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The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom Paperback – December 1, 2006

4.5 out of 5 stars 423 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak, lamented St. Paul, and this engrossing scientific interpretation of traditional lore backs him up with hard data. Citing Plato, Buddha and modern brain science, psychologist Haidt notes the mind is like an "elephant" of automatic desires and impulses atop which conscious intention is an ineffectual "rider." Haidt sifts Eastern and Western religious and philosophical traditions for other nuggets of wisdom to substantiate—and sometimes critique—with the findings of neurology and cognitive psychology. The Buddhist-Stoic injunction to cast off worldly attachments in pursuit of happiness, for example, is backed up by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's studies into pleasure. And Nietzsche's contention that what doesn't kill us makes us stronger is considered against research into post-traumatic growth. An exponent of the "positive psychology" movement, Haidt also offers practical advice on finding happiness and meaning. Riches don't matter much, he observes, but close relationships, quiet surroundings and short commutes help a lot, while meditation, cognitive psychotherapy and Prozac are equally valid remedies for constitutional unhappiness. Haidt sometimes seems reductionist, but his is an erudite, fluently written, stimulating reassessment of age-old issues. (Jan.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Kindle Edition edition.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

From Chapter 6: Love and Attachments

No one can live happily who has regard to himself alone and transforms everything into a question of his own utility; you must live for your neighbor, if you would live for yourself. (Seneca)

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. (John Donne)

In 1931, at the age of four, my father was diagnosed with polio. He was immediately put into an isolation room at the local hospital in Brooklyn, New York. There was no cure and no vaccine for polio at that time, and city dwellers lived in fear of its spread. So for several weeks my father had no human contact, save for an occasional visit by a masked nurse. His mother came to see him every day, but that’s all she could do – wave to him and try to talk to him through the glass pane on the door. My father remembers calling out to her, begging her to come in. It must have broken her heart, and one day she ignored the rules and went in. She was caught and sternly reprimanded. My father recovered with no paralysis, but this image has always stayed with me: a small boy alone in a room, looking at his mother through the glass.

My father had the bad luck to be born at the confluence point of three big ideas. The first was germ theory, proposed in the 1840s by Ignaz Semmelweis and incorporated into hospitals and homes with gradually increasing ferocity over the next century. Pediatricians in the 1920s came to fear germs above all else as they began to collect statistics from orphanages and foundling homes. As far back as records went, they showed that most children dropped off at foundling homes died within one year. In 1915, a New York physician, Henry Chapin, reported to the American Pediatric Society that out of the ten foundling homes he had examined, in all but one of them all of the children had died before their second birthday. As pediatricians came to grips with the deadly effects of institutions on young children, they reacted in a logical way by launching a crusade against germs. It became a priority in orphanages and hospitals to isolate children as much as possible in clean cubicles, to prevent them from infecting each other. Beds were separated, dividers were placed between beds, nurses retreated behind masks and gloves, and mothers were scolded for violating quarantine.

The other two big ideas were psychoanalysis and behaviorism. These two theories agreed on very little, but they both agreed that the infant’s attachment to its mother is based on milk. Freud thought that the infant’s libido (desire for pleasure) is first satisfied by the breast, and therefore the infant develops its first attachment (psychological need) to the breast. Only gradually does the child generalize that desire to the woman who owns the breast. The behaviorists didn’t care about libido, but they too saw the breast as the first reinforcer, the first reward (milk) for the first behavior (sucking). The very heart of behaviorism, if it had one, was conditioning – the idea that learning occurs when rewards are conditional upon behaviors. So unconditional love -- holding, nuzzling, and cuddling children for no reason -- was seen as the surest way to make children lazy, spoiled, and weak. Freudians and behaviorists were united in their belief that highly affectionate mothering damages children, and that scientific principles could improve child rearing. Three years before my father entered the hospital, John Watson, the leading American behaviorist (in the years before B. F. Skinner), published the best seller Psychological Care of Infant and Child. Watson wrote of his dream that one day babies would be raised in baby farms, away from the corrupting influences of parents. But until that day arrived, parents were urged to use behaviorist techniques to rear strong children: don’t pick them up when they cry, don’t cuddle or coddle them, just dole out benefits and punishments for each good and bad action.

