The Happiness Hypothesis - Critical summary review - Jonathan Haidt

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The Happiness Hypothesis - critical summary review

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Spirituality & Mindfulness and Self Help & Motivation

This microbook is a summary/original review based on the book: The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom

Available for: Read online, read in our mobile apps for iPhone/Android and send in PDF/EPUB/MOBI to Amazon Kindle.

ISBN: 9780465028016

Publisher: Basic Books (AZ)

Critical summary review

What is it that makes you happy? On the face of it, this should be a fairly simple question, the answer to which you must know on some level, even if unable to translate it into intelligible and logically coherent sentences. 

After all, as ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus realized two and a half millennia ago, your body is naturally inclined to react in a certain way to certain things, and, whether you like it or not, some things make it jump with joy and elation, while others cause it great pain and displeasure.

However, the only thing this line of thinking tells us is that happiness might be subjective. What it doesn’t tell us is something far more important: why, even though we are ostensibly aware of the things that make us happy, aren't we happy most of the time?

A masterful exploration of nine other great ideas – among the rest, reciprocity, love, and virtue – Jonathan Haidt’s “The Happiness Hypothesis” is much more than one of the best and most up-to-date studies of happiness. However, we opted to focus on that idea and follow its thread beyond the chapter reserved for it – just so that we don’t accidentally sacrifice Haidt’s argumentative depth for a mere list of his ideas.

But we strongly encourage you to buy the book: it covers so much ground that no summary would do justice. Nevertheless, we are willing to give our best shot.

Haidt’s central metaphor of the self: the elephant and the rider

Since we can only understand new and complex things based on some other, simpler things we already know, human thinking depends on metaphor. Case in point, despite being difficult to think about something as multifaceted and as intricate as life in general, it is far easier to understand what living entails once you hear the metaphor “life is a journey.” Unsurprisingly, the same applies to concepts such as the “mind” or the “self,” two abstract entities that can become much more tangible if translated into figurative language.

Now, even though not as consciously as modern researchers, ancient philosophers seem to have been pretty much aware of this thinking conundrum, so they tended to express most of their deepest ideas in memorable metaphors.

For example, in his dialogue “Phaedrus,” Plato compares the rational part of the mind to a charioteer and the self to a chariot driven by two horses, one of which is “a lover of honor with modesty and self-control,” and the other a “companion of wild boasts and indecency.”

The meaning of the metaphor is fairly evident: it is the task of the rational mind (the charioteer) to gain perfect control of these two horses, lest he doesn’t want to risk being pulled in the wrong direction by his appetites and lust (the second horse).

A pretty similar metaphor is in the 326th verse of the Dhammapada – a collection of sayings of the Buddha – and it is this same imagery that lies beneath one of Benjamin Franklin’s well-known commonsensical aphorisms: “If Passion drives, let Reason hold the Reins.”

According to Haidt, these older metaphors about controlling animals work much better than modern theories about rational choice and information processing, none of which are as capable of adequately explaining how our mind works and why there is such a thing as weakness of the will. 

For this reason, before rummaging through numerous old essays and as numerous new studies to get to the bottom of the happiness formula, Haidt shares a metaphor of his own with his readers, the one that regularly helps him organize thoughts on this and many related subjects – that of a rider on the back of an elephant. 

As you would expect, the rider in Haidt’s metaphor is holding the reins in their hands, and, by pulling one way or the other, can tell the elephant to turn, to stop, or to go. 

However, the rider can only direct things when the elephant doesn’t have desires of their own. Because when the elephant really wants to do something, the rider is no match for it.

The problem of the divided self, or: taming the elephant

Even though as simple as Plato’s, Haidt’s metaphor illustrates almost everything you need to know about yourself and it serves as a pretty neat outline of our modern understanding of human nature.

The main point of the metaphor is this: there are at least two different entities inside you – the rider and the elephant – even if you think of yourself as a unified being, and they often find themselves working at cross purposes.

If you want to think of the elephant and the rider in more scientific terms, you can easily find their correlative in either one of the four divisions of the self, known to men for quite some time:

  • Mind vs. body.
  • Left brain vs. right brain.
  • New brain (neocortex) vs. old brain (the limbic system).
  • Controlled (conscious) vs. automatic (unconscious) behavior.

We suppose you don’t need our help to realize that in all of the dichotomies above, the items on the left side represent the rider of Haidt's metaphor, while the elephant lurks beneath the items on the right side.

In other words, the rider is rational (mind), capable of verbalizing orders (left hemisphere), logical in approach (neocortex), and controlled in behavior. The elephant, on the other hand, is more primal (body), thinks mainly through images and patterns (right brain), and acts on instincts (the old brain), i.e., as if preprogrammed (automatic). And this is not as simplified as it may look at first glance. In fact, it is quite spot-on. 

For instance, people whose neocortex is damaged, are, quite literally, incapable of controlling their own instincts, so if they become aroused, they start sexually harassing others, and, if they experience hunger, they can’t stop themselves from eating regardless of their conscious efforts.

And therein lies the problem: the power of the elephant is such that even people whose neocortices work just fine sometimes act in much the same manner. The rider, simply put, can only give the orders, but no matter how many times repeats them, if the elephant sets its mind on doing something, it will probably do it.

Because of this, all of those books that advocate transformation through sheer force of will or break down argument after argument to make other people stop smoking are entirely missing the point. 

