Bryan Caplan  

Happiness Research in Five Minutes: Sylvester and the Magic Pebble

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It's a great day when my four-year-old sons and I agree on a book. (While we're on that subject, Happy Father's Day!) Our latest pick: William Steig's Sylvester and the Magic Pebble. This charming picture book will teach you more about happiness in five minutes than the best book on happiness research will teach you in five hours. Seriously.


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COMMENTS (2 to date)
Henrico Otto writes:

I don't think this is an obvious claim -- I think it needs to be unpacked a bit.

The basic idea of the ending is that a magical pebble that can give you everything you desire is packed away and never used because sharing the love of your family is a better life. (Never explained: why not use it some of the times to get out of bind etc.)

Now while it is a common literary/philosophical theme that god-like power doesn't bring happiness, i.e., it is addictive and leads to a solipsistic existence, I think there are at least three problems with the idea that this is an important lesson:

First, there obviously is no reality to it. This is a choice we don't really have (with a proviso below).

Second, it is not clear that it is even true on its own terms, i.e., I have always thought Nozick's experience machine thought experiment was a close call, and I have very little doubt that when sufficiently advanced, totally immersive virtual reality will be widely adopted (in that sense, we might some day [soon per Kurzweil?] be faced with a choice similar to Sylvester's) although that of course doesn't mean it will lead to happiness, of course. Embracing Sylvester's choice means not jumping into the experience machine. Is that really what we would do/want to do to maximize our happiness?

Three, it misleadingly suggests that one value trumps all others in life, i.e. love of family is all you need for happiness and nothing else matters. Read metaphorically, this book is saying that money etc doesn't matter, when I highly suspect it does.

Are you saying that Sylvester and the Magic Pebble teaches us about happiness because it makes an extreme claim, and presents an ending that does not square with what the reader actually would do, and is in that sense "thought provoking"? Or is it that you back the implicit claims of the book? Or do you have a different reading of the ending/story?

TGGP writes:

I applaud Henrico Otto for going after a children's book like that. I am not at all being sarcastic either. Once you accept stupidity because you don't want to upset children you are on the road to blocking truth in all circumstances, leading to much harm in general.

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