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05 May 2007 @ 03:56 am
A review, 'cause the whole thing won't fit in goodreads....  
By the way, isn't the text limit on Goodreads' review section annoying?

Review of Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert

April 2007, first impression: So far, this book is witty, eye-opening and really fun. Also really well researched. He references Daniel C. Dennett in the first five pages, so how could I not love it?

May 2007, upon completion: Update...

Ultimately, I decided to give this book three stars because I believe that it is a ballsy and well-executed attempt to take on an impossibly difficult problem (happiness - that's a biggie). For the most part, I admire Gilbert's methods, though they ALL become incredibly frustrating somewhere around page 200. The book is witty, incredibly well researched, and Gilbert is (mostly) unwilling to extrapolate the massive amounts of data he compiles into proscriptive solutions for finding happiness.

Fortunately, these make the book:

* pretty easy to follow
* informative and enlightening (if you're not already familiar with most of the research - some of the psychological effects he outlines are well-known to the point of being cliché, but many are either head-scratchers or jaw-droppers on their own merits or are interpreted here in interesting ways which bolster his mostly critical (rather than constructive) thesis)
* very NOT another preachy or rosy-tinted self-help franchise (yet).


* the tone ultimately makes the book repetitive and tiresome (much like being in the room with an otherwise intelligent person who laughs a little too much at their own jokes)
* the research often obfuscates rather than elucidates already fuzzy points (again, he makes his criticisms clear, but sometimes it's unclear what he is actually trying to *say* by pointing them out)
* for most of the book it seems as though he's really verging on some great ideas, but doesn't want to stick his neck out for them, which leaves the reader exhausted trying to generate their own implications and solutions for the problems he identifies...

Like anybody smart enough to recognize their faults but not disciplined enough to censor them, Gilbert anticipates these criticisms and laughs them away, effectively rendering any of his critics impotent. In fact, the final chapter and the afterword (which I found ultimately to be the most enlightening bits) almost seem as though they were tacked on to preempt exactly those criticisms - as if he were forced into a proscriptive thesis ("be happy by putting yourself in someone else's shoes" - he calls them 'surrogates') that he really had no interest in (or perhaps he thought himself incapable of) developing. I smell a sales-savvy editor somewhere in this process, and I thank them for existing - because even trivia loving empiricists like me still kind of want our fact-finding missions to have a *point*.

All in all, this book left me with a lot to think about - but no coherent road-map to structure those thoughts. Aggressively curious people will probably find the gaping holes in implication fun to fill in after an initial period of frustration, but I think that people with less patience will either latch on to the 'surrogates' theory as the self-help mantra they were looking for in the first place or end up entirely confused and unsatisfied. OF course, Gilbert predicts this in his forward and warns us of the ambiguity while making his admittedly insufficient solution seem tantalizing enough to make us buy his book anyway. One thing's for sure, no one can accuse him of not learning from all of those years of training in psychology.

One interesting note: after spending hundreds of pages pinning our unhappiness on insufficient cognitive mechanisms, Gilbert in the final chapter suddenly reveals a socio-historical catalyst for modern unhappiness - the existence of greater amounts of freedom and choice. Though I glossed it at first, the way he dropped this into his thesis has really stuck with me (and not because of my anarcho-libertarian sympathies).

It's almost as if he's prepping for a sequel in which the socio-historical catalyst for our dissatisfaction and our brains' insufficient mechanisms for addressing it (the latter is the bulk of the book, so you can probably see why I'm so surprised that he pointed the finger at history so late and so fleetingly in an otherwise exhaustingly tentative treatise) are combined and he's gonna write a true pop-socio-psych bible on the importance of commitment and community (well, at least I can sort of see why he avoided following his criticisms to their logical end... he's a reluctant messiah :b) but there I go using my imagination again - the devil in Gilbert's pantheon.
Current Location: The shelter...
Current Mood: boredbored
Current Music: The Concretes - On the Radio (Last.fm)
Monsieur Valentine7ghent on May 5th, 2007 04:46 pm (UTC)
Sounds like the hypothetical sequel has already been written. It's called The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less by Barry Schwartz.

And I again have to bug you to read Lila. You need a coherent roadmap? I'm still convinced that the metaphysics of quality is as close to one as you'll find.
Caitlin Veronica Krausecaitfish on May 6th, 2007 06:42 am (UTC)
I'm reading it right now.
(Anonymous) on May 13th, 2008 05:59 pm (UTC)
Cool quote

Weekend, where are you?

(Anonymous) on August 23rd, 2008 08:24 pm (UTC)
I'm new here, just wanted to say hello and introduce myself.