Imagination is wonderful. Except when it isn't.
That's one of the core messages of psychologist Daniel Gilbert's marvelous book, "Stumbling on Happiness."
I'm re-reading the book after first discovering it in 2006, when I wrote "Happiness is a new mountain bike. Maybe."
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.
Four chapters into my second reading, I'm enjoying Gilbert's book even more this time around. He's a marvelous writer, along with being a skilled interpreter of what psychology, neuroscience, philosophy, and such tell us about the human condition.
Basically, we've been screwed by evolution. But in a good way. Which also is a bad way. C'est la vie.
We humans apparently are the only species that can imagine something which doesn't exist. Not in a short-term way or instinctively. Many animals can do that. A cat can envision killing a mouse if it does this, then that.
Gilbert calls this sort of thing "nexting" to distinguish it from "predicting." Nexting happens automatically. He says:
Brains are continuously making predictions about the immediate, local, personal future of their owners without their owners' awareness. Rather than saying such brains are predicting, let's say that they are nexting.
But people can go way beyond this. We can imagine ourselves living in a different place, having a different job, being involved with a different person, living a very different life.
Because imagining is so easy for us -- this is pretty much what daydreaming is all about -- we tend to lose sight of how poorly imagination predicts reality. Such as, how happy we will be if something occurs, or we find ourselves in a certain situation.
Gilbert presents highly persuasive evidence and arguments for a disturbing conclusion. Here's a quote I included in my previous post about his book:
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?
Answer: no. The human brain really isn't set up for this to happen.
Evolution has brought us the gift (and curse) of imagination because it has a lot of survival value. Happiness is a secondary benefit. When it occurs. Which isn't nearly as often as we imagine it will.
One problem, of course, is that it's difficult to predict the future. Another problem is that even if we get an imagined future right, we're lousy at predicting how happy we'll feel in this state of affairs.
Religions are a product of the human capacity to imagine things that don't exist.
There's no demonstrable evidence that God, spirit, soul, heaven, hell, or any other of the myriad supposed denizens of hypothesized supernatural realms actually exist in reality, outside of people's imagination.
Yet not only do billions of people fervently believe in these imagined entities, they base important aspects of their lives on how happy they will be in a predicted future involving God, spirit, soul, heaven, hell, and such.
Thus religion hits people with a double dose of off-kilter imagination: they imagine a supernatural reality that almost certainly doesn't exist, then imagine themselves feeling all happy in this imagined supernatural reality.
This comes at a cost.
Sure, it can feel good to believe that something is coming which will make us happy. Heaven! Eternal life in the lap of God! Existing joyfully without the burden of a body!
But continually looking around the corner for the Something Is Coming distracts us from the What Is Already Here.
What sense does it make to keep on anticipating the arrival of future happiness if we never fully enjoy the present moment? Imagination definitely has its benefits. Here-and-now can be a trap, a cage, a prison. Imagination can be a key that unlocks the door leading to attainable vistas beyond our immediate horizon.
Other times, we imagine a future that can't possibly exist, because the entities populating this future world are non-existent. Such as the gods people sacrifice so much time and energy to. And the lives they hope to lead after death, while failing to fully live their all-too-human lives now.