THE BLOG
09/25/2007 01:16 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Why Gilda Radner, Gene Wilder, and the Fundamental Attribution Error are Relevant to Happiness

One thing I do for the Happiness Project is to read memoirs of catastrophe - people who have gone through cancer, divorce, death, etc.

Several months ago I read Gilda Radner's interesting memoir, It"s Always Something, and yesterday I finished Gene Wilder's equally interesting memoir, Kiss Me Like a Stranger. The two were married when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and died, so reading the two memoirs gives a window into that experience from both perspectives.

One thing that made this story particularly striking to me is that I remember seeing Gilda Radner and Gene Wilder together, many years ago. It was in a drugstore somewhere in New York City, I can't remember where. I do remember that Gilda Radner was carrying a little dog (named Sparkle, I know now after reading these memoirs).

A very peculiar aspect of fame is that fact that strangers remember the most fleeting encounters with you; it's astonishing, really, that I remember seeing the two of them, for just a moment, so long ago.

One reason that I remember them was that I remarked on how serious they both seemed. They were speaking in low, intense voices and looked solemn. "Well, maybe they're only funny and light-hearted when they're acting," I thought. "Maybe that's how famous comedians are in person. Or maybe they're trying to be inconspicuous, because they're famous."

In fact, this might have been the very day that Gilda Radner got a terrible report from her doctor. When I intersected with them would've been about the same time that she was sick. What for me was an ordinary day, with the fun of a celebrity sighting, might have been one of the worst days of their lives.

This is a perfect example of the fundamental attribution error -- which Wikipedia defines as "the tendency for people...to assume that a person's actions depend on what 'kind' of person that person is rather than on the social and environmental forces influencing the person."

I assumed that Radner's and Wilder's behavior reflected their characters; it never occurred to me that their behavior might reflect something happening to them.

Which reminds me - always cut people slack; always assume that their irritability, or unfriendliness, or absent-mindedness, neither reflects their true nature nor has anything to do with me. In brief, don't take things personally. As Henri-Frederic Amiel wrote, "Life is short and we never have enough time for the hearts of those who travel the way with us. O, be swift to love! Make haste to be kind."

Instead of brooding on possible slights or grievances, I try to think about happier subjects -- and, as always, to do one of the seven things that will make me happier in the next hour.

If you'd like to read more about happiness, check out Gretchen's daily blog, The Happiness Project.