Posted by: HAT | December 10, 2007

Daniel Gilbert on “Stumbling on Happiness”

Gilbert CoverWhat does a book by a Harvard psychologist on why people can’t predict what will make them happy have to do with utopia?

Well, what doesn’t it have to do with utopia??  This was one of those books I just picked up in the bookstore out of self-defense, because my partner was shopping for music and my daughter wanted to look at something else and all I really wanted to do was sit in the coffee shop and not move.  But since it was about happiness and the future, it seemed kind of relevant.  And indeed, Gilbert presents the fruits of decades of the kind of research that gets psychology undergrads their extra credit points by serving as human subjects, and others their dissertations and publications, and it all tends to some basic points:  we human beings are good at imagining things, but not as good as we think we are if by “good” we mean “accurate.” 

That means our predictions about the future (even the future that isn’t meant to be utopian) are systematically distorted.  We leave things out, mostly having to do with our blind spots.  We leave out everything we can’t see from here, and don’t even notice we’ve done it.  That would include lots of things that haven’t been invented yet, as well as transformations that haven’t yet come to pass that we’re NOT thinking about.  We are not too good at noticing what’s missing (the dog that didn’t bark in the night, the letter “t” in three-letter nonsense combinations, women in the corporate sales force, people of color in our suburban neighborhood . . .), so we keep on leaving things out of our imaginary scenarios that will matter for our future happiness.  We also forget to include things that will happen, but that are so ordinary (drinking water, brushing our teeth, seeing the sunrise, . . .) that we forget to think about them. 

One of my theses is that my utopian theorists are reluctant to paint detailed pictures of the utopian society, since those pictures might prove constraining.  We don’t want images of utopia to hamstring the efforts at social transformation that might move us toward it, by specifying how something is going to look that we’re not even going to have a clear intimation of until we get a lot closer to it.  Gilbert’s discussion reinforces the wisdom in this approach.  (Yay!!)


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