“The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom” by Jonathan Haidt

This book is amazing, it’s the rare book that has something to offer everyone. I say that because who doesn’t want to live a ‘happy life’?

The final paragraph summed up the book better than I ever could:

What can you do to have a good, happy, fulfilling, and meaningful life? What is the answer to the question of the purpose within life? I believe the answer can be found only by understanding the kind of creature that we are, divided in the many ways we are divided. We were shaped by individual selection to be selfish creatures who struggle for resources, pleasure, and prestige. and we were shaped by group selection to be hive creatures who long to lose ourselves in something larger. We are social creatures who need love and attachments, and we are industrious creatures who needs for effectance, able to enter a state of vital engagement with our work. We are the rider and we are the elephant, and our mental health depends on the two working together, each drawing on the others’ strengths. I don’t believe there is an inspiring answer to the question, “What is the purpose of life?” Yet by drawing on ancient wisdom and modern science, we can find compelling answers to the question of the purpose within life. The final version of the happiness hypothesis is that happiness comes from between. Happiness is not something that you can find, acquire, or achieve directly. You have to get the conditions right and then wait. Some of these conditions are within you, such as coherence among the parts and levels of your personality. Other conditions require relationships to things beyond you: Just as plants need sun, water, and good soil to thrive, people need love, work, and a connection to something larger. It is worth striving to get right the relationships between yourself and others, between yourself and your work, and between yourself and something larger than yourself. If you get these relationships right, a sense of purpose will emerge.

Further Links:
www.happinesshypothesis.com: the author’s website, filled with supplemental information.
Quotes and Anecdotes: Theories of Mind Throughout the AgesThe First Division: Mind vs. BodyThe Second Division: Left vs. Right ; The Third Division of the Mind: New vs. Old ; The Fourth Division of the Mind: Controlled vs. Automatic Thinking ; and A Brilliant Study of Moral Hypocrisy.
Buy on Amazon: The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom


I’ll suggest that the happiness hypothesis offered by Buddha and the Stoics should be amended: Happiness comes from within, and happiness comes from without. We need the guidance of both ancient wisdom and modern science to get the balance right.

To understand most important ideas in psychology, you need to understand how the mind is divided into parts that sometimes conflict. We assume that there is one person in each body, but in some ways we are each more like a committee whose members have been thrown together to do a job, but who often find themselves working at cross purposes.

This finding, that people will readily fabricate reasons to explain their own behavior, is called “confabulation.” Confabulation is so frequent in work with split-brain patients and other people suffering brain damage that Gazzaniga refers to the language centers on the left side of the brain as the interpreter module, whose job is to give a running commentary on whatever the self is doing, even though the interpreter module has no access to the real causes or motives of the self’s behavior. For example, if the work “walk” is flashed to the right hemisphere, the patient might stand up and walk away. When asked why he is getting up, he might say, “I’m going to get a Coke.” The interpreter module is good at making up explanations, but not at knowing that it has done so.

Human rationality depends critically on sophisticated emotionality. It is only because our emotional brain works so well that our reasoning can work at all.

[Regarding children who were able to control themselves in during The Marshmallow Test] What was their secret? A large part of it was strategy—the ways that children used their limited mental control to shift attention. In later studies, Mischel discovered that the successful children were those who looked away from the temptation or were able to think about other enjoyable activities. These thinking skills are an aspect of emotional intelligence—an ability to understand and regulate one’s own feelings and desires. An emotionally intelligent person has a skilled rider who knows how to distract and coax the elephant without having to engage in a direct contest of wills.

The point of these studies is that moral judgement is like aesthetic judgment. When you see a painting, you usually know instantly and automatically whether you like it. If someone asks you to explain your judgment, you confabulate. You don’t really know why you think something is beautiful, but your interpreter module (the rider) is skilled at making up reasons, as Gazzaniga found in his split-brain studies. You search for a plausible reason for liking the painting, and you latch on to the first reason that makes sense (maybe something vague about the color, or light, or the reflection of the painter in the clown’s shiny nose). Moral arguments are much the same: Two people feel strongly about an issue, their feelings come first, and their reasons are invented on the fly, to throw at each other. When you refute a person’s argument, does she generally change her mind and agree with you? Of course not, because the argument you defeated was not the cause of her position; it was made up after the judgment was already made.

