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The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom Paperback – December 1, 2006
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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 Audio CD edition.
Using the wisdom culled from the world's greatest civilizations as a foundation, social psychologist Haidt comes to terms with 10 Great Ideas, viewing them through a contemporary filter to learn which of their lessons may still apply to modern lives. He first discusses how the mind works and then examines the Golden Rule ("Reciprocity is the most important tool for getting along with people"). Next, he addresses the issue of happiness itself--where does it come from?--before exploring the conditions that allow growth and development. He also dares to answer the question that haunts most everyone--What is the meaning of life?--by again drawing on ancient ideas and incorporating recent research findings. He concludes with the question of meaning: Why do some find it? Balancing ancient wisdom and modern science, Haidt consults great minds of the past, from Buddha to Lao Tzu and from Plato to Freud, as well as some not-so-greats: even Dr. Phil is mentioned. Fascinating stuff, accessibly expressed. June Sawyers
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.
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~ Jonathan Haidt from The Happiness Hypothesis
That’s officially the longest intro quote of any of the Notes I’ve created so far but OMG. Makes you wanna read the whole book, eh?! :)
Jonathan Haidt is a leading positive psychology researcher/professor at the University of Virginia and this book is an incredible look at ten “Great Ideas” from ancient wisdom that he brilliantly analyzes in the light of modern science while helping us apply the super practical stuff to our 21st century lives. It’s a great blend of intellectual rigor, philosophical wisdom and nuts and-bolts practicality that I highly recommend.
If this Note resonates with you, I *definitely* think you’ll love the book. I put it up there with Sonja Lyubomirsky’s How of Happiness and Tal Ben-Shahar’s Pursuit of Perfect and Happier as some must-read positive psychology goodness.
Here are some of the Big Ideas:
1. The Rider & The Elephant - Learn to ride your elephant!
2. Epiphanies - And lasting change.
3. Meditation - The magic pill.
4. Cognitive Therapy - It works.
5. Pulling the Splinter - The joy of taking responsibility.
Let’s get clear on our ultimate purpose and move toward it, lest we step in other people’s elephant poop, yo! :)
More goodness— including PhilosophersNotes on 300+ books in our *OPTIMIZE* membership program. Find out more at brianjohnson . me.
If you think you could be happier because of all the things you've accomplished in your life but you still feel empty inside, buy this book. This is why I did it, and later in the book I discovered that the author started his research for the same reason.
Haidt claims there are ten great principles for understanding happiness, and he devotes a chapter to each. The first is the "divided self," we may be summarized as "Our minds are loose confederations of parts, but we identify with and pay too much attention to one part: conscious verbal thinking." (p. 22) Haidt analogizes our mind as a conscious rider on an unconscious elephant. The elephant mostly goes where it wants to go, although our conscious mind never gives up the illusion that it should not only be in the driver's seat, but have a powerful steering wheel. The references here are many, but typical are Freud's Ego vs. Superego/Id, emotional brain vs. rational brain, left vs. right brain and split-brain studies, and the like. This fact about mind is key to understanding happiness because an excessive preoccupation with conscious, volitional action tends to lead people to slight the actions they can take that have little immediate effect, but in the long run lead the elephant to move in ways more conducive to our emotional well-being. The rest of the book explains how this might be done.
Like many chapters of this book, Chapter 2, "Changing your Mind," is deeply paradoxical, or perhaps dialectical. The basic message is well stated in the quotes at the head of the chapter: "life itself is but what you deem it," (Marcus Aurelius) and "our life is the creation of our mind." (Buddha). Whereas it is very natural to think of our perceptions of our lives as real and external as the coffee cup on my table, in fact our perception and interpretation of our personal psychic and interpersonal lives is, in a deep way, personally constructed by our minds. This fact implies that different minds might very well perceive the same situation in very different ways, and this disjunction in perceptions can lead to conflicts that reduce the happiness of all parties and defy resolution because of the disputing parties' lack of insight into the subjective nature of their perceptions.
