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12/04/09 / Just talking

Stumbling on Happiness

Why do I create with words and pictures and not with bricks and mortar and silicon and chemicals? I’m not asking rhetorically but in earnest. What draws me to these things than others?

In Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert says that we don’t realize how similar we are to other people, that we are much more similar than we are different. “We don’t always see ourselves as superior,” he says, “but we almost always see ourselves as unique” (p. 252). Other observations he makes:

  • We attribute others’ choices to features of the chooser, and our own choices to features of the options (p. 253)
  • We recognize that our decisions are influenced by social norms, but fail to recognize that other’s decisions were similarly influenced
  • We know that our choices sometimes reflect our aversions, but we assume that others’ choices reflect their appetites

There are practical explanations for why we think we’re special, he says. For one, we can only experience our own experience – our thoughts, feelings, etc. Secondly, we enjoy thinking of ourselves as special (p. 254). Research shows that people’s moods dampen when they’re made to feel too similar to others. Third, and back to the point I started with, we think people are more different than they are similar. “The psychologists, biologists, economists, and sociologists who are searching for universal laws of human behavior naturally care about the similarities, but the rest of us care mainly about the differences.” According to Gilbert, we seek differences because we need to discriminate between all the choices for whom we want to interact and transact with, in commerce, conversation, or copulation.

I agree with him, but I can’t relate to his insight on a personal level, at all. Granted, I have much more in common with other human beings than differences from them, but just how important and applicable to my life are 1) that fact, and 2) the knowledge of that fact, when I have no direct sense of it, visceral or cerebral? So we are all similar in what we breathe, eat, etc., but if all those factors denote a massive common denominator, how productive is it to talk about it in terms of better understanding oneself and relating to others? What one sees – what I see – are the differences, in attitudes, experiences, and proclivities. How am I supposed to feel similar to the carpenter or deep-sea fisherman when they live and create in such different ways than I know how to? The knowledge that they breathe the same air as me makes me feel no closer to them than having only the cognizance of an overwhelming feeling of how different we must be in our constitutions to want and be capable of working and living in our respective conditions.

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