The Happiness Hypothesis: The Divided Self, Changing Your Mind, Reciprocity with a Vengeance, The Faults of Others

I’ve read the first four chapters of Jonathan Haidt‘s The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom and so far I’m not sure whether I like it better or the same as Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment by Martin E. P. Seligman.

First, in Chapter One, Haidt discusses the weaknesses of the theories of rational choice and information processing in psychology. But last month I enjoyed reading The Logic of Life: The Rational Economics of an Irrational World by Tim Harford and was convinced by Harford‘s rational economics explanations of seemingly irrational choices (gambling, the teenage oral sex craze, crime) that are in fact logical and rational. Harford also shows that individual rational behavior doesn’t always lead to socially desired outcomes.

Click here to read an excerpt from The Logic of Life from the Random House website, or click here to read a review by the NYTimes Book Review or here to read a review by the Economist.

So the first few pages of chapter one of The Happiness Hypothesis made me skeptical. But the rest of chapter one, The Divided Self, is about how the mind is divided into parts – in four ways – that sometimes conflict:

  • Mind vs. Body – The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) controls many bodily functions. The ANS is part of the peripheral nervous system and is a network of nerves that controls the organs and glands of our bodies. The ANS is independent of voluntary or intentional control. In addition, the Enteric Nervous System or “gut brain” is a network of more than 100 million neurons that processes all the food we eat and makes decisions on its own and continues to function even if the vagus nerve (which connects the “gut brain” to the brain) is severed.
  • Left vs. Right – The human brain has two separate hemispheres joined by the corpus callosum, the largest single bundle of nerves in the entire body. The corpus collosum allows the brain’s two halves to communicate and coordinate their activity. The left hemisphere receives nerve transmissions from the right half of your body and sends out commands to control the right half of your body; and the right hemisphere deals with the left half of your body. The left hemisphere is specialized for language processing, analytical skills, and detail-oriented activities. The right hemisphere is better at processing patterns in space particularly the face.
  • New vs. Old – the limbic system emerged in the first mammals and includes the hippocampus (specialized to coordinate basic drives and motivations) the amygdala (specialized for emotional learning and responding)and other parts of the brain that a variety of functions including emotion. The frontal cortex is newer (in terms of evolution) and help us to make new associations and to engage in thinking, planning, and decision making. Those who have suffered damage to their frontal cortex are often hypersexual and aggressive. However those who have suffered damage to their limbic system become unable to make simple decisions or to set goals — despite performing normally on tests of intelligence and knowledge of social rules and moral principles — since their “emotional brain” can not guide them to make instant and automatic decisions and they must analyze the pros and cons of every decision.
  • Controlled vs. Automatic – Controlled processing is limited since we can only think consciously about one thing at a time but automatic processes run in parallel and can handle many tasks at once. Controlled processing requires language and words to analyze and plan so is much newer (in terms of evolution) than automatic processes.

The analogy Haidt prefers to use is that our divided mind is like a rider on the back of an elephant, based on this quote from Buddha:

In days gone by this mind of mine used to stray wherever the selfish desire or lust or pleasure would lead it. Today this mind does not stray and is under the harmony of control, even as a wild elephant is controlled by the trainer.

Haidt also tells us that when you tell yourself to “not” do something (for example, “don’t make a fool of yourself”) this triggers automatic processes that monitor your “not” doing something (for example, finding signs of foolishness). I found this very interesting since it feels true; I have often felt that when I’m more worried or afraid that I’ll embarrass myself that I’m more likely to do something embarrassing and I find that things tend to work out better when you’re confident and happy.

Chapter Two, Changing Your Mind, starts with these two quotes:

The whole universe is change and life itself it but what you deem it. – Marcus Aurelius

What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow; our life is the creation of our mind. – Buddha

Yes the quote from Buddha was one Haidt already used in the Introduction. But the crazy part of this chapter is the theory that we each have a like-o-meter that’s always running and subconsciously decides what we like and dislike. We’ve all heard about the 1980s research on affective priming that showed that Americans of all ages, classes, and political affiliations react with a flash of negativity to subliminally flashed photos of black faces (as opposed to white faces).

But what I hadn’t heard about what Brett Pelham’s research that one’s like-o-meter is triggered by one’s own name!

