The Happiness Hypothesis

Jonathon Haidt (2006)

The “foundational idea” of The Happiness Hypothesis is that the mind is divided into parts that sometimes conflict”, which conflicts we must learn to control. The second key idea is Shakespeare’s “There is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so,” or Milton’s, “The mind can make heaven in hell or hell in heaven,” or Buddha’s, “Our life is our mind,” or, best of all, Marcus Aurelius’, “Our life is what our thoughts make it.” Haidt’s third key message is “Reciprocity”, by which he means The Golden Rule. Haidt’s fundamental premise is that happiness is mental; we can control our level of it. This concept is well worth our contemplation, and Haidt develops it well.

Haidt writes at length about meditation, “cognitive therapy” (a lighter form of meditation) and even Prozac and related drugs. Meditation, of course, is a mild form of auto-conditioning (self-hypnosis). Haidt takes an almost surgical approach to his analysis of the brain, and he materially over-medicates the topic, but he still gives insights that we would likely never gain from any other source: He reasons through the process by which humans experience “highs” -- from yoga, meditation, religion, drugs or simply witnessing or participating in loving acts. He analyses the thought processes of each that lead to these highs, and he doesn’t judge; indeed, he seems devoid of judgment; he simply observes and forces the reader to form his/her own opinion.

He offers “ten” superb keys to happiness and devotes one Chapter to each: In Ch. I, he states that mankind is “divided” into a war of his basic instincts, good and evil. While he believes that the good predominates, we need to be aware of this conflict and be alert to extinguish evil or negative thoughts. In Ch. II, we learn, “Life itself is but what you deem it,” (Marcus Aurelius) and “Our life is the creation of our minds” (Buddha). In Ch. III, he introduces “Reciprocity”, Confucius term for love and Confucius’ version of The Golden Rule, “What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others”. In Ch. IV, he states that we must learn to see our own faults, not just those of others: “It is easy to see the faults of others, but difficult to see one’s own.” (Buddha). In Chr. V, he turns to the Stoics and their Serenity Prayer. Happiness is perspective, an acceptance of what happens, be it good or bad. He quotes Stephen Hawking, who explained his positive attitude after being consigned to a wheel chair for life at age 21, saying “Everything good became a bonus.” In Ch. VI, his point is Seneca’s, “To live for yourself, you must live for others.” In Ch. VII, he advises us to turn adversity into an advantage, recalling the Chinese sign for crisis, which also embodies the sign for opportunity. In Ch. VIII, “The Felicity of Virtue”, he begins with Buddha, “Set your heart on doing good and do it over and over again, and you will be filled with joy.” He discusses “the death of character” which can stem from inclusiveness (economic, social, ethnic, religious, etc.), wherein “insiders” exclude “outsiders”, fearing them and shunning them. Plato, he notes, relied on rationality to control negative instincts, as did the Enlightenment thinkers, who did not depend on divine revelation for their virtue. Kant, like Plato, believed that humans have a dual nature of bestial and human, violent and loving, irrational and rational. Recalling Harvey’s Elwood P. Dowd’s wisdom: “In life, a person must be either very, very smart OR very, very pleasant, and I prefer to be pleasant.” In Ch. IX, “Divinity With or Without God”, he says be “divine” (defining it as moral), and asserts that it can be done “with or without God”. He sites Emerson (a minister and a son of one), who founded the Transcendentalists, who were devoted to the principle that God is within everyman and in nature, and Kant, who merged ethics into logic, and Haidt concludes, “With the wrong metaphor, we are deluded. With no metaphor, we are blind.” This sentiment recalls a sentiment from the film, Mr. Holland’s Opus, in which Richard Dreyfus laments that, if the schools cancel all programs that teach the arts in deference to reading and writing, eventually “The students will have nothing to write about.” Ch. X, “Happiness Comes From Between”, i.e. “Who sees all being in his own Self, and his own Self in all beings, loses all fear [and gains peace]…” citing the Hindu scriptures, Upanishads. Thus, he concludes, if life is meaningless, why not embrace it rather than throw it all away.

While he admires Buddha, Lao Tzu, Confucius, Epictetus, the Greek Stoics, et al, Haidt disagrees with the view that life should be a cerebral reflection and emotional indifference, i.e., a life devoid of passion. If nothing gives us joy, Haidt reasons, then nothing gives us pain, and vice versa. He notes that passion for things, people, nature, etc., bring pain but also much joy. Buddha et al would have us miss both. Buddha’s way seems to be not to live at all, to miss it all. Haidt makes an excellent point, and it may be true as to Buddha, but it seems overreaching to lump Lao Tzu, the Stoics, etc., into that generalization. Epictetus and the Stoics seem to suggest a much more healthy balanced approach; indeed, The Serenity Prayer, stems from them: “Give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change those that I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” The Stoics believed that happiness rests in virtue and an ability to take pleasure and pain in stride, and most of us would do well to swallow a large dose of Stoicism every morning with our coffee. Haidt agrees with Kant and the ancient Greeks that ethics is properly a branch of logic and, therefore, that it is not necessary to believe in the supernatural or The Hereafter to embrace a life of ethical conduct. Judaic, Islamic and Christian faiths rely on fear to keep their flocks moral, the fear of God’s wrath, Hell, etc. Haidt helps us see that an ethical conduct does not need to be motivated by fear.

The most enjoyable aspect of HH is the many wonderful quotations. Consider a few, and, where no source is given, it is Haidt: “Don’t be exploited by those who use reciprocity (your good deeds) against you…Seeing the fault in yourself reduces anger…Avoid useless worry… Nothing is miserable unless you think it so, and nothing brings happiness unless you are content with it.” (Anicus Boethius, c. 500A.D.) “There is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so… Things won are done//Joy’s soul lies in doing” (Shakespeare) “Our life is the creation of our mind.” (Buddha) “Life is what you deem it.” (Marcus Aurelius) “Work is love made visible.” (Kahil Gibran, poet)

On balance, what can we conclude about this book? It is philosophical, scientific, analytical, learned, circuitous, edifying, unemotional, rational, convincing, written in a somewhat tediously mechanical style, but, above all, helpful. For me, its biggest blessing was that it redirected me into self-hypnosis, which has often mitigated my physical pains and rescued me from the depths of despair. Haidt never specifically mentions self-hypnosis, and that’s unfortunate, because, for all of the virtues of meditation, yoga, cognitive therapy (and Prozac), self-hypnosis beats them all; it makes a direct and lasting assault on the subconscious mind, which governs our conscious thoughts and, ultimately, our actions. Haidt is Jewish, although he admits that he is an atheist, but not one word of his book grinds any form of axe for any cause or belief system. He may have the most obviously open mind whom I have read or encountered. It is refreshing to read the results of the study and the logic of such an open and fair-minded thinker. I am indebted to the accomplished, Swiss entrepreneur, Roman Brunner, for this book.