The Happiness Hypothesis
(2006) is a self-help book by Jonathan Haidt. Referring to the academic canon of psychological, sociological, and philosophical thinkers, Haidt makes accessible a number of ideas about happiness—most prominently, Plato, Jesus, and Buddha. Looking at these ideas in the context of contemporary research, Haidt sifts out the parts of the ideas that remain salient today. His thesis centers on the age-old concepts of happiness, virtue, satisfaction, and meaning.
Haidt examines the different ways that humans have historically analyzed the self. He considers the mind vs. body duality first popularized by Descartes, as well as more recent experimental findings, such as the right/left brain duality and the division between the Precambrian (primitive) and Cambrian (consciousness-forming) parts of the brain. He also shows how we distinguish controlled and automatic behaviors, attributing each to the separate systems of reasoning and implicit responding. For the latter example, he uses the metaphor
of someone riding on the back of an elephant. Here, the rider represents the conscious mind, and the elephant represents the unconscious mind. The rider cannot simply control the elephant by overpowering him; rather, he has to develop a more abstract system of force, such as conditioning the elephant to learn and obey a language. The metaphor helps explain why human will is sometimes not enough to overcome predispositions and biases. Finally, he casts self-improvement as a matter of “training the elephant.”
Haidt explains three effective ways of changing the mind to find happiness. These include meditation, cognitive therapy, and medications in the SSRI family. He qualifies the benefits of each with its possible setbacks, advocating for a holistic and self-aware approach to becoming happier. He goes on to emphasize the importance of the Golden Rule, modifying it slightly by adding that gossip is important since humans are highly social animals. Calling this principle of sociality “reciprocity,” he asserts that it is one of the most important drivers of happiness.
Haidt elaborates on different features of ultra-sociality. He notes that humans constantly try to manipulate others’ perception of them, either consciously or unconsciously. He examines this phenomenon from the perspective of social psychology, citing works such as The Moral Animal
, which posits that humans are inherently ignorant and depend on each other’s symbolic natures to gather and process social information. As a corollary, he asserts that it is an error to think that happiness cannot be obtained from external things. He refers to studies that show people thrive on the external fruits of their behavior, such as spending money well. He argues that the Western value of hard work for its own sake has certain psychological benefits.
Examining how success can proceed out of virtuous behavior, Haidt traces this mechanism to the Ancient Greeks, who understood and developed the concept of virtue. Fables and other metaphorical forms of language function to instill virtuous behavior by “training the elephant” that drives the individual’s automatic behavior. In today’s populous and connected world, Haidt emphasizes the importance of using positive psychology to create a collective moral code.
Haidt emphasizes the importance of having a divinity or spirituality, even if one rejects the existence of a god. Using the example of the nineteenth-century allegory Flatland
, he states that divinity is essential to the human mind. He attributes the political left’s failures to accommodate or inspire the religious right to their ignorance of the necessity of divinity. He also discusses the concept of the “meaning of life,” arguing that there is a difference between thinking of meaning as an ultimate end and a continuous force that elevates the mind. He cites a study by Gardner, Damon, and Csikszentmihalyi that conceived of a principle of “vital engagement,” which represents work which is carried out with the optimal sense of purpose. He also endorses “cross-level coherence”; that is, the nurturing of semantic relationships between parts of the self and parts of the life which extends from the self. He says that this principle connects the physical, sociocultural, and psychological patterns within the self, and casts religion as a highly evolved mechanism for doing just that.
In the final section, Haidt argues that the ancient Eastern concept of Yin and Yang remains the wisest idea created by mankind. He writes that all humans need to listen to the perspectives of both Eastern and Western sciences and religions in order to forge the most accurate metaphors for understanding the world. He extends this exhortation into political life, stating that it is necessary to listen to, and try to understand, even the staunchest political dissidents.
Haidt’s book is thus an interdisciplinary one, rejecting a single field of knowledge as sufficient in laying out our intellectual legacy of happiness. He provides a wealth of resources for understanding different ways in which the self can become unhappy and offers just as many remedies for those conditions.