The dialectical nature of the principle of the "personal construction of reality" is that this construction is normally not conscious, but rather a deep mechanism controlled by the "elephant" over which the rider has virtually no control. It a deeply unsatisfying fact that we are basically incapable of seeing the world in any way other than the way we do, although we may achieve some liberation by recognizing this fact, and "going with the flow" (e.g., by accepting that family members and friends do not see the world as you do, they are not guilty of misperception, and you will not get them to perceive otherwise with sufficient effort on your part).
Haidt brings in a major finding from social psychology here: "happiness is one of the most highly heritable aspects of personality." (p. 33) This does not mean that our happiness cannot be affected by our actions, but the battle to do so is extremely difficult and likely to be only partially successful. This is perhaps why the book is about understanding happiness, not achieving happiness. Nowhere in the book does Haidt claim to offer you the key that will unlock the door to happiness. Rather, Haidt suggests three methods of actually improving our happiness: meditation, cognitive therapy, and Prozac. "All three are effective," he claims "because they work on the elephant." I concur with Haidt in this regard, and especially recommend psychopharmacology for those who remain unhappy after all the objective reasons for being unhappy have been addressed (e.g., a bad marriage, commuting two hour to work in traffic, or having your hand caught in a car door), as long as the side effects are not themselves debilitating.
Haidt's third principle is reciprocity, which he interprets as acting according to Kant's categorical imperative. He takes issue here mainly with those who believe that human intelligence developed in a Machiavellian manner to give big-brained individuals a personal advantage over others. Rather, he suggests, humans evolved to be predisposed to reciprocal behavior, both rewarding those who are nice and being vengeful towards those who are nasty. I am totally in agreement with Haidt that this is among the top insights needed to understand not just happiness, but human behavior in general.
Many thinkers trained in biology and economics believe that we are reciprocal not by nature, but from fear of retaliation for letting others down. Indeed, Haidt appears to believe that people will renege on their obligations unless social pressure can be brought against them, in the form of gossip (p. 55). "Gossip paired with reciprocity," he states, "allow karma to work here on earth."
Haidt's position here is a deep and unfortunate error. Gossip cannot explain reciprocity because unless gossipers have a moral preference for truth-telling, there is no reason for gossip to be accurate. Gossip is important because humans have a predisposition to reciprocal behavior, but does not explain reciprocal behavior. Strangely, for a book published in 2006, Haidt makes no reference to the results in behavioral game theory exhibiting altruistic cooperation and punishment even when there is no chance for being repaid in the future (I have called this "strong reciprocity," a phenomenon exhibited in the experiments of Ernst Fehr, Simon Gaechter, and others). Moreover, Haidt's treatment here is in contradiction to the main insight of Chapter 8, The Felicity of Virtue, which I discuss below.
The fourth principle is that we are more likely to see fault in others than in ourselves. This is of course a corollary to the principle that we construct our own reality, adding merely that we tend to do so in a way favorable to ourselves. This tendency terribly destructive of personal relations because it councils against compromising and lead to excessive levels of conflict and disputation, in which the other side is the personification of Evil, with which compromise is morally prohibited.
The fifth principle is that happiness does not lie in achieving outward goals, but rather inner psychic peace. According to Haidt's "progress principle," we only get pleasure by moving towards our external goals through having a succession of little successes, but attaining the goal is not a source of pleasure, as we quickly become used to our new state and bored with it. Haidt provides some excellent evidence for this principle, including the fact that lottery winners seem not to become happy with their new-found wealth, but rather within a short time revert to their pre-winning level of happiness. In addition, the average level of happiness in a country tends to stay the same even when the average income in the country triples over a period of time.
I have read all this evidence and plenty more, but I am not convinced. I know from personal experience that I never cease to get pleasure from attainments that I achieved long in the past, such as the ability to read a foreign language, the appreciation for the house that my wife and I built ourselves and live in every day, the level of skill I have achieved in various sports (all quite moderate, but plenty good enough for me), and so on. Moreover, I perceive that most of my friends and neighbors are the same. There is a sense of well-being of having attained a position that need never go away, and indeed, can become heighted continually over time.