Over and over again, psychologists find that the human mind reacts to bad things more quickly, strongly, and persistently than to equivalent good things. We can’t just will ourselves to see everything as good because our minds are wired to find and react to threats, violations, and setbacks. As Ben Franklin said: “We are not so sensible pf the greatest Health as of the least Sickness.”

Reciprocity is a deep instinct; it is the basic currency of social life.

Many species reciprocate, but only humans gossip, and much of what we gossip about is the value of other people as partners for reciprocal relationships.

If you get something for nothing, part of you may be pleased, but part of you moves your hand to give something back.

Scandal is great entertainment because it allows people to feel contempt, a moral emotion that gives feelings of moral superiority while asking nothing in return. With contempt you don’t need to right the wrong (as with anger) or flee the scene (as with fear or disgust). And the best of all, contempt is made to share. Stories about the moral failings of others are among the most common kinds of gossip, they are a stable of talk radio, and they offer a ready way for people to show that they share a common moral orientation.

Studies of “motivated reasoning” show that people who are motivated to reach a particular conclusion are even worse reasoners than those in Kuhn’s and Perkins’s studies, but the mechanism is basically the same: a one-sided search for supporting evidence only. People who are told that they have performed poorly on a test of social intelligence think extra hard to find reasons to discount the test; people who are asked to read a study showing that one of their habits—such as drinking coffee—is unhealthy think extra hard to find flaws in the study, flaws that people who don’t drink coffee don’t notice. Over and over again, studies show that people set out on a cognitive mission to bring back reasons to support their preferred belief or action. And because we are usually successful in this mission, we end up with the illusion of objectivity. We really believe that our position is rationally and objectively justified.

The consistent finding of psychological research is that we are fairly accurate in our perceptions of others. It’s our self-perceptions that are distorted because we look at ourselves in a rose-colored mirror.

Buddhism and Stoicism teach that striving for external goods, or to make the world conform to your wishes, is always a striving after wind. Happiness can only be found within, by breaking attachments to external things and cultivating an attitude of acceptance.

Set for yourself any goal you want. Most of the pleasure will be had along the way, with every step that takes you closer. The final moment of success is often no more thrilling than the relief of taking off a heavy backpack at the end of a long hike. If you went on the hike only to feel that pleasure, you are a fool. Yet people sometimes do just this. They work hard at a task and expect some special euphoria at the end. But when they achieve success and find only moderate and short-lived pleasure, they ask (as singer Peggy Lee once did): Is that all there is? They devalue their accomplishments as a striving after wind.

We can call this “the progress principle”: Pleasure comes more from making progress toward goals than from achieving them. Shakespeare captured it perfectly: “Things won are done; joy’s soul lies in the doing.”

The psychological origins of love are in attachment to parents and sexual partners. We do not attach to ourselves; we do not seek security and fulfillment in ourselves.

Rather, Christian love has focused on two key words: caritas and agape. Caritas (the origin of our work :charity”) is a kind of intense benevolence and good will; agape is a Greek word that refers to a kind of selfless, spiritual love with no sexuality, no clinging to a particular other person. (Of course, Christianity endorses the love of a man and a woman within marriage, but even this love is idealized as the love of Christ for his church—EPHESIANS 5:25). As in Plato, Christian love is love stripped of its essential particularity, its focus on a specific other person. Love is remodeled into a general attitude toward a much larger, even infinite, class of objects.

When people older than thirty are asked to remember the most important or vivid events of their lives, they are disproportionately likely to recall events that occurred between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five. This is the age when a person’s life blooms—first love, college and intellectual growth, living and perhaps traveling independently—and it is the time when young people (at least in Western countries) make many of the choices that will define their lives. If there is a special period for identity formation, a time when life events are going to have the biggest influence on the rest of the life-story, this is it.

