Editor’s note: The following book review appears in the Spring 2021 issue of Eikon.
Daniel Gilbert. Stumbling on Happiness. New York: Vintage Books, 2005.
How can a person guarantee future happiness? In a postmodern society where pursuing happiness is the highest good, a book promising answers for predicting happiness has powerful appeal. It comes as no surprise that a relatable book on predictive happiness written by Daniel Gilbert, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, became a National Bestseller. Gilbert’s aim is high as he writes to describe “what science has to tell us about how and how well the human brain can imagine its own future, and about how and how well it can predict which of those futures it will most enjoy” (xvii). Utilizing various scientific, psychological, and sociological studies, Gilbert convincingly argues for the importance of finding meaning and purpose in life. By considering such an intrinsic issue, Gilbert finds broad appeal to a diverse audience.
The crux of the book is the presumption that happiness is not self-determined or self-actualized but progressively realized. Understanding the shortcomings of subjective self-fulfillment, Gilbert accurately articulates the long-term failures of pursuing personal passions. Rather than blindly chasing happiness, Gilbert’s answer on happiness begins in one of the most unique aspects of the human brain – the ability to imagine. Whereas the natural world lives in the present, humans alone possess the ability to positively imagine the future and its emotional impact. And although predictive happiness begins with the human ability to imagine, Gilbert argues that the limitations of imagination require closer inspection.
Gilbert presents imagination’s unreliability through three labels – realism, presentism, and rationalization. Realism is our imagination’s filling in the gap of the unknown. Instead of painting accurate situational assessments, the human brain supplies context that inevitably are mistaken in response to our imagination’s blind spots. Gilbert warns against these brain blind spots concluding, “this tendency can cause us to misimagine the future events whose emotional consequences we are attempting to weigh” (102). The second label is presentism, which is the inescapable projection of present emotion to future situations. Mortal man is limited to present emotion, which serves as a poor predictor of future emotion. Gilbert argues that presentism is why depressed people find it impossible to imagine enjoying the future (137). Because of the present’s emotional effect upon the future, presentism becomes a better indicator of the present than an accurate reflection of the future. Finally, imagination proves unreliable because of rationalization, the brain’s attempt at emotional stability through personal affirmation of the positives and rejection of the negatives. Though imagination serves a purpose in predictive happiness, rationalization distorts any accurate examination of ourselves. As a result of rationalization, humans neither see themselves nor the world in complete accuracy. “The world is this way, we wish the world were that way, and our experience of the world – how we see it, remember it, and imagine it – is a mixture of stark reality and comforting illusion” (176).
Gilbert concludes that imagination, though helpful in providing emotional expectations, is an unreliable guide to future happiness. Understanding imagination’s inaccuracies should instead drive humans to other people’s assessment of their current emotional condition. Thus, Gilbert’s assessment of accurately predicting happiness is to find a surrogate, someone’s experience of the present. By learning from another person’s current emotional condition, humans can accurately predict emotions for future similar contexts. According to Gilbert, the most accurate path to happiness is a reliable source currently experiencing your expected future. Rather than guessing future happiness, Gilbert concludes, “the best way to predict our feelings tomorrow is to see how others are feeling today” (251). Ultimately, Gilbert argues that happiness is not a subjective pursuit of the future but an objective shared human experience of the present.
Stumbling on Happiness happily provides many accurate observations on the human condition. In a society inundated with postmodern pursuits in subjectivity, Gilbert boldly bucks against common psychological thought. In doing so, Gilbert provides helpful anthropological observations. He accurately diagnoses humanity’s greatest shortcoming – an inability to find true satisfaction. Through common grace, Gilbert recognizes the fickleness of humanity, “there are times when people seem not to know their own hearts” (60), as well as our innate desire for control, “The fact is that human beings come into the world with a passion for control, they go out of the world the same way, and research suggests that if they lose their ability to control things at any point between their entrance and their exit, they become unhappy, helpless, hopeless, and depressed” (22). In addition to accurately diagnosing humanity, Gilbert follows Plato’s lead by arguing for an objective standard of goodness, “We cannot say that something is good unless we can say what is good for” (78). In many ways, Gilbert’s assessment of humanity and the pursuit of objective goodness is commendable.
Gilbert’s accurate assessments, however, fail to produce answers that are consistent with Scripture. Beginning from an evolutionary framework, Gilbert argues that happiness is humanity’s highest aim. By ultimately approving a self-serving mindset, Stumbling on Happiness affirms a worldview focused inward rather than upward. By failing to include God in the human equation, the book fails to provide ultimate human fulfillment and purpose. Humanity was not created to pursue happiness – humanity was created to know God and glorify him (1 Corinthians 10:31). Instead of finding purpose in attaining future happiness, Scripture identifies loving God and serving others the highest aims for humanity (Matthew 22:36-40). Though Gilbert rightly desires a standard of goodness, he misses the God of the Bible who “is the only One who is good” (Matthew 19:17; cf. Micah 6:8, “He has told you, O man, what is good.”). By failing to include God in his evaluations, Gilbert is unable to provide any true standard of certainty for humanity’s problem. Ironically, a book on happiness stumbles away from the only answer to eternal happiness – Jesus Christ.
Though accurate anthropological assessments are made along the way, this popular read is ultimately rendered unhelpful for the Christian walk. By appealing to our natural desire for happiness, Gilbert’s humanistic counsel dangerously points to earthly happiness rather than eternal purpose. Inevitably, Gilbert leads his readers away from any sense of the divine and instead finds his answers in mortal man. Gilbert’s tragic conclusion, “our happiness is in our hands” (259), finds happiness in man rather than in Christ’s death, foolishly dismissed as, “giving his life so that a great idea might live in the centuries to come” (103).
Pastors and laymen alike would be wise to cautiously approach this popular pseudo-self-help book. Instead of providing answers to practical life questions, Gilbert leaves the reader focused on the self instead of growing in Jesus. In Christ, the believer is less concerned about temporal happiness and more focused on fulfillment through kingdom work (Ephesians 2:10). Pursuing happiness is temporal striving, yet pursuing Christ is eternally fulfilling. Scripture calls humanity to pursue objective truth found only in Jesus Christ alone (John 14:6). Life’s answers cannot be found in predictive happiness but in intimately knowing and growing in Jesus Christ. Inevitably, pursuing happiness leads to devastating disappointment while pursuing Christ leads to inexpressible satisfaction.
Stumbling on Happiness was never intended to find happiness in Christ. Instead of finding answers in Scripture Gilbert finds answers in creation. Inevitably, a humanistic framework leads to humanistic answers. Rather than leading to true happiness, Stumbling on Happiness stumbles to answer humanity’s greatest need. Embodying Romans 1:22 of “professing to be wise, they became fools,” Stumbling on Happiness fails to find fulfilling contentment in the Lord. Though Gilbert gives accurate assessments concerning humanity, his worldview ultimately renders the work unhelpful for those desiring to attain happiness as defined in Scripture. Christians would be better served to spend their time and resources on biblical counsel that leads upward rather than inward.
Jeremiah Greever serves as Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church of Sedalia, Missouri, teaches as an adjunct professor for Missouri Baptist University, and is Committee Co-Chair for the Founders Midwest Conference. He is a columnist for the Missouri Baptist newspaper and is pursuing a D.Min. in Biblical Counseling.
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