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July 06, 2006

Reading for Happiness

Lately I have been reading everything I can get my hands on, as long as it isn't on one of my prelim lists! Two recent books were The Last Self-Help Book You'll Ever Need by Paul Pearsall and Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert. The main argument of Pearsall's book is that the self-help industry is selling us a load of crap. These books are not written by the actual psychologists and neuroscientists who study happiness, but rather by celebrity gurus who want to make a buck by selling us repackaged "common knowledge" that we believe because we have heard it over and over again, even though the science of happiness is increasingly proving that these things are not true. And Daniel Gilbert is one of these happiness scientists. He argues that we can't possibly predict what decisions will make us happy because of the tricks that our memories and imaginations play on us. He presents detailed evidence of these tricks, along with evidence of the fact that misinformation about happiness -- such as the lies that making money or having children will make us happy -- are self-perpetuating because they support our social structures. This is probably why professors often say that grad school was the best time of their lives: if they remembered how miserable they actually were, they would not (in good conscience) be able to encourage their favorite undergrads to go into Ph.D. programs and their profession would die out. Gilbert demonstrates that the best way to know if moving to a certain city or having a certain career will make us happy is to ask someone who is currently living in that city or pursuing that career how happy they are. Not how happy they are to be living where they are living or working where they are working, because their memories and values will color the answer, but simply how happy they are. So the fact that I knew before I applied to grad school that grad students are, on average, pretty miserable, should have suggested to me that I would be miserable in grad school. But, of course, it didn't, and Gilbert explains why. As he puts it,

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 is that the average person doesn't see herself as average.
So I was absolutely sure that I would be the exception to the "grad students are miserable rule." After all, like the average person, I thought I was smarter than average, more talented than average, and harder working than average. I guess that makes me pretty average! In any case, reading this book didn't necessarily make me any happier, but it helps me understand how my brain is working when I become absolutely convinced that dropping out of grad school will make me happy.

Posted by eklanche at July 6, 2006 01:02 PM

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