Shweder’s research on morality in Bhubaneswar and elsewhere shows that when people thin about morality, their moral concepts cluster into three groups, which he calls the ethic of autonomy, the ethic of community, and the ethic of divinity. When people think and act using the ethic of autonomy, their goal is to protect individuals from harm and grant them the  maximum degree of autonomy, which they can use to pursue their own goals. When people use the ethic of community, their goal is to protect the integrity of groups, families, companies, or nations, and they value virtues such as obedience, loyalty, and wise leadership. When people use the ethic of divinity, their goal is to protect from degradation the divinity that exists in each person, and they value living in a pure and holy way, free from moral pollutants such as lust, greed, and hatred.

Awe is the emotion of self-transcendence.

As we traced the word “awe” back in history, we discovered that it has always had a link to fear and submission in the presence of something much greater than the self. It’s only in very modern times—in our de-sacralized world, perhaps—that awes has been reduced to surprise plus approval, and the word “awesome,” much used by American teenagers, has come to mean little more than “double-plus good” (to use George Orwell’s term from 1984.) Keltner and I concluded that the emotion of awe happens when two conditions are met: a person perceives something vast (usually physically vast, but sometimes conceptually cast, such as a grand theory; or socially vast, such as great fame or power); and the vast thing cannot be accommodated by the person’s existing mental structures. Something enormous can’t be processed, and when people are stumped, stopped in their cognitive tracks while in the presence of something vast, they feel small, powerless, passive, and receptive. They often (though not always) feel fear, admiration, elevation, or a sense of beauty as well. By stopping people and making them receptive, awe creates an opening for change, and this is why awe plays a role in most stories of religious conversion.

Religious experiences are real and common, whether or not God exists, and these experiences often make people whole and at peace.

We get more pleasure from making progress toward our goals than we do from achieving them because, as Shakespeare said, “Joy’s soul lies in the doing.”

In 1964, the sociologists Melvin Kohn and Carmi Schooler surveyed 3,100 American men about their jobs and found that the key to understanding which jobs were satisfying was what they called “occupational self direction.” Men who were closely supervised in jobs of low complexity and much routine showed the highest degree of alienation (feeling powerless, dissatisfied, and separated from the work). Men who had more latitude in deciding how they approached work that was varied and challenging tended to enjoy their work much more. When workers had occupational self-direction, their work was often satisfying.

Because elements of culture show variation (people invent new things) and selection (other people do or don’t adopt those variations), cultural traits can be analyzed in a Darwinian framework just as well as physical traits (birds’ beaks, giraffes’ necks). Cultural elements, however, don’t spread by the slow process of having children; they spread rapidly whenever people adopt a new behavior, or belief. Cultural traits can even spread from tribe to tribe or nation to nation, as when the plough, the printing press, or reality television programs become popular in many places in quick succession.

It only takes twenty generations of selective breeding to create large differences or appearance and behavior in other mammals.

The word religion literally means, in Latin, to link or bind together; and despite the vast variation in the world’s religions, Wilson shows that religions always serve to coordinate and orient people’s behavior toward each other and toward the group as a whole, sometimes for the purpose of competing with other groups.

The neuroscientist Andrew Newberg has studied the brains of people undergoing mystical experiences, mostly during meditation, and has found where that off-switch might be. In the rear portion of the brain’s parietal lobes (under the rear portion of the top of the skull) are two patches of cortex Newberg calls the “orientation association areas.” The patch in the left hemisphere appears to contribute to the mental sensation of having a limited and physically defined body, and thus keeps track of your edges. The corresponding area in the right hemisphere maintains a map of the space around you. These two areas receive input from the senses to help them maintain an ongoing representation of your self and its location in space.

The extreme self-sacrifice characteristic of group-selected species such as ants and bees can often be found among soldiers.

Religion and science, for example, are often though to be opponents, but as I have shown, the insights of ancient religions and of modern science are both needed to reach a full understanding of human nature and the conditions of human satisfaction. The ancients may have known little about biology, chemistry, physics, but many were good psychologists.

Happiness requires changing yourself and changing your world. It requires pursuing your own goals and fitting in with others. Different people at different times in their lives will benefit from drawing more heavily on one approach or the other.

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