Sunday, September 04, 2011

Stumbling on Happiness - review; and Next Steps

I recently finished reading the book "Stumbling on Happiness" by Daniel Gilbert (psychology prof in Harvard). The title is a little misleading - in that it sounds like a self-help book. In a way it is - but for the very scientific and left-brain sort of reader. In that sense, it might put off a lot of intelligent reader. I thought ten times before buying it myself (but then read a couple of pages to make sure).

The book makes two starting points
1. We feel happy about thinking about the future and controlling our path to future
2. Our happiness is independent of the destination we reach

Of this the first is assumed to be an agreed on hypothesis. The second is explained through the book. The idea is that we don’t know what makes us happy. However we continue to believe that we do. The first of this – that we don’t know what makes us happy is due to the following
1. The limitations of imagination – filling in details in our picture of the future, without us consciously knowing it; and more importantly leaving out details without us consciously knowing it
2. The tendency of human mind to construct the view of the future in the light of the present.
3. The ignorance of human mind of its own strength to rationalize – which makes a person suffer less than expected due to a negative event

The author then goes on to claim with supporting evidence from experiments that human beings are very unlikely to learn from their own experience – since memory is a very unreliable guide to how one “felt” in each event.

The final recommendation from the author’s side then is to rely on the experience of others who are currently in the state that we are expecting to be in future. Adequate explanation is given to deal with the claims of uniqueness of human experience (we are not really that different from each other).

There is a small excursion into why we continue to believe in the eternal truths of more wealth being better and children being a source of joy. This is quite important. The theory of super-replicators in the domain of ideas/beliefs is the same as that of suitable genes in the domain of biological evolution. The simple idea is that false beliefs can last long and grow in societies since these make those societies as a whole stable, prosperous and long lasting. At the individual level though, these beliefs may not be (and often are not) happiness-maximizing.

Next steps?!

In the context of my project of “The Handbook of Happiness”, where does this leave us? A few random lines of thoughts emerge as below
1. Planned happiness seems like an oxymoron after all. A linear program to “get” to happiness is oversimplification and delusive
2. There is one area covered in the book about human beings being prone to inaction rather than action – while still subsequently regretting inaction rather than action. This might then be translated into a bias to action (a la “Yes-Man” the movie) which also ties in well with the chaos view (not a part of this book) of life – one needs to expose oneself to a lot of experiences, some of which might make one happy after all.
3. Can we pre-empt our tendencies mentioned above? Or are they given? If we can pre-empt these, we can get a decent handle on our expectations of future happiness (or the lack thereof)
4. Can we optimize our pursuit of money and its uses such that the happiness is maximized?
5. The book still does not talk about chronic happiness – call it contentedness or state of bliss or so on. It is mostly about happiness from an activity limited in space and time. How does one translate that into planning a career or place of stay and other such long term decisions?
6. Is there not a separate line of enquiry into avoiding the traps of where we spend our energies? i.e. we do not actually always pursue happiness. Every now and then we are caught up in firefighting, dealing with jealousy, politics and so on. For some, these become protracted pursuits – often overshadowing the pursuit of happiness. These traps may also be self-perpetrating and hence difficult to get out of. It might sound too simplistic – but can one do a energy-spent audit every so often and thus find out if one is really consciously choosing to spend energy on some pursuits or it is happening through inertia (of motion in this case as against rest).

I have a bit of a confession to make here: every time I take up the thought of studying this in some detail, I come up against the following “retorts” from myself
- this is pointless; one can’t really plan such effervescent thing as happiness.
- this is all for well-off people with enough food, shelter and freedom, what about the large multitude of human beings which struggles to make ends meet?

However, I must reply to myself regarding the first above that while a grand program to be forever happy is a delusion, thought-through handling of the subject is not. It’s a bit like practicing for a race even when one has the talent/strength. One can’t produce a winner through practice alone but given everything else similar, the one that practices with more plan and thought has higher chance of winning. Hence while someone else may be happier without going through all the thinking through; the process of thinking constructively about better organizing our lives to orient them towards happiness can’t possibly harm us.
As regards the second point, it is really driven by the need to be politically correct (in my own eyes). While one should seek to make the poorer lot better, that is no reason one should not actively think about how to better organize well-provided-for lives for making them happier. It is almost like creating two different “offerings” for two different socio-economic classes. As long as this does not make the poor poorer still, it is harmless from their point of view. In fact, a few decades hence when the poor are middle class they might look up to the higher-ups in the socio-economic ladder for ideas on how to best use their new-found economic freedom!

Onwards then!!!

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