Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Term Paper

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This example from Gilbert's book better illustrates our discussion of "constructivism" in class. As discussed, constructivism suggests that we actively construe much of our experience. The "reality" is filtered through our minds based on our wishes, expectations, goals, and mood. Also, what we believe to be real is a combination of reality (sensation) and how we interpret that reality (perception) ("Social Cognition"; "Constructing Reality: What is and What was"). When Gilbert's respondents say that they would be devastated two years after the death of their child, they construct the future based on their mood and what they feel presently (Gilbert also refers to this as "presentism"). The thought of the death of their child affects their mood and their mood in turn influences their construction of the future (the "reality"). Their construction of the future is not totally inaccurate but is a combination of reality and their interpretations. As Gilbert suggests, however, "a whole lot is missing" in their imaginations.

In the concluding part of his book, Gilbert says that there is a simple solution to the problem of predicting the future wrongly. Instead of relying on our past and present imaginations, we need to ask those who are right now experiencing the situations we are expecting to experience in the future. For example, while we contemplate about moving to Cincinnati, the odds are there is someone out there who has already moved there and has many things to share. Or, while we imagine taking a job at a company that opened its office in our state recently, we might actually get a better picture of working for the company by talking to people employed by that company. Alas, Gilbert says, most people are likely to ignore this solution because of what we discussed in class as "self-verification." This concept suggests that we tend to rate ourselves as more intelligent than others. We have an inner desire to look for confirmation of our self-perceptions (confirmation bias), and we want to feel that we are correct in our assessments and that our world is predictable ("The Self"). Gilbert here provides a good example of how people make poor judgments because of the desire for constant self-verification.

While Gilbert's book is generally about "happiness," he examines the functions of other feelings as well. Indeed, Gilbert raises complicated questions about the very definition of "feeling." One of the questions that come to my mind after reading this book is "do we know what feeling is?" To a person who does not ponder about the depth of this question, it might seem simple-minded and even silly, but Gilbert powerfully argues that "feeling is one of our brain's most sophisticated illusions" (197). As illustrated in the example of young men crossing the bridge, one may not accurately assess what one feels or be misled by unconscious processes that guide one's cognition. If we think further about the meaning of "feeling," we may find so many examples when people conflate their illusions with their feelings. For instance, think of a woman who insists that all the stories about her boyfriend's cheatings are untrue because she can "feel" that he is truthful with her. Likewise, a different woman, in a different situation, may insist that, contrary to what everyone says, her boyfriend has cheated because she can "feel" it. Such examples are legion. It would therefore be interesting to read a separate book that deals with the question of "feeling," explored as deeply as "happiness" is by Gilbert.

Gilbert's book touches issues that go beyond the cognitive psychology class. Recently, I came across a video, featuring Jean Kilbourne, that talks about how misleading expectations raised by advertisements lead many women to anxiety, depression, and even death (through anorexia) ("Killing Us Softly"). I could relate the video to the concepts and themes discussed in this paper. Particularly, the video talks about how the "reality" is often constructed and is based on specific goals, wishes, and expectations (constructivism). The concept of "beauty" is constructed in the media and women who continuously look at perfectly-looking images of women in the media construct their own "happiness," thinking that they will feel happy if they can become as good-looking and perfect as the images in the media. As the video points out, the ideal images in the media are not only unreachable (most of them are embellished through photoshopping), but are also designed to influence the behavior of those who look at them. Women who keep looking at these images start falsely assuming that the future happiness is tied to becoming like women advertised in the media. Although Gilbert mainly discusses how our inner psychology induces us to construct the reality the way we wish, this case illustrates that our tendency to misconstrue the future -- or construct an incomplete picture of the future -- may be influenced by external forces that deliberately take advantage of our weak tendency.

Works Cited

"Constructing Reality: What is and What was," lecture notes.

Gilbert, Daniel. Stumbling on Happiness. New York: Random House, 2006.

"Killing Us Softly 4: Advertising's Image of Women," Media Education Foundation,…[continue]

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