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Commentary: Stumbling on Happiness

By Chris Tucker, KERA 90.1 Commentator

Dallas, TX –

Almost every great thinker from Aristotle to Freud has wrestled with the question of happiness. The Declaration of Independence famously enshrined the right to pursue happiness, though it included no guarantee on catching it, as one of mankind's self-evident rights.

But while it may be self-evident that we desire happiness, it is not self-evident that we know how to pursue it, and we're often very bad at predicting how we will feel once we've caught it.

That's one of the primary arguments of a new book called Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard . Erudite and witty, Gilbert raises far more questions than I can consider here, but just a few examples will suggest what he brings to the long-running debate over happiness.

First, Gilbert does a good job of demonstrating, through numerous studies and experiments in neuroscience and behavioral economics, that human beings as a species are not very good at predicting the future. And Gilbert doesn't just mean that we run into trouble when we play the stock market, or bet on what the Cowboys will do this week; he means we're not very good at predicting what will make us, as individuals, happy.

In making our decisions about pursuing happiness, we constantly use imagination to project ourselves into possible futures, certain that the next promotion, the next 50-inch plasma TV, or the next lover will bring endless delight. But once we've looked and leaped, we often find that whoops our brains have betrayed us. We feel great for a while, but all too soon, the glow starts to fade.

Gilbert suggests several reasons why we're so bad at predicting, or "nexting," as he calls it. For one, we constantly change, so the person we are when we start medical school has become someone else by the time we finish. Second, there's the problem of adaptation, also called habituation: As time passes we get used to our new toys and our new paychecks, and so they cease to thrill us. Finally, people have a kind of hard-wired happiness level, sort of like an emotional thermostat. Good and bad fortune can make the needle jump one way or the other, but it tends to return to the same setting.

If all this sounds a bit gloomy, consider the flip side. Yes, that new surge of happiness fades away, but, much of the time, so do those bouts of misery and despair. That's why people find themselves able to bear with unbearable sorrow. As Gilbert notes, the actor Christopher Reeve believed that his life was better in some ways as a quadriplegic, and Lance Armstrong says he's glad that he had cancer.

Stumbling on Happiness mainly focuses on the individual, but some of Gilbert's insights might help us understand our collective and political behavior as well. For example, consider all the complaints from senior citizens about the inadequacies of the Medicare drug benefit plan it doesn't cover enough, it's too confusing and so on.

Talk about adaptation. Apparently, millions of people have already forgotten that just a few years ago, there was no drug benefit at all! They've adapted to that bit of good fortune, and now they'd like something even better.

And they're not alone, of course. One of the constant themes of our public life is the ever-rising tide of expectation and entitlement: Whatever it is, we'd like it newer, better, and faster. Among its other insights, Stumbling on Happiness helps explain why it's so hard for us to be content with what we have - a thought worth pondering as we head to the malls once more.

Chris Tucker is a Dallas writer and book editor.

If you have opinions or rebuttals about this commentary, call (214) 740-9338 or email us.