My birthday has begun. Actually, it started five days ago. It’ll culminate on October 7, which used to be known as my “birthday.” I’ve decided to celebrate it like Ramadan—a full month of honoring what I reverence most: me.
This makes perfect sense, because the older I get (have started to become 58), the fewer birthdays I have left to celebrate. Therefore the celebration should get longer as I age, to make up for fewer future celebratory opportunities. If I live to 100, I suppose I’ll be celebrating continuously.
Anyway, here’s my first major gift to myself. A black 2007 Specialized Rockhopper mountain bike. My old Raleigh was cream colored. I like my new Ninja look. I also like how my riding happiness has increased since Sunday, when I picked up the bike at Eurosports in Sisters.
Just as I expected. Otherwise, why would I want a new bike? On the same day I bought myself this present, I received a few other gifts from myself after a visit to my other favorite Sisters store, Paulina Springs Books.
I saw “Stumbling on Happiness” by Daniel Gilbert on the new non-fiction table. At first I figured that the book would tell me how to do just that. But as I thumbed through it I realized that Gilbert had a more tasty fish to fry. He’s out to explain why what we think will make us happy usually doesn’t. At least not in the way we thought it would.
A small still voice in the back of my mind said, “Brian, you just bought yourself a $500 mountain bike that you expect will bring you great joy. Isn’t it dangerous to now plunk down $24.95 on a book that promises to burst your happiness expectation bubble?”
I paused to ponder my small still voice. Then I told it to shut up. After all, I’d just read a blurb on the front cover from Steven Levitt that said, “This absolutely fantastic book will shatter your most deeply held convictions about how the mind works.” So why should I trust what my mind was telling me?
Screw it. I’ll buy the book. And the bike. And whatever else I want and can afford for the next 28 days. It’s my goddamn birthday month! I deserve it all!
Good decision. I’ve been enjoying “Stumbling on Happiness” just as much as my bike, even though it’s got a mostly white cover and doesn’t meld very well with my new Ninja nature. Gilbert is one of those authors who makes me think, “Dear devil, I’ll gladly sell my soul in exchange for being able to write as well as this guy.”
He had me hooked by the time I finished the first paragraph of his Acknowledgements.
This is the part of the book in which the author typically claims that nobody writes a book by himself and then names all the people who presumably wrote the book for him. It must be nice to have friends like that. Alas, all the people who wrote this book are me, so let me instead thank those who by their gifts enabled me to write a book without them.
Terrific. Then the hook was set, hard, by the first few pages of Gilbert’s Foreword. After that, I couldn’t put the book down.
We treat our future selves as though they were our children, spending most of our hours of most of our days constructing tomorrows that we hope will make them happy. Rather than indulging in whatever strikes our momentary fancy, we take responsibility for the welfare of our future selves, squirreling away portions of our paychecks each month so they can enjoy their retirements on a putting green, jogging and flossing with some regularity so they can avoid coronaries and gum grafts, enduring dirty diapers and mind-numbing repetitions of The Cat in the Hat so that someday they will have fat-cheeked grandchildren to bounce on their laps.
Great stuff. I was happy that I’d indulged me right now, instead of the future him that I so often sacrifice myself for. But then I read on. And began to see the Dark Side.
In fact, just about any time we want something—a promotion, a marriage, an automobile, a cheeseburger—we are expecting that if we get it, then the person who has our fingerprints a second, minute, day, or decade from now will enjoy the world they inherit from us, honoring our sacrifices as they reap the harvest of our shrewd investment decisions and dietary forebearance.
Yeah, yeah. Don’t hold your breath. Like the fruits of our loins, our temporal progeny are often thankless….How can this happen? Shouldn’t we know the tastes, preferences, needs, and desires of the people we will be next year—or at least later this afternoon?
Seems like it. But Laurel already has listened to Gilbert’s book on CD, and she tells me that research shows we’re terrible at predicting what will make us happy. (Well, I’ll believe it when I read it. The day my body listens to a book will be the day they pry my yellow fluorescent highlighter from my cold dead hands.)
So maybe, maybe, my new mountain bike isn’t going to bring me as much joy as I’m expecting it will. Yet I’m different. I’m special. I’m like no one else in the world. Other poor fools may not know what makes them happy, but I do.
Such is my fervent hope. And, likely, my fervent delusion, based on peeking ahead to the last line of the final chapter.
Alas, we think of ourselves as unique entities—minds unlike any others—and thus we often reject the lessons that the emotional experience of others has to teach us.
Well, stay tuned. It could be that every single person who gets a new mountain bike from Eurosports, including me, is happy for the rest of their days. I’ll let you know if that’s true. (If it is, you'll be eager for this information.)