Stumbling on Happiness

By Daniel Gilbert. Knopf Canada, 277 pp, $34.95, hardcover.

Every reader encounters a writer they'd love to go for drinks with, but rarer than a porcine airshow is one who tells you where his local is. Daniel Gilbert is that rarity, and Stumbling on Happiness shatters the expected image of a dull Harvard psychology professor, to boot.

“Weaving together facts and theories from psychology, cognitive neuroscience, philosophy and behavioral economics” , Gilbert unravels the invisible ways our minds routinely project false forecasts of our future happiness. These methods use the same skill that, he argues, we alone among the animals possess, that key evolutionary gift: imagination.

But this gift has many inherent flaws. It shares areas of the brain we use for perception, leading to undue influence by current stimuli, and Gilbert's dig that “using the visual and auditory areas to execute acts of imagination is a truly ingenious bit of engineering, and evolution deserves the Microsoft Windows Award for installing it in every one of us without asking permission.”  (That our visions of the future rely heavily on our present circumstances is familiar and frequently forgotten by anyone buying groceries with a full stomach””or a case of the munchies.)

He details other impediments to accurate emotional forecasting, including our universal sense of our individual uniqueness and “super-replicating”  belief systems such as “wealth and children bring happiness.” 

Gilbert notes that “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.”  And with his abundant insights and humour, discovering why “foresight is just as fallible as eyesight and hindsight”  may provide more laughter and learning than all the chicken soup on Venus.