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By Daniel Gilbert

Pub Date: May 5th, 2006
ISBN: 1-4000-4266-6
Publisher: Knopf

Gilbert (Psychology/Harvard) examines what science has discovered about how well the human brain can predict future enjoyment.

Happiness is a subjective experience for which there is no perfectly reliable measuring instrument, the author asserts. The least flawed instrument we have is “the honest, real-time report of the attentive individual,” and to compensate for its flaws, scientists turn to the law of large numbers—i.e., measuring again and again to get lots of data. We use our imagination to look into the future, Gilbert states, but three principal shortcomings restrict its usefulness in the realm of foresight. He labels these shortcomings “realism,” “presentism” and “rationalization,” considering each in turn. Citing psychological experiments, some of which he conducted himself, the author deftly and humorously demonstrates that when we imagine future circumstances, we leave out some details that will occur and provide others that won’t. Realism ignores these adjustments and assumes that our perceptions simply reflect objective reality. Further, when we imagine future feelings, we find it impossible both to ignore how we are feeling now and to recognize how we will regard what happens later, a difficulty that Gilbert cleverly likens to trying to imagine the taste of marshmallow while chewing liver. Presentism occurs when we project the present onto the future. Rationalization is the failure to recognize that things will look different once they happen, the bad not so terrible and the good less wonderful. How then can we predict how we will feel under future circumstances? Gilbert’s answer is simple: Ask others who are in those circumstances today how they are feeling. To those who would protest that they are unique and that others’ experiences could not be relevant, he responds: No you’re not; you just like to think you are.

The ideas may be disconcerting, but they’re backed by solid research and presented with persuasive charm and wit.