Sunday, August 2, 2009

Stumbling On Happiness

Five Stars

Stumbling on Happiness

Immensely relevant and revelatory findings, extensive notes and references, rapid-fire style of writing, and replete with anecdotes, references to medical research, topped off with gobs of humour.
We are not happy because we are not rich, or not handsome or beautiful enough, or because we do not live in a mansion, or because we do not have that dream job, or because we could not marry that drop-dead gorgeous girl in school, or any other reason. We are unhappy because what we think about and how we imagine ourselves reacting to good and bad events is inaccurate. Wrong. Unpredictable.
We think about our future, and are unique among animals in this respect. This is a cause of much happiness as well as misery. It is caused by our failure to accurately estimate the impact that future events can have on our happiness - perceived as well as actual. Our imagination, that we use so often and rely on so often to help us make decisions that we have imperfect knowledge of, can fail us in ways we probably are not even aware of. Memory is even more imperfect. Our brains lend a hugely helping hand in feeding our own preconceptions and misconceptions.

Knowing about these shortcomings, and how our memory and brain work in this regard, can help us make better decisions and estimates about decisions in the present that will impact our future happiness. Choice is good, so we think, yet experiment after experiment has proven otherwise. Choice leads to the possibility of regret. The impermanence of decisions can be a big cause of misery.

The book has thirty pages of end-notes, and almost as long an index. This means that firstly the book is backed up strongly by lots of research, and secondly, this provides ample material for those wanting to delve deeper. The author has a rapid-fire style of oratory and presentation, and that style carries over to his writing as well. That will appeal to many people, not to some. To see him in action, you can see two of his talks at the site; I have provided links below, at the end of the post.

If you have read Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness (my review on this blog, and on, some of the material on how we make judgments, which in turn is based on Tversky and Kahneman's work,Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases, is probably better covered in Nudge. What is different in "Stumbling..." from "Nudge..." is the number of experiments that the author lists to highlight how decisions and regrets, or decisions and expectations work. For information on how we are influenced and persuaded into making decisions, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion remains the best book on the topic. Portions of the second half of the book talk about self-serving biases that cloud and influence our decisions. This topic has been covered exceedingly well in Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me). What 'Stumbling...' does do very well is gather these and many other areas of research and findings into a single, very readable place. In the author's words,
"The hard part was developing a way to organize hundreds of ideas and findings from various fields and weave them together into a coherent narrative that could get from the first page to the last page under its own steam. I didn't want to write a series of essays. I wanted to tell a single story..." [from the P.S. section of the book in this edition]

The edition I have is a Harper Perennial  print, and has an extra section at the end, called 'P.S'. This contains an interview with the author, a page on the author's likes and dislikes, and a list of related books that the reader may want to read.

That wealth may not make us happier is also well known. Wealth beyond a point does not contribute to increased happiness. As much was noted two centuries ago, by none other than the father of modern economics, Adam Smith:
"... (Adam) Smith believed that people want just one thing - happiness; hence economies can blossom and grow only if people are deluded into believing that the production of wealth will make them happy." [page 219]

We know of visual blind spots - the spot in your eyeball where an image cannot be registered. There is an image that is used to illustrate, with (in my case) stunning clarity, if I may use a word like 'clarity' to talk about blind spots, the proof that there is indeed a blind spot. But what is notable is that such blind spots exist in auditory experiences as well as memory too.
"This general finding - that information acquired after an event alters memory of the event - has been replicated so many times in so many different laboratory and field settings that it has left most scientists convinced of two things. First, the act of remembering involves `filling in' details that were not actually stored; and second, we generally cannot tell when we are doings this because filling in happens quickly and unconsciously." [page 79, 80]

"Memory uses the filling-in trick, but imagination **is** the filling-in trick. ... More simply said, most of us have a difficult time imaging a future that is terribly different from today..." [page 114]

"Imagination's second shortcoming is its tendency to project the present onto the future ... filling in the gaps with details that it borrows from the present." [page 226]

"Seeing in time is like seeing in space. ... But when we remember of imagine a temporally distant event, our brains seem to overlook the fact that details vanish with temporal distance, and they conclude that the distant events actually are as smooth and vague as we are imagining and remembering them." [page 105]
"The fact that we imagine the near and far futures with such different textures causes us to value them differently as well." [page 107]

We are conditioned to believe that variety is the spice of life. True as that may be, it can be overrated, and secondly, we make mistakes when trying to evaluate the benefits variety can provide. This leads to the likelihood of disappointment.
"Wonderful things are especially wonderful the first time they happen, but their wonderfulness wanes with repetition. ... Psychologists call this habituation, economists call it declining marginal utility ... One way to beat habituation is to increase the variety of one's experiences. ... Another way to beat habituation is to increase the amount of time that separates repetitions of the experience." [page 130]

Similarly, when you hear the phrase that "time heals all wounds", it is because:
"The fact is that negative events do affect us, but they generally don't affect us as much or for as long as we expect them to." [page 153]

Note also that we see what we want to see. Self-serving biases, blind spots, or plain pigheadedness (added star mine, the original text has these words italicized).
"... when your brain is at liberty to interpret a stimulus in more than one way, it tends to interpret it the way it **wants** to, which is to say that your preferences influence your interpretations of stimuli... " [page 158]
"... studies reveal that people have a penchant for asking questions that are subtly engineered to manipulate the answer they receive." [page 166]
"When facts challenge our favoured conclusions, we scrutinize them more carefully and subject them to more rigorous analysis." [page 169]
Read this book for excellent coverage on the topic of self-serving biases: Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me)
"Indeed, in the long run, people of every age and in every walk of life seem to regret not having done things much more than they regret things they did..." [page 179]

Why???, you may ask.
"One reason is that the psychological immune system has a more difficult time manufacturing positive and credible views of inactions than of actions." [page 179]

"Imagination's third shortcoming is its failure to recognize that things will look different once they happen - in particular, that bad things will look a whole lot better ... " [page 227]

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© 2009, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.