How could science have gotten it so wrong? How could doctors and psychologists not have seen that children need love as well as milk? This chapter is about that need – the need for other people, for touch, and for close relationships. No man, woman, or child is an island. Scientists have come a long way since John Watson, and there is now a much more humane science of love. The story of this science begins with orphans and rhesus monkeys, and ends with a challenge to the dismal view of love held by many of the ancients, East and West. The heroes of this story are two psychologists who rejected the central tenets of their training: Harry Harlow and John Bowlby. These two men knew that something was missing in behaviorism and in psychoanalysis, respectively. Against great odds they changed their fields, they humanized the treatment of children, and they made it possible for science to greatly improve upon the wisdom of the ancients. --This text refers to the Kindle Edition edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; 1 edition (December 1, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465028020
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465028023
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.8 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (423 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,460 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Dan Wallace on October 15, 2009
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I saw Chris Anderson (Wired Editor and TED co-founder) asked by Charlie Rose to name his favorite book of the last few years. "The Happiness Hypothesis" was the immediate response. Now this book is one of my favorites, too. The Happiness Hypothesis compares traditional philisohpical traditions with the lastest scientific discoveries, and the two ends meet well in the center. The author's own experiences provide narrative glue.

A major finding is that happiness is a set point for us, and that after good times and bad, we tend to return to our general level of happiness. At the same time, we can do things that help or hurt our happiness, and we can understand better how our minds and emotions work.

Factors that decrease happiness include persistent noise, lack of control, shame, dysfunctional relationships, and long commutes. Strong marriages, physical touch, meaningful relationships and religious affiliation tend to improve happiness. Activities with others enhance our happiness; status objects tend to separate us from others.

In terms of parenting, Haidt finds that secure children are well supported by parents who are nearby, providing safety and security. Avoidant children are neglected by their parents. And resistant children have parents who alternate between support and neglect. Haidt also shows how moral relativism is not good for children.

I was also fascinated by Haidt's observation that modernity and commercial culture slowly replaced the ideal of character with the idea personality, leading to a focus on individual preferences and personal fulfillment. This movement reached a height during the "values clarification" movement of the 1960s which taught no morality at all.
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Format: Hardcover
This book is absolutely incredible - so much fascinating information, and so readable!!

First of all, the main hypothesis, that people make decisions with their gut and then use their brains to rationalize those decisions, is well supported. The examples are clear, real, and alive. You'll walk away from the book thinking, there are so many things that I do that I'm completely unaware of.

Secondly, my favorite thing about this book was that it was SO READABLE: it sounds like Jon Haidt is sitting across from you and speaking to you. (For example, you may have heard of the one and two marshmallow studies, but the story-like way that Haidt describes it will really capture your attention). Even the headings and section titles kept my curiosity up: what could that next section be about?

Third, the section on why human beings are hypocrites (ch. 4) is extremely interesting.

Finally, there is so much philosophy and history of psychology interwoven into the hypothesis of the book that you feel like you keep entering a new theatrical stage: one stage after the other, going to the center of a performance. And the best thing is, all the history, etc. is presented as "here is this story that shows why this happens" and "here's this other story."
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Format: Paperback
Jonathan Haidt has written a brilliant exploration of modern and ancient ideas about happiness and the inner workings of the human behaviors that affect it.

This book reads like a great conversation with the reader. From the beginning he employs the right balance of simple explanation - such as the central metaphor of the 'Rider and Elephant' (the conscious and autonomous aspects of your mind, respectively) - and deep, nuanced examinations of the ancient ideas and what the light of modern research shows about them.

The chapters are structured to first present a couple of quotes that encapsulate an ancient idea, such as "The Golden Rule" (do unto others...). He explains the ideas, gives some of the ancient context in which they developed (sometimes at very interesting length) and then starts to weave in the nuance and finer detail that modern study has brought to these ideas. He usually frames things in the context of their effect on happiness and other continuums of human state of being (such as spiritual elevation). Haidt is pretty balanced even when he has to point out problems that some of the ancient ideas have. There's never a sense that `science is right' and `the ancients were wrong' in an absolute way. Often he does quite the opposite, he points out what ancient intuition did get right compared to the very unbalanced thinking behind some of the past popular movements within his profession, such as Behaviorism.

Also, Haidt is laugh-out-loud funny a couple of times in the book!
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a remarkable book, that gives the lie to the old statement that people who have something to say can't normally express themselves, but those who are good at expressing themselves don't normally have much to say!

Using delightful sparkling prose, Jonathan Haidt has written a meaty and worthwhile book about happiness, emotion and the creation of personal meaning. It is so rare nowadays to find people who can place their work in a broad historical and cultural context. Yet Haidt does just that. Here we have a book in which discussions of the brain rub shoulders with the sayings of the Buddha.

I am sure that nobody is going to agree with everything that he says. But neither would he want us to: he is informing and provoking discussion and understanding. I worry a little about the scientists and writers who try to reduce complex behaviors to neurons and hormones alone, and Jonathan avoids that trap.

This is an insightful book that belongs on the shelf of anyone interested in some of the fundamental problems of living a happy, fulfilled life, and of making a positive contribution to the world.

Very highly recommended.
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