have two kids, buy a house in the suburbs and suddenly need a steady income to pay for it all. . .

Our brains also leave out key details, looking backward and forward. We remember our vacation to Cambodia as blissful because that wonderful sunset at the temple made for great photographs. Our brains conveniently forget that the country's shortage of flushing toilets seemed less than charming at the time. We remember raising small children as wonderful because we remember the smiles and the Mommy-I-love-you notes, not the colic. Looking forward, we imagine being more devastated by things like disability or divorce than we in fact will be, because our brains forget to imagine details about the other little pleasures of life that will continue. We imagine being happier about our team winning the championship than we will be, because we forget that we'll be going right back to work on Monday. I thought I'd be elated to have $10 for participating in psychology experiments, but I forgot the annoyance I'd suffer to get it. Reality turns out to feature more moderation than our memories and imaginations allow.

And of course, the brain - like any good magician - keeps us unaware of any of this unless we stop and spend more time thinking about it than most people ever will. That keeps us from making rational decisions about life and the future. So I kept signing up to earn $10. At least, Gilbert assures me, I share this foible with the entire rest of the human race.

Aside from this reassurance, Gilbert doesn't pretend to bring larger argument to all his gee-whiz realities about the human brain. He suggests that knowing that perceptions change might make us less certain about the things we know are true. We might be more understanding of others, or at least more likely to shop from a list at the grocery store.

But even without a bigger point, Stumbling on Happiness is an entertaining read. If all academics wrote in the clear, humorous prose Gilbert employs, college would have been a much happier place (perhaps inspiring me to take those psychology experiments in stride). As he points out, despite the title, this work is not "an instruction manual that will tell you anything useful about how to be happy." But after you do spend your hard earned cash on self-help books, and still find yourself feeling in the fuzzy middle, Stumbling on Happiness will tell you why.

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