The Happiness Hypothesis, part 1: happiness

I have just finished the best book I’ve read so far this year: “The Happiness Hypothesis: Putting Ancient Wisdom and Philosophy to the Test of Modern Science”, by Jonathan Haidt. I enjoyed his TED talk on the moral roots of liberals and conservatives, and his book is equally thought-provoking.

He begins with the idea that “there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so” (quoting Shakespeare’s Hamlet): our happiness or otherwise is dependent on how we think about events and circumstances, much of which is automatic and unconscious. Apparently our genes play a large role in this, as our thinking style may be pessimistic or more happy-go-lucky depending how we fare in the “cortical lottery” of birth. Like a rider on an elephant, our conscious mind has limited control over it; brute force doesn’t tend to work, but three proven strategies exist for controlling that elephant and developing a more positive mindset: meditation, cognitive therapy, and prozac.

Haidt then goes on to explain that this idea that happiness is all down to our reactions (whether these can be radically re-programmed or not) is an overly simplistic one. Circumstances do matter also. This was a relief to me because after watching this TED talk by Dan Gilbert, I was left with the impression that changes in circumstances (such as winning the lottery or becoming paraplegic) make no long-term impact on our happiness level, and I didn’t think that could be right. Those results are certainly interesting, but perhaps they speak more of the overly simplistic black-and-white, “good”/”bad” assumptions we initially make about different circumstances before we understand in more depth the pros and cons, the subtler shades of grey involved in nearly everything. Life is too multi-dimensional to ever be completely ruined or to have every problem completely solved – but it doesn’t mean it’s all the same. Besides, it strikes me as pretty dangerous to believe that circumstances need play no role in one’s quality of life, because then where is the incentive to want anything, for oneself or others? Haidt describes Buddhism, with its emphasis on lessening attachments and longings, as an overreaction to the issue of suffering.

Many types of long-term circumstances are things we simply get used to and that don’t impact our happiness much. We are driven, by an evolutionary need for status and prestige, to acquire wealth and conspicuous possessions, but these don’t actually make us happy – and the stress we incur in the process does impact on us, negatively. Buying a bigger house doesn’t make us significantly happier in the long run as we just get used to the space, but the reduction in stress of a shorter commute to work does benefit us, so it’s better to live closer to work even if it means a smaller house 🙂

Haidt sums up the two life conditions that most impact our happiness with the words “love and work”. We are social creatures, no man is an island and our relationships with others are very important, contrary to popular notions of emotional independence and self-sufficiency. Our happiness depends, partly, on others and that is just how it is. We also have a need for what he calls “effectance” – being effective at something of value and significance – which for many people is achieved through their work. Over time, with effectance, a growing proficiency and interest leads to a state of “vital engagement” with whatever it is you are working on. This is when you become a total geek about it – and geeks are happy people!

In short, happiness comes neither totally from within nor totally from without, but from between: in the way our minds engage with our circumstances and the people in our lives.

This entry was posted in meditation, science, self-improvement, social justice, suffering. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Happiness Hypothesis, part 1: happiness

  1. Julian says:

    Hi Sarah,

    Great post. I have been captivated by Haidt’s rider, elephant, path analogy recently. It makes a lot of sense to me. It is powerful because it does not deny the multifaceted nature of ‘the good life’, but also gives a useful steer on the relative emphasis it is useful to place on cultivating the different dimensions.

  2. Pingback: Dealing with negative thoughts: the ACT perspective | Meaning and Truth

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