|Daniel Gilbert’s new book Stumbling on Happiness is a great summer read — you can polish it off in an afternoon or two and it will make you think about — and question — what you want to do with the rest of your life.
The book is about why the future we imagine, plan for and work towards ends up so often being both very different from and less satisfying than we expected. This is due in part to not knowing ourselves, and how we are changing, and not knowing what makes us happy and will make us happy:
Some people…tell you sternly that you should live every minute of your life as though it were your last, which only goes to show some people would spend their final ten minutes giving other people dumb advice…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…Why [then] do they [our future selves] experience regret and relief when they think about us, rather than pride and appreciation…when we gave them the best years of our lives?…Shouldn’t we know the tastes, preferences, needs and desires of the people we will be next year?
Gilbert explains why we have the propensity to imagine the future (such thoughts take up about 12% of all out thinking). “Why can’t we just be here now?”, he asks. His answer: “Thinking about the future can be so pleasurable that sometimes we’d rather think about it than get there”. It has practical value, too. Anticipation can mitigate the impact of unpleasant events, and imagining them can motivate us to try to avoid them. We have an innate desire to control our futures, and become unhappy and hopeless when we feel we have lost that ability. But we are terrible at imagining our future, and the happiness it will (or won’t) bring us, because of what Gilbert calls illusions of foresight.
Most of the book is devoted to describing these illusions, which fall into three categories:
So what can we do about this? How can we ‘see our future’ and anticipate how we will feel about it more accurately?
Gilbert examines and discards several alternatives, including practicing imagining (just retrenches the illusions) and asking others for opinion or coaching (they just reinforce the same myths that cloud our own imaginations). Instead, he advocates finding ‘surrogates’ — people who are now in a situation similar to the one you think you might be in in the future, and asking yourself if you would be happy if you’d done what they did and were doing what they’re doing. Less imagination, and more research. This entails learning more about what the future will probably be like when you get there, so that you have a richer context for understanding what your life might be like, and then searching for people who have already made a similar journey — people whose present is as much as possible like what your future, as objectively as you can imagine, will be like. Then study them, and learn about your future self. In other words, get real.
Gilbert does an interesting job dissecting the argument that we’re all unique, and that no surrogate could possibly teach us about our future or how happy we will be in it. Buy the book to read this, and just for the fun of reading this ‘anti-self-help book’.
In the afterword, Gilbert suggests the ideas in this book have particular application in making the three most important decisions about our future that we make in our lives: Where to live, What to do, and Who to do it with. I suspect his next book will tackle these issues specifically. I hope it will tell us how to go about finding these ‘surrogates’.
So now we have three ‘finding people’ challenges. Finding who to live with, and who to make a living with, two subjects I’ve written a lot about on this blog. And now, who to learn about the ‘future you’ from. Ideally, since the third one has a substantial impact on the first two, we should probably start with it. So much of what I’m learning these days keeps coming back tofinding models to learn from.
Time to go visit some intentional communities, and talk to some people there who are about ten years older and wiser than I am.
June 12, 2006
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