The truth is that there are only a few effective ways when it comes to changing a person’s mind, and those work because they deal with the elephant, and not with the rider. 

According to Haidt, the best three among these are meditation, cognitive therapy, and Prozac.

The pitfalls of negativity bias

Now, how all of this relates to your happiness? Fair question. Unfortunately, it is also the answer to which you are not going to like particularly well. Well, at least not at first.

You see, due to our very nature and the way we’ve evolved, we are almost incapable of achieving permanent happiness. And this is because, in an evolutionary sense, being happy is not particularly important; being safe, on the other hand, is.

Just think about it: although it would probably make you feel bad, missing a cue for food has a low cost, because the odds are that this mistake won’t lead to starvation. However, the cost of missing the sign of a nearby predator (say, a saber-toothed tiger) can be catastrophic and can mean the end of the line for your genes.

And this, of course, is not only true about humans but all species. It is so common in nature that it is nothing short of a design principle: bad is stronger than good. Or, to quote Haidt, “responses to threats and unpleasantness are faster, stronger, and harder to inhibit than responses to opportunities and pleasures.”

To translate this back into our central metaphor: if it is pretty difficult for the rider to control the elephant when the animal notices an attractive female or catches a glimpse of some tasty tree bark, the rider can do absolutely nothing to influence the animal’s behavior when a mouse suddenly appears.

This is the reason why one bad thing is enough to irretrievably mar a perfectly good day for you. This is also the reason why you remember someone’s single insult much more indelibly than that same person’s compliments and good deeds. Finally – and far worse than the above two – this is one of the reasons why happiness is, at best, a temporary feeling. 

After all, if evolution incentivizes us to be on the lookout for bad things, wouldn't we also be biologically programmed to feel uncomfortable even when surrounded by good things?

The happiness set point and the happiness treadmill 

Amazingly, feeling content for longer periods is practically impossible, because we are just not built in that manner. Evolution, after all, isn’t about feeling relaxed and comfortable with your circumstances, but about being able to adapt to constant changes. And, turns out that humans are especially good at this – for better or for worse. This is to say that regardless of what kind of change people go through, in time, they will stop experiencing it as a desirable or disagreeable state.

A famous 1978 study conclusively proved this after comparing the happiness levels of a few lucky lottery winners with that of several unfortunate individuals left paralyzed by terrible accidents. Surprisingly, it didn’t take long for both groups to revert to the relatively stable levels of happiness they operated on before these major life-altering events. To make that even clearer: after a year of winning the lottery and of losing full-movement of the body, respectively, a millionaire was no happier than a quadriplegic.

“This is the adaptation principle at work,” writes Haidt. “People’s judgments about their present state are based on whether it is better or worse than the state to which they have become accustomed.”

In other words, rather than depending on your immediate external circumstances, your happiness depends mostly on the relation between them and those of your recent past. The moment things turn for the better, your very biology recalibrates to these new expectations, so everything that doesn’t meet them can’t make you happy anymore. And that is why quadriplegics can experience as much happiness as millionaires: once their expectations reach zero, even minor things can make them as happy as only as, say, a new Ferrari can make happy a recent millionaire.

There is also another even more important finding related to this study.

If we regularly “revert” to a certain state of contentment regardless of some temporary breaks caused by external circumstances, doesn’t this mean that our happiness is genetically predetermined? Could it be that we are born with a “happiness set point” that works not unlike a thermostat? And could it be that the ancients were right in saying that happiness comes from inside? 

The pursuit of happiness and the happiness formula

Unfortunately, yes: happiness is mostly fixed inside your genes, and between 50% to 80% of it is genetically predetermined. Fortunately, though – as the percentages themselves suggest – it is not precisely a set point, but “a potential range or probability distribution.” And whether you operate on its high or low range is determined by several external factors.

Some of these externals are your conditions, which are either unchanging (such as your race and age) or changeable (wealth or marital status). The others are your voluntary activities, i.e., all those things you choose to do, such as meditation, exercise, learning a new skill, or taking a vacation. The relationship between your happiness and all of its determining factors can be neatly illustrated in a simple formula:

H (happiness) = S (set point) + C (conditions) + V (voluntary activities)

As is evident (since you have very little control over C and none over S), your happiness depends solely on your voluntary activities. So, if you want to be happy, here are some of Haidt’s (and science’s) suggestions:

  • Remove as many sources of noise as you can.
  • Try meditating for 15 minutes a day.
  • Take better care of your body.
  • Get a dog.
  • Find a job that doesn’t make you want to kill yourself.
  • Work on your marriage and your most valued relationships.
  • Be a bee: become part of a larger hive (religious, political - of something that appeals to you).

Final Notes

Described as “the most intellectually substantial book to arise from the ‘positive psychology’ movement” –  “The Happiness Hypothesis” has it all: Plato, Jesus, Buddha, enlightening comparisons between their ideas and modern psychological findings, and yes – even a scientific formula for happiness!

Moreover, the central metaphor within which Haidt frames his arguments – that of the rider and the elephant – has been reused by so many authors during the last decade that it has become part of the modern collective unconscious. And is there better proof of the reputation and the importance of a single book than that?

12min Tip

Ask yourself, on your deathbed, will you wish you had spent more time at the office, or with your friends and family? Now, act accordingly.

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Who wrote the book?

Jonathan Haidt is a social psychologist whose research examines the intuitive foundations of morality and a professor of ethical leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business. Haidt is t... (Read more)

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