  • People named Dennis or Denise are slightly more likely than people with other names to become dentists.
  • Lawrence and Laurie are more likely to become lawyers.
  • Louis and Louise are more likely to move to Louisiana or St. Louis.
  • George and Georgina are more likely to move to Georgia.
  • And People are slightly more likely to marry people whose names sound like their own, even if the similarity is just sharing a first initial.

So Haidt concludes that life is what we decide it is, but we decide instinctively and unconsciously. But there’s hope! And Haidt recommends three techniques for changing your mind:

  • Meditation – A conscious attempt to focus attention in a nonanalytical way. This is more difficult than it sounds. But give it a shot. Sit still and focus your awareness only on your breathing, or on a word or phrase, or on an image, and let no other words, ideas, or images arise in consciousness. Meditation helps to change automatic processes and reduce attachments. It can reduce the frequency of fearful, negative, and grasping thoughts.
  • Cognitive Therapy – This is one of the most effective treatments for depression and anxiety. Cognitive therapy works by teaching the client to be aware of their thoughts, naming the distortions, and finding alternative and accurate ways of thinking, thereby changing their automatic thoughts.
  • Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) – SSRIs include Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft, Celexa, and Lexapro. SSRIs can repair the minor neural damage to the hippocampus that occurs when people have high levels of stress hormones and research has shown them to be as effective as cognitive therapy. Hmm…

Chapter Three, Reciprocity with a Vengeance, starts with these two quotes:

Zigong asked: “Is there any single word that could guide one’s entire life?” The master said: “Should it not be reciprocity? What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others. – Analects of Confucius

What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow; our life is the creation of our mind. – Rabbi Hillel, 1st Century BCE

I like how the one from Confucius has the same message as the often quoted “Do onto others as you would have them do onto you” from the Bible. It goes to show that the world’s religions have more in common than is obvious.

Haidt says that tit-for-tat — be nice on the first round of interaction, but after that do to your partner whatever your partner did to you on the previous round — is built into human nature.

This chapter also teaches us that 100 to 150 is the “natural” group size within which people can know just about everyone else by name and face and know how each person is related to everyone else and that success in our ultra-social species is largely dependent on how good you are at being social (“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.'”).

Gossip allows us to keep track of people’s reputations without having to witness them personally, which explains why we humans today live in groups larger than the “natural” size. In fact, Haidt would say that my writing this blog illustrates this idea — that we all have an urge to tell friends and family about anything we learn that amazes or fascinates us. Gossip is overwhelmingly critical and primarily about the moral and social violations of others because it allows people to share their sense of what is right and what is wrong. Haidt believes that gossip is underappreciated and without it people would get away with selfish, rude and antisocial acts.

And finally Chapter Four, The Faults of Others, starts with these quotes:

Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? . . . You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. – Matthew 7:3-5

It is easy to see the faults of others, but difficult to see one’s own faults. One shows the faults of others like chaff winnowed in the wind, but one conceals one’s own faults as a cunning gambler conceals his dice. – Buddha

So Haidt says that we are all hypocrites and that we enjoy condemning other’s hypocrisy (gossiping) and thus compound our own. I suppose a recent example of this would be the scandal of Eliot Spitzer after he had built his career on morals and values and how outraged we all were by it.

And interestingly when Americans and Europeans are asked to rate themselves on virtues, skills, or other desirable traits (intelligence, driving ability, sexual skills, and ethics), a large majority say they are above average; but only a small majority in East Asian countries rate themselves as above average.

Similarly, Haidt discusses Roy Baumeister’s theory of “the myth of pure evil” which states:

  • Evildoers are pure in their evil motives – they have no motives for their actions beyond sadism and greed
  • Victims are pure in their victimhood – they did nothing to bring about their victimization
  • Evil comes from the outside and is associated with a group or force that attacks our group
  • Anyone who questions the application of the myth is in league with evil

Hmm…this sounds a lot like the tactics used by our current President.

And Baumeister also concludes that violence and cruelty have four main causes:

  • greed/ambition – violence for direct personal gain
  • sadism – pleasure in hurting people
  • high self-esteem – if it is unrealistic or narcissistic and easily threatened by reality
  • moral idealism – the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end

Six more chapters to go!


One response to “The Happiness Hypothesis: The Divided Self, Changing Your Mind, Reciprocity with a Vengeance, The Faults of Others

  1. Pingback: Haidt’s Happiness Hypothesis: Chapters 5 - 11 « Adventures in Reading

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