Science, People & Politics, issue 3, Volume iii, Volume I.

Happiness reprised

by Helen Gavaghan

Stumbling on Happiness, by Daniel Gilbert.
Random House. 336 pages. Paperback $14.99

What would you do if you had only 10 minutes to live? That is one of professor Gilbert's conundrums. "I'd hard-boil an egg," said one man, "be with my family" said another. The first made me laugh, and, as ever, there is a fine line between comedy and tragedy.

Was I happy when the first interlocutor I button-holed in my impromptu vox pop made me smile? I was not unhappy. In essence this - the question of happy versus unhappy - is the big question that Gilbert is seeking to resolve. He approached the state of happiness with the postmodernist zeal of a furious moth, buzzing and darting around his subject. Emotion, satiety, feeling, apprehension, prediction and foreshadowing, memory: all these complex subjects that in metastate comprise Professor Gilbert's book, but stumbling is an interesting word for him to have allowed in the title.

What I am saying is that by the end of the book I had no more insight into the state of happiness than I had at the beginning and I think this book could equally have been entitled "stumbling" or skipping" around sadness. Happiness is merely the emotional state on which he hangs his exploration of his discipline.

He begins with anticipation and prediction; he ends with anticipation and memory.

Take the first section, entitled prospection and comprising one chapter. Anticipation is the route he takes into the question of being human and his first stab at exploring the state of happiness. What do we learn and how? And how, he asks, does it affect our behaviour? The behaviour that impacts short term decisions and long-range planning are both critically important to him and he distinguishes between short and long-term thinking about the future.

From there he moves to sections on subjectivity, realism, presentism, rationalisation and corrigibility. Each after the first section has two chapters. All take many digressions into facts, anecdotes and experimental results but all at some point touch base with the subject of happiness.

"Emotional happiness is a phrase for a feeling, and experience, a subjective state, and thus it has no objective referent in the physical world."
Stumbling on Happiness, page 31.

Oddly, having written the above sentence, Gilbert forgets -- or does he -- that happiness is well-nigh impossible to capture with the tools of modernism as exemplified and developed in the Temple of science, the Royal Society of London, where he spoke on the 12th June 2008. He keeps making valiant tries to corral happiness with the lasso of science but then undermines his own efforts by telling anecdotes that put the individual and individual experience back at the centre of his inquiry.

Not by any stretch of the imagination can this be called a self-help book - unless you are a psychology student and would like to mine the bibliography for literature and significant names in the discipline you are entering and studying.

My conclusion? My book reviewer's thoughts? Professor Gilbert has missed the point of happiness - is one is to judge by this book - and when he stood at the lectern of the Royal Society in June he had one reluctant and distant detractor in myself. For by seeking to calibrate, quantify and categorise happiness, its constituents, causes and consequences, he is trying to fit a duvet into a duvet cover way too small. Read the poets, professor. Forget what the critics say, the historians of literature. The poets were, like us, flawed individuals and from their flaws they produced language to enchant. Did the enchantment encapsulate happiness? How could one know when enchantment is ineffable.

Edited by Martin Redfern.


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