Modern Science vs. Ancient Philosophy. Daniel Gilbert s theory of happiness as presented in his book, Stumbling on Happiness,

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1 Laura Katharine Norwood Freshman Seminar Dr. Golden 10/21/10 Modern Science vs. Ancient Philosophy Daniel Gilbert s theory of happiness as presented in his book, Stumbling on Happiness, has many similarities with much older happiness theories (such as those of Aristotle, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius), but Gilbert s theory differs from these in several ways. This difference might be partially explained by the fact that Gilbert s theory is based on science and experiments versus logic and reasoning, which allows him to arrive at conclusions that are unexpected and initially appear to be illogical. One of the most prominent ways in which Gilbert differs from philosophers like Aristotle is the way Gilbert and Aristotle define happiness. Gilbert divides happiness into three main groups: emotional happiness, judgmental happiness, and moral happiness. He defines judgmental happiness as merely a sort of nicety that is said for the sake of preserving social tranquility (like saying you are happy that someone else is happy, even though you are not) and ignores it based on this definition. Gilbert also dismisses moral happiness because it is primarily used in relation to whether or not one lives in a virtuous manner. He finally decides that emotional happiness in what most people mean by happiness in modern times. Of all the types of happiness presented, emotional happiness seems to be the most remarkable because of its lack of a concrete meaning the you-know-what-i-mean feeling 1. In contrast, Aristotle, using Gilbert s classifications, prefers a moral definition of happiness. Aristotle s declarations that happiness is the best, 1. Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness (New York: Random House, 2006), 35. Henceforth cited in the text as SH. 1

2 prefers a moral definition of happiness. Aristotle s declarations that happiness is the best, noblest thing that is an activity of the soul 2 fit in almost perfectly with Gilbert s description of moral happiness as something we ought to want (SH 39). This difference in definitions could be attributed to the manner in which each definition was reached. Gilbert came to the conclusion that emotional happiness is a feeling that everyone knows but cannot define by comparing it to all the methods one would use in trying to define the color yellow to an alien who had never experienced it. Because it is presented in a manner that allows each reader to relatively easily determine his or her opinion on the validity and accuracy of his proof, Gilbert s approach to defining happiness is somewhat more scientific than the one Aristotle uses to arrive at his definition of happiness. Aristotle comes to his final description of happiness using a long chain of logical deductions all based on the idea that every action is thought to aim at some good (Aristotle 1094). This can present some problems since this claim is not proven, and if this claim is incorrect, the every conclusion that is drawn from it is called into question. These kinds of problems are to be expected from ideas arrived at solely by reasoning and deduction. In the cases of both Gilbert and Aristotle, the method used to explore the topic of happiness influenced the definitions each man ultimately arrived at. Even though Gilbert and Aristotle differ greatly in terms of defining happiness, they are in partial agreement that some of the factors determining happiness are different for each person; however, Gilbert takes this idea even further. For Aristotle, living according to your mean is a requirement for achieving happiness, and he also declares that the mean is different from one person to another, using the example of the amount of food Milo the wrestler requires versus the amount of food Milo s trainer needs. While Gilbert agrees that the requirements for achieving 2. Jonathan Barnes, ed., The Complete Works of Aristotle, vol. 2 (Princeton University Press, 1984), Henceforth cited in the text as Aristotle. 2

3 happiness vary for each person, he takes this even further than Aristotle. While Aristotle uses the traditional meaning of different people, Gilbert goes as far as saying that what defines a person is the experiences they have had and the things to which they have been exposed, all of which they use as a filter when looking at and judging things. This is how Gilbert justifies his assertion that the people we become have no more authority to speak on behalf of the people we used to be than do outside observers (SH 57-58). Gilbert is able to make such claims about the ability of someone to objectively examine events and feelings from their past is that his conclusions are drawn from and backed up by studies like the one where one group saw game show questions and their answers and another group was just shown the questions. Each group was then asked about how confident they felt about their ability to answer the question accurately. Each group s response was so different that the study proved how every event has an impact on how people view things and how no one can determine how they would have felt about something in the past. The whole point was that no one can determine things completely independently of their experiences. Both Aristotle and Gilbert agree that trusting one s natural instincts is bad when pursuing happiness, but each man comes to this conclusion from a slightly different angle. Aristotle reaches his conclusion by a series of logical deductions starting from the claim that happiness comes from behaving in an excellent manner. According to Aristotle, achieving excellence requires cultivating good habits, and these good habits require putting forth effort to constantly ensure that one is living according to one s mean. Gilbert, on the other hand, uses scientific research that examines several instances of natural instincts leading people astray in order to back up his conclusions. Among the studies Gilbert examines are ones involving side by side comparisons, determining how one will feel about something in the future, and human being s 3

4 tendency to compare current events with the past. The natural human reaction for all of these things results in missing out on the maximum amount of happiness that could be achieved. For example, when making purchases humans tend to be deceived by side by side comparisons because Rather than deciding whether to spend money, you were deciding how to spend money, and all the possible ways of spending your money were laid out for you by the nice folks who wanted it (SH 156). As Gilbert points out, we are naturally inclined to use side by side comparisons to compare all possibilities, and this is what ultimately leads us awry because it leads us to use irrelevant factors in our decision-making process. Similar problems result from people s tendency to compare the present with the past. Gilbert also uses the example of the way we instinctively determine the way we will feel about something in the future (using the way we would feel if the thing happened to us now and then adjusting for the differences in time). To prove that this is a problematic way of determining future emotions, Gilbert uses two experiments: one involving people guessing how many countries in Africa are in the United Nations and another experiment where people were asked how they would feel about eating spaghetti the next day. Both studies showed the problems with using the method we are instinctively inclined towards causes problems in more ways than one. The United Nations experiment showed the tendency of the starting point in one s reasoning exerting a great impact on the end result, and the spaghetti case pointed out the affect distraction has on someone s ability to accurately make predictions. One would logically expect that using one s instincts to make decisions would result in the maximum levels of happiness about those decisions, but the results of these experiments go against that, making them rather surprising. The reason Gilbert s unexpected claims are believable to a modern audience despite their initially odd quality is because they are supported by and come from modern science, a field that is usually highly 4

5 valued and trusted. Of course, his claims should not go unchallenged simply because of science. After all, experiments are not perfect and even if they are, the results of the experiments still have to be interpreted, and the background of the psychologist doing the interpretation can influence the conclusions to which he or she comes. Using this, perhaps Gilbert s theory of happiness differs from much older theories in part because of differences in method, but also because of differences in each man s outlook that are the product of different cultures and times. An example is the belief that both men share that happiness is different for everyone. Gilbert presents his ideas differently and takes them further than Aristotle does because of his use of experiments and research as proof, reflecting the modern culture that values and trusts science over rhetoric, The split caused by differences in time and place can best be seen in the different definitions of happiness: Gilbert s is based on modern culture and psychology, whereas Aristotle s is based off of the idea that happiness [should be identified] with virtue (SH 39). 5

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