The Happiness Hypothesis – Put Wisdom to the Test
In the quest for happiness and meaning, bits of wisdom fly at us constantly – from friends, strangers, even fortune cookies. But little sticks. Proust said, “We do not receive wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves.” In The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt beautifully combines philosophy and science into a page-turning, exhilarating exploration of ancient and modern ideas about happiness and the human behaviors that affect it. If Proust is right, and we need to discover wisdom, Haidt provides a great map.
We begin with metaphor – a novice rider seated on an experienced elephant – representing thinking vs. automatic process. What can make the relationship contentious is that while the elephant (our limbic system) has been around for a million years, the rider (our frontal cortex) has been around for only 40,000 years. Our body, not entirely trusting the new part, has cleverly installed an override mechanism for the elephant to take control in times of trouble.
When there is harmony, there is happiness, while disagreement leads to unhappiness. Conflict occurs because the elephant, focused on survival (gene dissemination), sees danger everywhere, even when it doesn’t exist, constantly vetoing our commands to be open and receptive. From an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense. For a rabbit, missing a meal is not the end of the world; another carrot will come along. But miss the owl overhead just once and its game over. For the rabbit (and for humans), mere survival equates with success.
But doesn’t success lead to happiness? For most definitions of success, no. Haidt describes a “hedonic treadmill,” where expectations rise at the same pace as success (wealth/prestige). Even when we do reach our goals, we receive no lasting happiness; all we’ve done is “raise the bar for future success.” Our judgement about now is based on whether it is better or worse than what we’ve become accustomed to. “Adaptation is just a property of neurons: Nerve cells respond vigorously to new stimuli, but gradually they habituate.” Haidt drives this point home by showing that lottery winners and quadriplegics return to their base levels of happiness within weeks of striking it rich or losing control of their body.
It’s ironic how hard it is to permanently increase your happiness. The Greek perspective was fatalistic: “Call no man happy until he is dead.” In the Declaration of Independence, we have “the pursuit of Happiness,” implying a strenuous, potentially unsuccessful effort. Professor Darrin McMahon points out, “In virtually every Indo-European language, the modern word for happiness is cognate with luck, fortune or fate.” Happ was the Middle English word for “chance, fortune, what happens in the world,” McMahon writes, “giving us such words as ‘happenstance,’ ‘haphazard,’ ‘hapless,’ and ‘perhaps.’ ” This view of happiness is essentially tragic: It sees life as consisting of the things that happen to you; if more good things than bad happen, you are happy.
But the heart of this book is optimism and discovery. Not only does Haidt give insight into how to become (and stay) happier, but the read itself is full of insight and learning. The ground covered is eclectic: Western moral philosophy; ideas of virtue in the sacred writings from India, China, and the Mediterranean cultures; the bonds between parents and children; the latest scientific research in biology, psychology, and sociology. Haidt easily explains challenging topics in everyday language, where discussions of the brain rub shoulders with the sayings of the Buddha, and the evolutionary reasons for gossip share the page with discussions of karma.
The Happiness Hypothesis is a wonderful and nuanced book that provides deep insight into the some of the most important questions in life: Why are we here? What kind of life should we lead? What paths lead to happiness? From the ancient philosophers to cutting edge scientists, Haidt weaves a tapestry of the best and the brightest, culminating in a stunning, final chapter on living a meaningful life. A truly inspiring book.