Stumbling on Happiness

I was given this book by a friend who likened the style to Alain de Botton. While I don't agree with the comparison, I can understand that the genre bears certain similarities -- a nonfiction book with meandering tone, musing on a single topic -- but because this is primarily about psychology and the way we make decisions, I wouldn't really put these on the same shelf.
That being said, this was an interesting read... although I've been "currently-reading" this in bits for about a year now, so that might tell you something. It was an excellent subway read, because despite the fact that it's a psychology book, I never really felt like we were going too deep below the surface here, and so I could always put it down and pick it right back up again. I liked that every chapter starts with a quote from Shakespeare... that's a pretty quick and cheap way to gain points, I know, but whatever.
Here's the gist of it. Gilbert is trying to explain to us why we suck at projecting ourselves forward to predict how we'll feel in the future and we suck at remembering how we felt in the past, so we can't even really learn from our mistakes. If you're looking for an answer, you won't find it. I realized at one point towards the end that there were forty-something pages of footnotes, which left about twenty pages for Gilbert to come up with with some kind of summary or solution to this problem... and even when I thought that, I realized that his tone pretty much clues you in to the fact that you're not going to get anything to help you out here, besides encouragement that you should keep a bright outlook and pepper your own discussion with humor. If there's any suggestion to be had, it's along the lines of this: we ought to listen to each other more and learn from their experiences. If we're trying to make a decision that will affect our future, talk to people who have already made that decision (or better yet, people who are in one of the potential situations currently)... because really, we're not all so very dissimilar as people anyway (we usually dismiss others' experiences because we overestimate our uniqueness).
Gilbert keeps up a fairly playful tone that reminded me of teachers and professors who would slip in silly questions on a test or make amusing lists of things in their lectures. I suppose it's important to keep a pretty cute dialogues going, given the fact that he's basically telling us that chances are, we won't be as happy as we think we will... and when we are happy, we won't be happy long.

Here are a few quotes I pulled from the book (though I actually underlined quite a lot, as his tone really did lull me into that student mode):

We like to frolic in the best of all imaginary tomorrows--and why shouldn't we? After all, we fill our photo albums with pictures of birthday parties and tropical vacations rather than car wrecks and emergency-room visits because we want to be happy when we stroll down Memory Lane, so why shouldn't we take the same attitude toward our strolls up Imagination Avenue? Although imagining happy futures may make us feel happy, it can also have some trouble consequences. Researchers have discovered that when people find it easy to imagine an event, they overestimate the likelihood that it will actually occur. Because most of us get so much practice imagining good than bad events, we tend to overestimate the likelihood that good events will actually happen to us, which leads us to be unrealistically optimistic about our futures.

People want to be happy, and all the other things they want are typically means to that end.

Imagining "what it would feel like" sounds like a fluffy bit of daydreaming, but in fact, it is one of the most consequential mental acts we can perform, and we perform it every day. We make decisions about whom to marry, where to work, when to reproduce, where to retire, and we base these decisions in large measure on our beliefs about how it would feel if this event happened but that one didn't. Our lives may not always turn out as we wish or as we plan, but we are confident that if they had, then our happiness would have been unbounded and our sorrows thin and fleeting. Perhaps it is true that we can't always get what we want, but at least we feel sure that we know what to want in the first place.

...when we are selecting, we consider the positive attributes of our alternatives, and when we are rejecting, we consider the negative attributes.

Just as objects that are near to us in space appear to be more detailed than those that are far away, so do events that are near to us in time. ... When we think of events in the distant past or distant future we tend to think abstractly about why they happened or will happen, but when we think of events in the near past or near future we tend to think concretely about how they happened or will happen.

...most of us have a tough time imagining a tomorrow that is terribly different from today, and we find it particularly difficult to imagine that we will ever think, want, or feel differently than we do now.

We may see the world through rose-colored glasses, but rose-colored glasses are neither opaque nor clear. They can't be opaque because we need to see the world clearly enough to participate in it--to pilot helicopters, harvest corn, diaper babies, and all the other stuff that smart mammals need to do in order to survive and thrive. But they can't be clear because we need their rosy tint to motivate us to design the helicopters ("I'm sure this thing will fly"), plant the corn ("This year will be a banner crop"), and tolerate the babies ("What a bundle of joy!"). We cannot do without reality and we cannot do without illusion. Each serves a purpose, each imposes a limit on the influences of the other, and our experience of the world is the artful compromise that these tough competitors negotiate.

...most people think they will regret foolish actions more than foolish inactions. But studies show that nine out of ten people are wrong. Indeed, in the long run, people of every age and in ever walk of life seem to regret not having done things much more than they regret things they did...

It is only when we cannot change the experience that we look for ways to change our view of the experience...

We try to repeat those experiences that we remember with pleasure and pride, and we try to avoid repeating those that we remember with embarrassment or regret. The trouble is that we often don't remember them correctly. ... Memory is not a dutiful scribe that keeps a complete transcript of our experiences, but a sophisticated editor that clips and saves key elements of an experience and then uses these elements to rewrite the story each time we ask to reread it.

...we tend to remember the best of times and the worst of times instead of the most likely of times...

...the average American moves more than six times, changes jobs more than ten times, and marries more than once, which suggests that most of us are making more than a few poor choices.

