“Stumbling On Happiness”: Dealing With Uncertainty

Daniel Gilbert is a social psychologist whose book Stumbling On Happiness was published to great acclaim in 2006. He points out that “…when people try to imagine what the future will hold, they make some basic and consistent mistakes. Just as memory plays tricks on us when we try to look backward in time, so does imagination play tricks when we try to look forward.”

Because he’s done significant research on what he calls “affective forecasting,” perhaps no one knows better than Gilbert that it’s really hard to accurately predict not only what our feelings will be about specific future experiences but also how long those feelings will last.

But that doesn’t stop most of us from trying.

Some of the reviews for Stumbling On Happiness:

Booklist: “[S]ly, irresistible….It is not only wildly entertaining but also hilarious (if David Sedaris were a psychologist, he very well might write like this) and yet full of startling insight, imaginative conclusions, and even bits of wisdom.”

The New York Times Book Review: “In an important sense, Stumbling on Happiness is a paean to delusion. ‘How do we manage to think of ourselves as great drivers, talented lovers and brilliant chefs when the facts of our lives include a pathetic parade of dented cars, disappointed partners and deflated soufflés?’ Gilbert asks. ‘The answer is simple: We cook the facts.'”

Washington Post: “Among other things, Gilbert explains why we learn so little from our mistakes — why so many divorced people wake up realizing that their second spouses are exactly like the ones they left. He reviews some common tricks of memory, such as our tendency to ‘remember the best of times and the worst of times instead of the most likely of times,’ and some kinks in our decision-making processes, like our tendency to rationalize.”

If you have the time (over 20 minutes worth), below is Gilbert’s TED talk on this topic:

A phenomenon related to how we “stumble on happiness” is the issue of how we deal with uncertainty. In 2009 Gilbert posted an article on his website called “What You Don’t Know Makes You Nervous.” What you don’t know makes you project your feelings into the future—feelings that may never happen. A quote from this article:

…(H)uman beings find uncertainty more painful than the things they’re uncertain about…

Why would we prefer to know the worst than to suspect it? Because when we get bad news we weep for a while, and then get busy making the best of it. We change our behavior, we change our attitudes. We raise our consciousness and lower our standards. We find our bootstraps and tug. But we can’t come to terms with circumstances whose terms we don’t yet know. An uncertain future leaves us stranded in an unhappy present with nothing to do but wait.

Tomorrow, more on uncertainty…or, to paraphrase Don Pardo at the end of sports-blooper-filled “Spanning the World” segments…if there is a tomorrow…

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