Do you have a minute? Go read Michael
Pollan on nutritionism in the New York Times. It’ll change the way you think
about food, and how you eat. All that mumbo-jumbo about vitamins and minerals
and nutrients and good fats and bad fats and so on and so forth? Fuhgeddaboudit.
Just eat food – not health food, just food – and try not to eat
too much, and don’t overdo it on the meat, and you’ll be fine. A stunning, wonderful
piece of contrarian writing.
Maybe you have enough time to read a book? Just one? Go read Daniel Gilbert’s
an even more wonderful piece of contrarian writing. Once again, it’ll make you
change the way you look at the world, only this time it’s not just food, it’s
everything. Why is it that the things we think will make us happy,
don’t? And why is it that the things we think will make us unhappy,
don’t? Gilbert has really, really good explanations for both of these things
– plus he’s a fantastic prose stylist. Here’s a little taster:
To my knowledge, no one has ever done a systematic study of people who’ve
been left standing at the altar by a cold-footed fiancé. But I’m willing
to bet a good bottle of wine that if you rounded up a healhty sample of almost-brides
and nearly grooms and asked them whether they would describe the incident
as "the worst thing that ever happened to me" or "the best
thing that ever happened to me," more would endorse the latter description
than the former. And I’ll bet an entire case of that wine that if
you found a sample of people who’d never been through this experience and
asked them to predict which of all their possible future experiences they
are most likely to look back on as "the best thing that ever happened
to me," not one of them will list "getting jilted". Like so
many things, getting jilted is more painful in prospect and more rosy in retrospect.
Or this thrown-away aside:
Rare events naturally have a greater emotional impact than common events
do. We are awed by a solar eclipse but merely impressed by a sunset despite
the fact that the latter is by far the more spectacular visual treat.
Gilbert’s main point, for me, comes later, when he talks a bit about the power
of ideas, and how false beliefs can be self-perpetuating. One such false belief,
which is pretty obviously self-perpetuating (although less obviously false:
for that you need empirical studies, which Gilbert provides) is that having
children makes you happy. People who have that belief tend to have more children,
and pretty soon most of the world believes it to be true, even though it isn’t.
The other such false belief, of course, and to oversimplify a little bit, is
that having more money will make you happy, or that having less money will make
you less happy.
In general, concludes Gilbert, we’re often very, very, very bad at predicting
what’s going to make us happy and what isn’t. On the other hand, there’s a very
reliable way of making exactly that prediction, which no one’s likely to ever
use: simply look at other people in the situation we’re thinking of putting
ourselves in, and ask ourselves if they’re happy. The fact is that their happiness
level is a much better predictor of our happiness level in that situation than
is our own intuition. Humans are basically all the same: it’s just that we concentrate
on the differences between us so much that we forget how similar we all are.
Which is not necessarily to say that if you want to be happy you should take
up blogging, even though it’s making me very happy at the moment. But hey –
give it a go!
UPDATE, from comments: Check out Dan Gilbert’s TED talk. It’s great.