Lauren Rabaino

If I were to tell you a psychologist had written a best-seller called “Stumbling on Happiness,” you would likely think it’s a “how-to” book of sorts, a guide offering anecdotes and advice on the whys and ways of happiness. You would, however, be wrong. And that, in a way, is precisely the point of Daniel Gilbert’s book, as well as an illustration of just how it is otherwise bright and capable people often reach for happiness only to have it elude them.

But if the book is not about finding happiness, what is it about?

Before answering, let’s take a look at some of the questions posed on the dust jacket to get an idea of what the book will explore as it confronts the existential problem of stumbling on happiness: “Why are lovers quicker to forgive their partners for infidelity than for dirty dishes in the sink? Why will sighted people pay more to avoid going blind than blind people will pay to regain their sight? Why do dining companions insist on ordering different meals instead of getting what they really want?”

In addition to being a Harvard psychologist, Gilbert is a journalist and short story writer, whose last two occupations are not incidental to the book’s appeal. Although the book contains a fair amount of empirical research, his prose is consistently fluid, witty and lively.

Cases in point: “My friends tell me that I have a tendency to point out problems without offering solutions, but they never tell me what I should do about it.” Or, “Like most people, you don’t want to know you’re like most people.”

Gilbert writes with an engaging voice that made me wish other writers of psychology books shared his gift for being simultaneously insightful, informative and playful.

Oh yes, back to the beginning. While this is not a book on how to be happier, I have seen it lazily shelved in the “Self Improvement” section of a number of bookstores. (To be fair, there aren’t many “Self Understanding” sections, where it would be more appropriately at home.) So were one to read it looking for simple answers on how to achieve happiness, one would, of course, be disappointed. Because, as Gilbert expertly illustrates time and again, it is the gap between what we anticipate and what reality presents us with that leads us to stumble on happiness.

As he impishly notes early on, “No one can say how you will feel when you get to the end of this book, and that includes the you who is about to start it. But if your future self is not satisfied when it arrives at the last page, it will at least understand why you mistakenly thought it would be.”

He does, however, have one idea on what would help people increase their happiness, and it is a unique one. As for what it is, though, I will allow you to discover that for yourself.

Quentin Dunne is a psychology graduate student and Mustang Daily book reviewer.

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