A couple months ago I read Daniel Gilbert’s new book Stumbling on Happiness, and I’ve been troubled ever since.

I read it because it seemed like everyone was talking about it.  Everything I read lately seemed to have a reference or two, and some of my favorite authors, thinkers and bloggers were obviously influenced by Gilbert’s ideas.  Usually when that happens I end up being inspired by the book.  But in this case I felt frustrated and deflated.

Ninety-five percent of the book consisted in Gilbert showing us the many ways we fail in predicting what will make us happy in the future.  We overestimate the degree to which future events will feel like present ones; we underestimate how much we will “synthesize” happiness when something goes wrong, or in other words we’ll decide it’s not so bad after all.  We overestimate how long pleasure will last and underestimate how long pain will impact us. In Gilbert’s own words, we are so thoroughly full of “foibles, biases, errors and mistakes of the human mind that we may wonder how anyone ever manages to make toast without buttering their kneecaps. ”

The book is well-written, funny and entertaining and Gilbert’s every point is backed by references to interesting studies in psychology and economics.  But only at the very end does he offer anything like a solution, and it’s a very unsatisfying one.  Instead of trying to predict our own happiness, he says, we should rely on the advice of others who have experienced the things we’re contemplating.   Another of our foibles, he says, is our belief in our own uniqueness, which causes us to mistakenly think that the opinions of others about where to live, what to do for work and how to have fun couldn’t possibly have enough relevance for us to blindly follow them.  But studies show that we would end up happier if we listened to others’ advice than if we try to predict what we’ll enjoy by extrapolating from our own experiences and using our own judgment.

I needed an antidote to this book after reading it, so I started Chip Conley’s Emotional Equations.  I’ve been reading it slowly, a chapter at a time, trying to recover from my sense of buttered knees.  If we can’t rely on any of our neurological processes to get us where we want to go, how about understanding and managing our emotions better?  This seems more promising.

I’ve always been a language and literature kind of person and not a math and science kind of person, but there’s something comforting in the way Conley puts his emotional wisdom in the form of mathematical equations.  I wrote about one of them a couple weeks ago.  The equations make you feel as if you could find a path to your future (and current!) happiness and success if you could just understand and quantify the nuances of your emotions and how they interact with each other to produce new emotions.  Here are some very brief examples:

  • Disappointment = Expectations – Reality  So if you feel disappointment with something in your life, examine whether your expectations were too high; that’s something you can control
  • Anxiety = Uncertainty x Powerlessness   In other words, anxiety is produced by the combustible combination of what you don’t know and what you can’t control.  If you can reduce one variable, that will help reduce anxiety.  What can you move from your circle of concern to your circle of influence, so you have more control?  Can you get a different result from a relationship by changing your own behavior?  What can you do to unravel the sense of mystery about the situation to decrease your uncertainty?  What kind of homework can you do?
  • Workaholism = What are you running from \ What are you living for?   Analyze the reasons you spend more time at work than others– how much is because of fear?  Fear of losing your job or failing to move up the corporate ladder, fear of falling behind, fear of being considered unworthy?  Conley says this is really about addiction.  Understand what you live for and make sure it outweighs whatever you might be running from.
  • Joy = Love – Fear   Conley tells a great story about a man with glass bone disease, a disease that led to hundreds of broken bones and caused him to live life in a wheelchair.  He became a popular motivational speaker, writer, marketing consultant and psychotherapist, and a truly joyful man.  He says he did it by developing a habit of love that was more powerful than his fears—love of life, of beauty, and of others less fortunate.  It led him to choose stepping forward into growth rather than backward into safety.

This last is a great story that brings to mind Daniel Gilbert’s studies of the relative happiness of lottery winners and paraplegics, who have been found to self-report as equally happy.  So maybe we can’t predict that we would synthesize just as much happiness from losing the use of our arms and legs as from winning the lottery, but that doesn’t mean we can’t bring ourselves to understand the emotional mechanisms by which these mysteries work.  And if we can understand how they work, we are not powerless to find happiness.


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