Daniel Gilbert's Stumbling on Happiness is one of those pop-science books that delivers a serious a-ha punch at least once a chapter, a little insight into the way that the world works that stops you right where you are and makes you go back and reevaluate how you got there.
Gilbert is a Harvard Psych prof, and in this book, he doesn't seek to explain how to be happy — in fact, the introduction specifically disclaims this intention — but rather, how happiness happens. And why happiness is so elusive.
Happiness is certainly elusive. How many times have we chased some goal, some purchase, some strategy, sure that we needed it to be complete, only to discover later that we're no happier than we were when the whole steeplechase started? This is the crux of Gilbert's thesis: why are we so consistently bad at estimating how happy some course of action will make us?
For Gilbert, the answer lies in our faulty perceptions. We misremember how happy we've been in the past, we mispredict how happy we'll be in the future (his section on futurism should be mandatory reading for every science fiction writer and tech journalist). Citing study after study, Gilbert lays out the lucid and funny case for the idea that our brains aren't very good at measuring what's going on in our brains.
Gilbert's funny, conversational style reminds me of Freakonomics, as does his subject-matter. For happiness is at the core of more than psychology — it's also at the heart of justice, economics, political science, ethics, and many other key organizing disciplines that set the Earth in motion. This was the kind of book that made me reexamine more than my life's goals — it made me re-think my politics and economic activity, too.
I listened to an unabridged edition read by the author, and it was very fine. Gilbert has the timing of a stand-up comic, and the book itself is just so funny to begin with. Highly recommended.
Update: Louis sends in this video of the author speaking at the TED Conference