Tuesday, May 02, 2006

My One-Man Book Club: Vol. One, Chapter One

St. Mark’s Bookshop in the East Village is a dangerous place to browse. Some stores are just set up in some inexplicable way (or probably an explicable way, but I’m too lazy to suss it out) that almost guarantees impulse buying, and this is one of them. Tonight, before heading over to a friend’s birthday dinner, I popped in and made just such a buy, but I think this one might be a keeper. It’s called Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert, a psychology professor at Harvard.

Before you go thinking that I’m so desperate as to be reaching for self-healing platitudes, here is Gilbert’s defense of the book’s title in the foreword:
Despite the third word of the title, this is not an instruction manual that will tell you anything useful about how to be happy. Those books are located in the self-help section two aisles over, and once you’ve bought one, done everything it says to do, and found yourself miserable anyway, you can always come back here to understand why. Instead, this is a book that describes what science has to tell us about how and how well the human brain can imagine its own future, and about how and how well it can predict which of those futures it will most enjoy.
Luckily, I’m not miserable, but I’ve been making a few day trips into misery’s outlying territories lately, and I’ve also been thinking a lot about what role anticipation and future-thinking have in creating happiness (or its approximation). Anticipation is a stimulant for everyone to some degree, I imagine, but I’ve always been acutely aware of just how strong its influence is on me. I think for some people anticipation is 80 or 90 percent of an event’s appeal (or lack thereof), which doesn’t seem healthy, and I think I might be one of those people. To take two examples, one from each pole:

I don’t have a particularly strong fear of flying. When I’m on a plane, that is. Once seated, barring horrific turbulence, I’m actually pretty relaxed in the air. But for the week or two leading up to a flight, I’m a semi-nervous-wreck about the whole thing. On the other hand, every year I anticipate a certain fantasy baseball draft with childlike glee. The actual draft, of course, is three or four hours of me making a series of choices that I almost immediately recognize as boneheaded, surrounded by men older and even more bitter than I am, cursing at each other in mostly unfriendly ways. Experiencing this time and again does nothing to diminish my eager anticipation of it eleven and a half months later.

It’s always been my suspicion that this trait says something important about the ways in which I’m satisfied and disappointed with the world, alternately, and so, as I’m sharply interested in increasing the satisfaction level these days, this seems like the right book at the right time, and I think I’ll occasionally share my thoughts with you as I make my way through it. Think of it as a book club, but without all the people and snacks.

(It will seem more club-like if some of you participate in the comments section, which could take the form of you reading the book along with me; I’d certainly understand, though, if it takes the form of your personal, non-book-related thoughts and anecdotes about the H word.)

Tonight, though, it’s getting late, so I’m almost sure that what will make me happy is going to bed. I’m anticipating it greatly. I’ll leave you with an abridged excerpt (again from the foreword; I haven’t gotten very far, considering that I bought the book four hours ago, so for the purposes of this project I’m taking it on faith that it will remain interesting and funny). More soon.
We treat our future selves as though they were our children, spending most of the hours of most of our days constructing tomorrows that we hope will make them happy. Rather than indulging in whatever strikes our momentary fancy, we take responsibility for the welfare of our future selves...

Yeah, yeah. Don’t hold your breath. Like the fruits of our loins, our temporal progeny are often thankless. We toil and sweat to give them just what we think they will like, and they quit their jobs, grow their hair, move to or from San Francisco, and wonder how we could ever have been stupid enough to think they’d like that....

How can this happen? Shouldn’t we know the tastes, preferences, needs, and desires of the people we will be next year -- or at least later this afternoon? Shouldn’t we understand our future selves well enough to shape their lives -- to find careers and lovers whom they will cherish, to buy slipcovers for the sofa that they will treasure for years to come? So why do they end up with attics and lives that are full of stuff that we considered indispensable and that they consider painful, embarrassing, or useless? Why do they criticize our choice of romantic partners, second-guess our strategies for professional advancement, and pay good money to remove the tattoos that we paid good money to get?

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6 Comments:

Anonymous lfw said...

damn. i was hoping that amazon would let me read the first few pages with its handy "search inside this book!" feature, but no such luck.

i did, however, skim the blurbs and reviews, and i found it mildy disturbing (as in, i'm not going to lose any sleep over it) that three of the five blurbs were from guys named daniel. the author is a daniel, too. what's with all the daniels in this field? and should someone be looking into this?

i'd love to read the book along with you, but i'm not sure i can justify spending $15.72 for it. maybe i can borrow it when you're finished? or you could just transcribe the entire thing for us, your faithful readers. i think we deserve it. don't you, ray?

11:59 AM  
Anonymous Daniel Gilbert said...

yes, there seem to be a lot of Daniels in psychology. In fact,I'm am writing a psychology textbook with two of my colleagues -- Dan Schacter and Dan Wegner. We have Dans coming out the ears around here. But I promise that all the Dans who said nice things about my book are not me, though I'd also say nice things if anyone asked.

As far as transcribing and posting my book goes...well, all I can say is that I wouldn't steal things from YOUR house if you invited me over. How about the library?

12:08 PM  
Blogger JMW said...

Ha. Welcome, Daniel. I can assure you that LFW is an upstanding citizen, and I'll urge her to purchase the book through the proper channels.

In the meantime, I hope you'll drop back in from time to time to monitor my progress with your work, which I'm greatly enjoying (got through 25 more pages this morning on the subway). Also, jokes about transcribing the whole thing aside, I hope you don't mind that I'll be posting brief excerpts here and there -- the way I see it, this will whet people's appetites and send them scurrying to the bookstore.

12:44 PM  
Anonymous lfw said...

dr. gilbert, i assure you that the transcription suggestion was a joke! (although i guess not such a funny one in this day and age of digital thievery, etc.)

and just so you know, my not buying your book is not a reflection on the value of your book, but of my bank account.

i could've sworn there was a psych professor named daniel at cornell when i was there, but i looked on the web site and didn't find anyone. maybe he left ithaca for cambridge.

12:51 PM  
Anonymous Daniel Gilbert said...

Only the publisher can grant permission to quote above and beyond the "fair use" provisions of copyright law, but I doubt anyone is looking.Glad you are still like enjoying STUMBLING. Please let LFW borrow it when you're done, huh? Cheers.

6:26 PM  
Anonymous bdb said...

OK, so we'll all discuss the book even though only one of us has actually read it? Sounds like a pretty standard book club formula, actually. I guess the fact that the author of the book itself surreally responds every time we comment on his work kind of sets us apart. Maybe we should start talking about "Catcher in the Rye" and see what happens.

I've just got a lot of stuff going on right now, and I don't think I'm ready to commit to a psychology book in my life. Dan, it's not you it's me. But I did enjoy jmw's blog entry and the passage posted from the book.

As for my actual comment, jmw and I have had the "anticipation" discussion many times, and the child metaphor is an excellent extension of the notion. It is my belief, however, that the problem is not that I don't know what Future Me wants. My problem is that I don't know how to deliver it to him. In my mind's eye, I might imagine a happy me, living in San Francisco with unruly locks. But in the fantasy, longer hair is nothing more than an affectation of my happiness. The problem is that when it comes to happiness, hair length, and mailing address, I find that I can only control the last two, but not the first.

(for the record, I live in Dallas and keep my hair very short)

2:41 PM  

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