Sunday, August 15, 2010

Some Unfinished Ideas About Happiness

In his national bestseller, Stumbling on Happiness (2006), Harvard University psychologist Daniel Gilbert offers "a book that describes what science has to tell us about how and how well the human brain can imagine its own future, and about how and how well it can predict which of those futures it will most enjoy" (xvii).

In much of his thinking about happiness and its possibilities, the French novelist Albert Camus overtly reconsiders and reconfigures one of the pessimistic conclusions of the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, namely, that we are all fellow-prisoners in this penal colony called life.  At stake is the question of how we can--or should--imagine ourselves and our circumstances if we want to be happy.  Should we operate in a state of blissful ignorance and delusion, or should we strive for a clear-sighted confrontation of life's all-too-frequent pain and sorrow?

Our potential answers will ultimately determine the interrelationship of our past, present and future.  If we are pessimistic and refuse to hope, this is more often than not a testimony to our unwillingness to let go of the past: we prefer to learn from experience and to apply that knowledge to our present and future states.  The past thus shapes who we are and who we see ourselves becoming.  If we remain optimistic, we look to the future, unwilling to grant either the past or the present a decisive role in determining who we might one day become.    

In both cases, imagination plays a crucial role in determining what we do with--and to--the time of our lives.

But according to Gilbert, imagination is a flawed predictor of past, present and future realities, for three reasons.  In the first place, imagination tends "to fill in and leave out without telling us"--we consider some future possibilities, but neglect others (247).  The consequences of what we leave out when we imagine our future can be enormous.  While almost everyone has imagined what it would be like to win the lottery, very few of us spend time imagining what it would be like to have cancer--even though the likelihood of the latter (unfortunately) outweighs that of the former.

This leads to what Gilbert identifies as the "second shortcoming" of imagination: we tend "to project the present onto the future" and use current realities to fill in the missing details of our imagined tomorrows (248).

Lastly, imagination fails "to recognize that things will look different once they happen" and--perhaps most interestingly--that "bad things will look a whole lot better" than we might imagine because, when we imagine them, we fail to take into account the changes in circumstances and emotional adjustments that will necessarily accompany them (250).  Research shows that "inescapable circumstances trigger the psychological defenses that enable us to achieve positive views of those circumstances, but we do not anticipate that this will happen" (202). 

In Camus' novel, The Plague, Dr. Bernard Rieux notes that "When a war breaks out, people say, 'It won't last, it's too stupid.'  And without a doubt, war is certainly quite stupid, but that doesn't stop it from continuing.  Stupidity always persists: we would see that if we weren't always thinking of ourselves." 

Ultimately, Gilbert suggests that the solution to the problem of individual happiness lies in "surrogation": we must be willing to defer to the perceptions and experiences of others when we evaluate the possibilities for happiness in our own lives.  Not surprisingly, this solution flies in the face of our basic impulses.  We prefer to think of ourselves as incredibly unique individuals, and we know our own thoughts and feelings in a way that is vastly different from the ways in which we know or infer the thoughts and feelings of others.  As a result, Gilbert argues, "we tend to overestimate our uniqueness" because we "overestimate everyone's uniqueness"--thus, "we tend to think of people as more different from one another than they actually are" (254).  

Faced with a city quarantined with the plague, Rieux recognizes the "sad type of struggle between the happiness of the individual and the abstractions of the plague."  He is forced to abandon pity, because it is useless in the battle against a raging disease that is decimating the population.  He cannot make exceptions for individual circumstances: in effect, he realizes that "it sometimes happens that an abstraction shows itself to be stronger than happiness and that then, and only then, it had to be confronted."

To be continued, I hope...

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."