Recently, I read Daniel Gilberts latest book: Stumbling on Happiness.
The title describes accurately the content of the book, but also reveals the uncanny truth that distinguishes humans from animals – the ability to predict the future, or at least, our interest in predicting the future.
The Illusion of Predicting
Most, if not all, of us have been asked to ‘imagine’ what our dream job is? Or what truly makes us happy? Such questions are meant to be a thought experiment to help us think about the myriad possibilities that the universe holds and from that infinite supply, choose the one’s the we think would make us most happy. Despite our great efforts to live the lives we desire, fate always seems to have an ace or two up its sleeve that prevents us from living the lives we think we want. Or is it really just our own mishap and we stumble on happiness willy nilly.
Each day we spend a great deal of our waking life imagining what it would be like to do this or that, or to buy or experience some particular thing. We do that for good reasons, it is what allows us to shape and control our life. It is by trying to exert some control over our futures that we attempt to be happy. I mean how could we achieve happiness if we took a back seat to our own lives? When it comes to objectively measuring our lives however we are really bad at predicting the unknown. We’re terrible at knowing how we will feel a day or a month or a year from now, and even worse at knowing what will and will not bring us that genuine happiness.
Our desire to control is so powerful, and the feeling of being in control so rewarding, that people often act as though they can control the uncontrollable – Gilbert
In short, our ability to predict may be ruining our lives.
History’s Biggest Fraud
Many scholars around the world claim that the humanity took a great leap forward as a result of the agricultural revolution some 10,000 years ago. They claim that this progress was fueled by the human brain’s ability to imagine the unknown and predict the future. Now that humans were equipped with these new powers foresight they cheerfully abandoned the dangerous spartan life of hunter gatherers and began enjoying the pleasant life of farmers (so history says).
This story is a fraud. People did not become more intelligent with time. In fact this new era of easy living as a result of this agricultural revolution meant that life became more not only more difficult but kept you cemented in one place, right next to your field.
Hunter gatherers were able to live far more stimulating lives by constantly adjusting their lifestyle to what the environment provided. For instance, following the migration patterns of animals meant that there was always an ample supply of food. Also, the dozens of species that they relied on also meant they could endure difficult years without having to preserve food.
The Agricultural Revolution did indeed enlarge the sum total of food, but that extra food did not correspond to a better diet and more leisure. It now meant that you tended the fields from sun rise to sunset. Rocks needed to be removed from the soil, weeds needed to be pulled, and irrigation canals needed to be dug.
The diverse diet of hunter gatherers was filtered down to a simple staple, such as wheat, potatoes or rice. When mother nature stuck, as she always does, crops were wiped out and people lost their lives often in great masses.
Learning From The Past
The importance of Daniel Gilbert’s book Stumbling on Happiness it not that is reveals our inability to accurately predict the future and, therefore, understand our own happiness; but that such predictions, or shall we say ‘miscalculations’ have never allowed us to shape and control our lives. Yet, we still strive for certainty and perfection in our lives often at the expense of unnecessary suffering.
Why do we make such harmful miscalculations? Part of the answer is that we don’t fully understand the consequences of our decisions. We are driven by beliefs of the good and are taught that through hard work that we’ll eventually get there (to the promised land).
Throughout history, whenever we decided to do a bit of extra work, for example, to plow the fields people thought, “if we put in the effort and work harder now, the harvest will be much more bountiful. We won’t have to worry over the winter months and we will have plenty to eat.” This all made sense, if you worked harder, you would live a better life.
People did not foresee that the increasing their dependence on a single food source, exposed them to droughts (pray to the rain gods).
Do we not see that pursuit of an easier life resulted in more hardship. This ideals still plagues us today. After college young graduates accept jobs at multinational corporations, vowing to work hard to earn money so that later in life they can retire and pursue their real passions (travel, writing, reading). By that time, they are married with children which means a mortgage payment, car payments, and a lifestyle that says you need ski trips once a year.
If you’re like most people, you put on your Nike apparel and slave away living by the motto: ‘no pain, no gain’.