Photographed by Nina Westervelt.
I just finished Daniel Gilbert’s new book, Stumbling on Happiness. It’s thought-provoking, but in case you don’t have time to read it yourself, here’s my fourth-grade-book-report-style summary of the parts I found most interesting.
Gilbert’s main argument is that we aren’t very good at predicting what will make us happy in the future. This matters, because if we want to take steps in the present that will contribute to our future happiness, we need to be able to anticipate what, in fact, will make us happy — consider the person who splurges on a $300 professional tattoo today, only to pay a painful $6,000 in 10 years to remove it. The job you have, the body you have, the city you live in — all reflect decisions you made in the past about what you’d care about in the future.
Gilbert suggests a remedy: To predict what’s likely to make you happy in the future, ask someone who is having that experience at the moment. So ask people who are associates at law firms whether they like their jobs; ask people who just visited Prague with their kids whether they had fun (the more similar such surrogates are to you, the more helpful their information is likely to be).
Gilbert maintains that although we all feel very idiosyncratic, we’re much more alike in our preferences than we imagine — so the experience of other people is the best guide to follow.
I recently applied this principle myself, without realizing it. When considering starting a blog, instead of reading among the dozens of Internet articles about the joys, trials, and lessons about running a blog, I asked three bloggers I knew whether they enjoyed doing it, and how they did it.
One friend is a prominent columnist for Vanity Fair who keeps his blog as an extension of his writing: James Wolcott. One is a novelist who keeps her blog for a lark, to indulge her love for food, restaurants, and cooking: Lunch for Two. One is a law professor who runs a blog to generate discussion on legal topics that interest him: Volokh Conspiracy.
These three gave me uncannily accurate and useful advice. Although at the time, I felt like a loser for doing nothing more than talking to people I randomly happened to know, this approach was probably far more helpful than doing proper “research.”
On a slightly different topic, I was intrigued to learn from Stumbling on Happiness that often, our behavior is designed to ward off the nasty feeling of regret (the feeling of self-blame for an unfortunate outcome that we might have prevented if we’d acted differently). Apparently people regret not taking an action more than they regret taking an action. Gilbert speculates that that’s because it’s easier to console ourselves with the lessons learned by some action gone awry than to see the good that came from the failure to act.
This is a very helpful observation about actions; I think, however, that it’s absolutely not true of speech. I very often regret a remark that I made. In fact, I’m trying to train myself that if it even crosses my mind that I should refrain from saying something, I should think no further, but just shut up. Idle criticism, sharp remarks, needling jokes, minor gossip…I don’t need to consult with anyone else to predict that, in the future, I won’t regret having kept silent.