Stumbling on Happiness

June 10, 2008

You may have noticed how ridiculously small the TV-screens are in most old sci-fi movies. Or how that low exam score moved from “catastrophe” to “oh well” within a few hours. Or how that long-awaited vacation is so disappointing now that it’s finally there. Or how an I love you written years ago seems so fake now. You may have wondered how you could possibly have had such thoughts or made such decisions. Now you’ve got answers.

From the also-available-in-audio shelf comes Daniel Gilbert with his great non-fiction book called Stumbling on Happiness. The author tries to answer the question of why happiness is so elusive and unpredictable.

What the book basically tells you is:

  • experience is subjective;
  • your imagination lies to you all the time;
  • your memories lie to you all the time;
  • your predictions can never be accurate;
  • you make ridiculous choices all the time;
  • you can never be sure of anything, past, present or future;
  • you are not unique.

Pretty tough truths, huh? Well, I’ve actually exaggerated quite a bit. Besides the fact that it points out uncomfortable things, I loved everything about this book:

  • It’s written in a very accessible and succinct style. If your attention slips for even a few seconds, you’ll have to rewind.
  • The author has a great sense of humor (I rarely laugh out loud).
  • Every chapter starts with a quotation from Shakespeare.
  • It will not trigger your “citation needed” alarm. In fact, it has such a solid scientific basis that the most frequent word combination after “for example” is probably “in one study”.
  • The examples given are logical and straightforward. Hey, the guy’s a Harvard professor!
  • The audio version is read by the author himself. That’s a plus because his tone of voice shows you exactly what he means.

I strongly recommend this book to anyone who wants to find out the inner workings of memory, imagination, and future prediction. It’s so good that I’ll probably want to go through it again in a few months. For a more thorough summary check the Wikipedia page.

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Freak

May 21, 2008

I’m such a freak.

I thought you were happy.
I thought you had a girlfriend
and you had money
and that made you happy.
I was wrong.
I’m such a freak.

I thought you were happy
and I thought I envied you,
or perhaps I really did.
But not anymore.
I was blind.
I’m such a freak.

We went to a pub.
You drank.
I didn’t.
You said I was missing out.
Maybe you’re right.
I thought you were like me.
I’m such a freak.

Peer pressure.
Fuck it.
Fuck you all!
Hate me!
I hate you too.
I’m such a freak.

Every time I’m supposed to be happy,
I think of some part of my life which is not OK.
I thought,
I’m such a freak,
I don’t know how to be happy.
But you don’t know either.
Oh wait,
you do.
C2H5OH.
But that doesn’t work for me.
I’m such a freak.

The smoke stung my eyes
and I felt like I wanted to cry.
Because I wasn’t like you.
Because I never could be.
Because I felt more alone than ever.
I’m such a freak.

I don’t understand.
Show me an adult that’s happy.
Really happy,
not just a mask
like you.
Or me.
Is this the big lesson in life?
The final revelation?
“Congratulations, you’ve come to the end of the line.
There’s nothing for you to see here.
Now you die.”
Congratulate me,
I’m such a freak.

Right now I’m sitting on a chair.
My breath is shallow.
My butt hurts.
And sad music is in my ears.
And I’m writing this freakish poem.
Which is not even a poem
but some kind of hate speech
or a confession
or a cry for help.
I’m such a freak.

And maybe I’ll delete everything I wrote
or maybe I’ll throw my laptop out the window
or maybe I’ll throw myself.
Then maybe I’ll somehow stop being
such a freak.

Clint Mansell is a genius.
And I’m thinking of a drama.
Someone else’s drama.
And how easy it is to feel compassion.
And how hard it is to express it.
And what good does compassion do,
when everybody else just makes fun of you.
(Nineteen Minutes taught you nothing.)
I feel like tapping you on the shoulder
and saying
“Don’t worry —
they’re all idiots.”
But I can’t do it.
And maybe that’s not even true.
Like you,
I’m such a freak.

An idiot and his “social skills”
and his way to laugh loudly
go a longer way
than a freak with his compassion.
This world is so unfair
and it makes me want to cry.
I’m such a freak.

I didn’t know you smoked.
Is it wrong to hate you for doing it?
I feel like I’ve been lied to.
But I saw you
simulating pleasure
as you drew in smoke.
Then throwing your head back
and simulating pleasure again
as you opened your mouth wide
to let the smoke out.
Eyes narrowed.
A superior smirk on your face
as you tapped the thin cigar
(I always thought they were for women)
upon the ashtray.
It was so fake.
Aren’t you disgusted?
Are you all blind?
Or am I
such a freak?

I know.
I do that too.
I try to look cheerful on the outside
and normal
and composed,
when inside my guts are boiling.
That’s why I’m so afraid
of showing my real self,
because everyone will hate me then.
And I’ll be even more
of a freak.