I think Haidt here has relied too much on the social psychologists, when the truth was long ago asserted by the young Karl Marx, according to which humans have "slumbering capacities" (Gattungswesen), including physical, psychomotor, cognitive, affective, aesthetic, and spiritual power. Flourishing as a human being consists in developing these slumbering powers. The enemy here is material goods, which seem like the source of happiness, but are merely instruments we use in exercising our slumbering powers. This was the theme of my Ph.D. dissertation many years ago. Indeed, one of my head quotes was from the jazz musician Mose Allison, who said "Things are getting better and better; it's people I'm worried about."
This is a very dissatisfying chapter, to my mind, and completely wrong-headed. It should say that gratifications follow from the capacities we have developed to act in the world, and that material goods are valuable almost exclusively when they contribute to our exercise of personal powers. The lottery winner does not become happy because he has not developed any new personal capacities to which his new-found wealth might contribute. People who have developed their capacities do not "get used to" and hence devalue their material possessions.
The sixth chapter is an absolutely brilliant interweaving of ancient philosophy and modern social psychology on the importance of love in our lives. The seventh is a sensitive but rather inconclusive chapter arguing that we should see adversity as a challenge rather than an unmitigated evil. I am not convinced. The major adversities in my life have been unmitigated evils from which I gained nothing but grief. I suspect I am not alone.
The eighth chapter (and eighth principle), the Felicity of Virtue, is very important and well done. I would have placed it before the actual Chapter 4 because of its importance. Social scientists tend to think of sacrificing on behalf of others and on behalf of society as a personal cost that people undertake either because they are irrational or because they have moral values that lead them to devalue their own happiness in favor of other-regarding goals. By contrast, the ancient philosophers and theologians have generally taken it for granted that "virtue is its own reward;" that is, altruistic acts and virtuous behavior in general benefit not only those helped thereby, but the virtuous subject himself. According to this view, it is difficult to be virtuous because we are tempted by all sorts of short-term pleasures to forego such natural virtues as loyalty, honesty, courage, humility, and considerateness.
The felicity of virtue is particularly important because it gives us a much deeper understanding of the basic prosociality of human nature than the standard theories of philosophical ethics---the "duty" theories such as Kant's and the "utilitarian" theories such as Bentham's and Mill's. These theories try to determine what sorts of actions are ethically desirable, but give no reason why individuals should be moral at all. Virtue theories, by contrast, tend to argue that we know in hearts what is right and what is wrong, and we are happiest when we are capable of having our "elephant" carry out the right and the good as opposed to the wrong and the evil.
The ninth chapter (and principle) is a very nice exposition of the idea that we do not need to be believers in God to lead a meaningful and ethically fulfilled life. This seems more obvious to me than many other points in the book, but it may be useful for young non-believers who worry if the loss of belief implies the loss of meaning. The final chapter is a synthesis of the preceding that Haidt feels has been most useful in guiding his personal life.
The existential philosophy of life was once well expressed by Andre Gide: "Jette mon livre; dis-toi bien que ce n'est là qu'une des mille postures possibles en face de la vie. Cherche la tienne. Ce qu'un autre aurait aussi bien fait que toi, ne le fais pas. Ce qu'un autre aurait aussi bien dit que toi, ne le dis pas, -- aussi bien écrit que toi, ne l'écris pas. Ne t'attache en toi qu'à ce que tu sens qui n'est nulle part ailleurs qu'en toi-même, et crée de toi, impatiemment ou patiemment, ah! le plus irremplaçable des êtres." Thank God we have moved from the existential nonsense of my youth to the heartening wisdom displayed in this book. (The French means "Throw away my book. Understand that it is only one of a thousand ways to deal with life. Find your own. Whatever another could do as well as you, do not do. Whatever another could have said as well as you, do not say--have written as well as you, do not write. Only care about that within you that is nowhere other than within you, and create in you, patiently or impatiently, ah! the most irreplaceable of beings.")