[Book Review] When I picked up Stumbling on Happiness, a new book by Harvard psychology professor, Daniel Gilbert, all I could think about was Tim and Debbie. You may not recall them but they were the star attraction on Australia, You’re Standing in It (a TV skit show of the 1980s). I remembered (and this is going back 23 years so it has always stuck with me) a particular exchange on “whether the ‘haves’ were really ‘happy’.” Thanks to the wonders of the net and Ross Williams I have the exact exchange:
Debbie: What’s wrong is that you don’t realize that it’s not you that’s, um, destitute, right. It’s the so-called “haves” of this world who are destitute.
Tim: I know.
Debbie: Spiritually destitute. Right. While someone such as you who has a really secure position in the unemployment industry, right, um, should view your dole cheque, right, not as a source of social insecurity, but as a ticket to spiritual awareness.
Tim: I do, I do, I do.
Debbie: Like, I really feel, um, I really feel sorry for the so-called haves, with their jacuzis, and their inground swimming pools, and their Doncaster mansions, um, their Mercs and their Porsches, their Christian Diors and their Christian Barnards. Like, are they really happy. Like, I ask you, are they really happy?
Tim: Well they look pretty happy to me Debbie. Like, the other day, right, like I saw this amazing guy in a Mercedes-Benz type situation, right. And he had this amazing glamorous blond model-type person in the Mercedes-Benz situation, and they were towing a yacht, and they both looked really happy.
Here is the link to the site which includes a video of that part. Ahh, memories.
Interestingly, that was every bit as funny as I remembered it. Apparently, that wasn’t going to be the case for most of our memories according to Gilbert which makes so much about what that book is about far more troubling. So let me turn to that.
Stumbling on Happiness is a review of the psychology of individual decision-making. Gilbert’s style is one common to many academic psychologists. He would ask, as if speaking to someone at a cocktail party, “so don’t you think when faced with such and such a choice it is the case that people would do [insert obvious statement here?” Faced with that you would answer, “of course.” Then Gilbert will blurt out “Well, it turns out that you are exactly wrong.” When he means you, he means everyone.
The book is full of things like this. “So do you think people can tell what they should order at a restaurant?” “Do you think they know what career will make them happy?” “That they learn from their mistakes?” “That having children makes them as happy as they claim?” …. “Wrong, wrong, wrong”
Take the last one: children. Lots of people, including myself, claim that if they had to point to one thing that makes them happy, it is having children. But apparently, if you ask them about their happiness at different points of their life, their own polling takes a nose dive the minute they have children and doesn’t recover again until the children have left home. And this occurs again in study after study.
Now I read this and thought, well I guess if you ask me now things are more stressful and, in retrospect, I may not be as happy on a day to day basis as I have been at other times. Children are risky and I feel that. But it is the best thing I have ever done.
Suffice it to say, the ability to work out why we do what we do is something we are apparently appauling at. In many ways, it is just as well. There is no doubt we are purposive: we will work out what we think will make us happiest over our lives (appropriately discounted) and we do that. So on that score, positive rational decision-making comes up trumps as a description of behaviour. The problem is that we systematically are choosing the things that do not actually make us happy. So we behave one way but don’t have any results to show for it. Moreover, we don’t have the capacity to work out that we are doing so badly, and so in our continual state of delusion, we suffer along.
This seems a receipe for this being a self-improvement book. But if you read it for that you will be, once again, surely wrong. As Gilbert himself writes:
My friends tell me that I have a tendency to point out problems without offering solutions, but they never tell me what I should do about it. In one chapter after another, I’ve described the ways in which our imagination fails to provide us with accurate previews of our emotional futures. I’ve claimed that when we imagine our futures we tend to fill in, leave out, and take little account of how differently we will think about the future once we actually get there. I’ve claimed that neither personal experience nor cultural wisdom compensates for imagination’s shortcomings. I’ve so thoroughly marinated you in the foibles, biases, errors, and mistakes of the human mind that you may wonder how anyone ever manages to make toast without buttering their kneecaps. If so, you will be heartened to learn that there is a simple method by which anyone can make strikingly accurate predictions about how they will feel in the future. But you may be disheartened to learn that, by and large, no one wants to use it.
I won’t spoil that by telling you what that is, is a couple of pages of the book and, in many ways secondary. But the above paragraph tells you what the book is about.
This book left me disturbed about what I do for a living. Being an economist, we make two general assumptions. First, that people generally act to make themselves happier. Second, that by allowing those choices to work in the context of potential conflict over resources — by expanding the opportunity set of all where possible — then people will actually be happier. Gilbert bears out the first but the second is resoundingly refuted by psychology. And that is disturbing. Current behavioural economists have focused on situations where the first assumption does not hold in the hope of amending it. But it appears that the big issue is with the second and there we have no idea what to do.
I finished this book days ago and had hoped to have something interesting to say about that. But I don’t have much. While general notions of alleviating the worst perils that individuals face such as unemployment and poor health will stand up, the rest, especially concern the material side of things, is far more fragile. I am troubled but will keep working on it. If you are in the social sciences, the chances are you will be similarly troubled. What I do know is that this is something worth being troubled about sooner rather than later.