That’s why if you meet my eyes
and I don’t know you
and I’m not somewhere familiar,
you’ll likely see anger on my face.
Because anger is easy to muster.
Because anger is better than fear.
No I cannot afford to show fear.
Or you’ll all know
that I’m such a freak.

That’s why I have S.A.D.
(or at least I think so)
in a mild form
and I never told anybody.
Because that would be
scientific proof
that I’m such a freak.

That’s why I jump if you touch my back.
That’s why I want to hide my face all the time.
That’s why I don’t have a cellphone
and I dread calling you up.
That’s why if you point at me
and laugh
I’ll probably swallow it
and get out as fast as I can
and feel bad all day
and listen to Katatonia.
Like a freak.

That’s why girls are a different species
and I don’t have a definition for “friend”
and like Joel in Eternal Sunshine,
I fall in love with every woman I see
who shows me the least bit of attention.
I’m only brave
when I am alone.
And books are my closest friends.
What a freak.

But I digress.
(Or maybe a digression
is the best way
to make you understand
this hate speech
or confession
or whatever,
and that’s why
I’m going to make this sentence
longer by three words:
one two three.)
This was about you,
and how you make me feel.
I don’t care if you read this.
In fact, I hope you do.
I’m not sure why.
I’m such a freak.

You drew the line some place else.
And I don’t blame you
as long as it makes you happy
(whatever that means).
In fact you almost convinced me
that you’re right and I’m wrong
like so many other times.
But I never learn,
because I’m such a freak.

I won’t do the accounting for you
because I’m sober.
Fuck you!
It feels good to tell people to fuck off,
it gives me power.
That’s where I’ve been missing out.
I never knew the power of the middle finger.
I never thought I could actually choose.
You freed me in a way.
I’m such a proud freak now.


Note #1: I’ve just had a conversation which made me unable to write this any further. But since this does reflect my thoughts at a certain moment in time, I want to publish it as is before I decide to delete it.

Note #2: If you feel that I’ve personally mentioned you in the text above, please understand that nobody except you knows that. So don’t feel threatened.


Nineteen Minutes

February 10, 2008

What could possibly make a person walk into a school with four guns and kill ten people? You’ll give a different answer after reading this book.

I could hardly put it out of my mind after the first sentence, and probably for a lot of time after the last one. I loved the way Jodi Picoult gets inside the minds of the characters, without judging them. I also loved the way the book is structured: starting with the incident and then, like a movie, alternating between moments of time before and after. These clear-cut scenes are interspersed with short insights from Peter, which carry the most emotional charge (To anyone who cares…). If you are like me and find it hard to remember the characters’ names initially, you might find this exposition technique somewhat confusing, but I bet you’ll appreciate it in the end.

Overall this is one of the best novels I’ve read. I’m definitely going to look for more books by the author. If I could change one thing about this one though, I would cut in half the amount of text dedicated to the courtroom.

Some ideas that this book touches upon:

  • High school, like any society, is divided into two categories of people: the cool and popular (unhappy because they have to wear a mask all the time), and the uncool and unpopular (unhappy because they are lonely etc.)
  • Some people see suicide as an extreme communication device.
  • Life/society/school/democracy sucks, but it’s the best thing we’ve got so far.
  • When we’re sitting in front of the TV, we appreciate the fact that the media is able to keep us informed, but we rarely think of how the same media intrudes in the lives of those we see on the screen.
  • The fear of losing control; the desire to live within predictability, and what happens when that balance is lost.
  • What happens when someone we love does something we would never have expected (Peter — Lacy and Lewis; Josie — Alex).
  • There is no clearly-defined line between childhood and adulthood, yet the rights we give a person and the way we judge them are a function of biological age.
  • How the same thing carries different meanings to different people.
  • Do you still want the truth if it hurts?
  • Nothing we do is guaranteed to be good or bad in the long run.
  • Ultimately, revenge doesn’t change anything.
  • Life goes on. The human capacity to get over things is sometimes astounding.

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The Unbearable Lightness of Being

January 4, 2008

This book was heavier than I expected. Many of the author’s ideas were understandable and I even agreed with some of them, but at the same time those I did not agree with, and those which completely left me in the dark, will make me return to the book and read it again eventually.

This is another book that can hardly be called a novel. First, its characters are deliberately sketchy and incomplete. Second, there is no obvious plot, only a bunch of recurring themes throughout the work. Third, and most pleasantly surprising to me, the author uses an original approach to story-telling: he makes believe he is the omniscient narrator, using the third person to convey the story. But beneath this “believable lie” he stays in the mind of a single character in one part, then he switches to another character in the next (7 parts total). While he is in the mind of one character, he does not infiltrate the consciousness of others. Consequently, he is actually a first-person narrator in disguise, not omniscient in the least. As if that were not enough, he also uses ‘I’ to talk about his characters directly, as if discussing his novel with somebody. Whereas in most of what I’ve read so far the narrator tries to be as unobtrusive as possible, here he steps right out of the shadows, openly admitting that the characters are mere playthings of his imagination. Amazing.

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