...if you are like most people, then like most people, you don't know you're like most people. Science has given us a lot of facts about the average person, and one of the most reliable of these facts it that the average person doesn't see herself as average.

We don't always see ourselves as superior, but we almost always see ourselves as unique. Even when we do precisely what others do, we tend to think that we're doing it for unique reasons. For instance, we tend to attribute other people's choices to features of the chooser ("Phil picked this class because he's one of those literary types"), but we tend to attribute our own choice to features of the options ("But I picked it because it was easier than economics"). We recognize that our decisions are influenced by social norms ("I was too embarrassed to raise my hand in class even though I was terribly confused"), but fail to recognize that others' decisions were similarly influenced ("No one else raised a hand because no one else was as confused as I was). We know that our choices sometimes reflect our aversions ("I voted for Kerry because I couldn't stand Bush"), but we assume that other people's choices reflect their appetites ("If Rebecca voted for Kerry, then she must have liked him). The list of differences is long, but the conclusion to be drawn from it is short: The self considers itself to be a very special person.

We are the only people in the world whom we can know from the inside. We experience our own thoughts and feelings but must infer that other people are experiencing theirs.

...we enjoy thinking of ourselves as special. Most of us want to fit in with our peers, but we don't want to fit in too well. We prize our unique identities, and research shows that when people are made to feel too similar to others, their moods quickly sour and they try to distance and distinguish themselves in a variety of ways. ... Because we value our own uniqueness, it isn't surprising that we tend to overestimate it.

But foresight is a fragile talent that often leaves us squinting, straining to see what it would be like to have this, go there, or do that. There is no simple formula for finding happiness. But if our great big brains do not allow us to go surefootedly into our futures, they at least allow us to understand what makes us stumble.


The Xanadu Adventure

It's funny, but I feel like a great deal of my childhood reading was wrapped up in Lloyd Alexander (this is no understatement if you wikipedia this guy and see just how prolific he was). I may have loved The Chronicles of Prydain but I really fell in love with Vesper Holly. To this day, "Vesper" is still in the running for baby names if I should ever have a little girl.
So a few weeks ago, I discovered the "Never-Ending Book Quiz" on Goodreads and I started thinking about all the good books that deserved trivia questions. And naturally, I thought of Vesper. So I went online to remember all the exact titles and there on the list was a book I had never read before... The Xanadu Adventure published in 2005. I was graduating college in 2005, so I suppose it isn't surprising that I wasn't searching the young readers' section for unread gems, but I was still surprised that I had not yet heard of this sixth Vesper Holly book, printed fifteen years after the fifth. I ordered it immediately from an amazon seller and a few days ago, it arrived.

In The Xanadu Adventure, you find all the little touches that have come to characterize Vesper Holly books for me... the random expedition to an exotic locale, the cliffhanger endings to the short chapters, the narrator Brinnie's tendency to jump to conclusions, Vesper's cool-headed sense of reason, and, of course, our arch-nemesis Dr. Helvitius. In this adventure, we set off in search of Troy, but instead, we find an artificial Xanadu created by the wealthy and ridiculous Dr. Helvitius (all the truly great villains are wealthy and ridiculous, you know). Oh, and we also find a whole civilization of people (amazingly enough, an undiscovered people who are clearly the descendants of escaped Trojans) that possess the key to deciphering the language the Weed is studying, which sent us off on this adventure in the first place.

As we've gone along in the Vesper Holly books, we've acquired a few characters that we can't seem to shake. In the beginning, it was just Vesper and her guardian Brinnie running from place to place. Then we found Smiler and Slider, handy twins that are characterized by their mechanical know-how (particularly when it comes to boats that are of questionable sea-worthiness) and brute strength. There's Aunt Mary, Brinnie's wife who is surprisingly resourceful and nimble, much to her husband's surprise. And let us not forget "the Weed," a young man with academic pursuits who stumbled into our story and Vesper's heart. I can't say that I don't enjoy the side characters, but there was something a little less complicated about Vesper and Brinnie on their own in foreign countries. The more characters we acquired, the closer I knew we were coming to an eventual end of the stories. We were weighted down with people and soon it would be too much for such a troupe to wander into adventure.

And even while Vesper was always a bright and energetic young woman, it's in this book more than any other that you realize time has passed and we're not dealing with static characters whose ages do not change. There's always something a little melancholy about watching a character you love grow up. It's not like Vesper's an old woman or anything, but even the idea of her actually getting married and having a child is a bit much for me. I suppose it was good of Alexander to let us know that she's taken care-of and that even in marital bliss, she won't be losing her spunkiness... but I don't know if I needed assurance on that front.

Alexander, however, might have... I hadn't known this before reading the book and writing this review, but apparently Alexander had a step-daughter (his wife's daughter, whom he adopted) who passed away in 1990 - the same year the fifth Vesper Holly book was published. I won't speculate more on that, but it does add a note of melancholy as to why it might have taken fifteen years to see Vesper's final adventure in print. I wrote the line about wikipedia-ing Lloyd Alexander, then realized I had never done this, despite how many of his books I have read. So I went ahead and looked him up in Wikipedia and apparently he died exactly a year ago today.

In any case, The Xanadu Adventure is certainly a worthy Vesper Holly send-off and for a short while, it made me smile to find myself in the crowded company of the characters I knew and loved... particularly that of Brinnie and Vesper. I hope that more children will come to love them, too, as Alexander's work should delight children for generations to come.