… or Why Sheryl Crow is right.
Ron, a reader of this blog, sent me a copy of Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness. Thanks Ron.
Daniel Gilbert is a professor of psychology at Harvard. In a breezy style, his book documents how we fool ourselves about what we will enjoy, what we will regret, what we remember, and what we will forget . This book reminded me of the Las Vegas Version of the Three Laws of Thermodynamics
1. You Cannot Win
2. You Cannot Break Even
3. You Cannot Leave The Game.
Professor Gilbert’s Laws might be broken down into:
1. Prediction for humans is like water to a fish. We swim in it, unaware that it’s there.
2. Imagination is necessary for prediction, but unreliable.
3. Imagination is necessary for memory, but unreliable.
4. Imagination is creative, but likely to tell us the future is more like the recent past than it will be.
5. Imagination is not particularly accurate in its predictions.
6. Because of 2-5, we mispredict the future and misremember the past.
7. Because of 1-6, the best way to predict what you will feel about an event or situation is to ask someone going through it right now.
I couldn’t work it into anything as catchy as the Las Vegas version of Thermo. Oh, well.
Professor Gilbert does a good job of documenting and illustrating each of these points, and does a good job of leading us to his concluding advice. The advice is, since we often misremember the past – either justifying and rationalizing bad events to make them “teaching moments” for ourselves, or overhyping the pleasures of unavoidable duty (being a parent is fun!) – and since everyone does this, the best person to seek for advice is someone who is going through exactly what you are at roughly the same moment. Our “in the moment” reactions are usually fresh and true, but get processed by imagination and expectation and rationalization to the point that we no longer accurately recollect what we felt or thought as the event fades in time.
The book was a very quick read, less serious in tone than I normally like in my popular science books. But that’s just my taste – and I think it was aimed at a completely non-scientific audience. There are ample references in the notes, for those who might want to read the cited studies and experiments. Professor Gilbert remarks that he does not expect the reader to follow his advice, that we will continue to make use of our imaginations and continue to make the same sort of mistakes that he documents. In that case, I wonder what his motivation for writing was. He is quite well-read, so I’m sure he knows Dr. Johnson’s quote, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”
One of my favorite pieces in the book was a quick discussion of regret, and how we are wired to regret inaction more than action. We can usually rationalize a bad action by telling ourselves that we learned from the experience, and with that rationalization we diminish a lot of the sting from our stupidity. But we don’t have the same consolation for inaction. We only have the unpleasant fact of our cowardice or foolishness. And that reminded me of my favorite line about regret, from the Sheryl Crow’s song The Difficult Kind.
There ain’t nothing like regret…..