I recently finished reading a book that took me six months. I didn't read it straight through - it ended up being my travel reading on four different business trips for training and conferences. But that span of time gave me an opportunity to let it sink in and rumble around and change my thinking on a lot of things. The book is Daniel Gilbert's Stumbling on Happiness, and I have to say it was a fascinating book.
At first glance this may seem like just another self-help book by some psychologist (Gilbert is Harvard College Professor of Psychology at Harvard University). It is not. In fact, it is far from that. Instead, it is a well-written, insightful and funny study on why we humans fail so often when we do things to make ourselves (or others) happy. He then examines various aspects of why we fail, all backed up with lots of citations from study after study.
The book is divided into five parts:
- Prospection - The act of looking forward in time or considering the future.
- Subjectivity - The fact that experience is unobservable to everyone but the person having it.
- Realism - The belief that things are in reality as they appear to be in the mind.
- Presentism - The tendency for current experience to influence one's views of the past and the future.
- Rationalization - The act of causing something to be or to seem reasonable.
- Corrigibility - Ability to be corrected, reformed, or improved.
The basic point on the section on prospection is that we humans spend a lot of time in our imagination. Even the most grounded, down-to-earth people do, even if they say "I have no imagination". Because when you're thinking and planning about the future, you're doing it in your imagination, where else? The real question then becomes, "Why does the present me do such a poor job at making the future me happy?" This question is basically the topic of discussion for the rest of the book, as Gilbert picks apart reason after reason why we do such a bad job at predicting and then enacting what we think we need to do to be happy at some future "when" - whether that when is five minutes from now or five years from now.
Later! What an astonishing idea. What a powerful concept. What a fabulous discovery. How did human beings ever learn to preview in their imaginations chains of events that had not yet come to pass? What prehistoric genius first realized that he could escape today by closing his eyes and silently transporting himself into tomorrow?
Indeed, thinking about the future can be so pleasurable that sometimes we'd rather think about it than get there.
Forestalling pleasure is an inventive technique for getting double the juice from half the fruit. Indeed, some events are more pleasurable to imagine than to experience (most of us can recall an instance in which we made love with a desirable partner or ate a wickedly rich dessert, only to find that the act was better contemplated than consummated), and in these cases people may decide to delay the event forever.