I read the first four chapters of Jonathan Haidt‘s The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom yesterday and I’ve just finished the book (chapters 5 – 11).
I suppose I did enjoy this book, but I liked Martin Seligman‘s Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment better because Seligman seemed to use more science and research to back up his theories whereas Haidt, who studied philosophy in college, also used science and research but focused more on philosophy and religion. I guess that should have been obvious from the subtitle huh (Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom)?
I do like quotes though — Haidt says in chapter ten “Proverbs, sayings, and words of wisdom dignify events, so we often use them to mark important transitions in life” — and I think Haidt has done a fantastic job picking out the quotes that begin each chapter.
The quotes that start Chapter Five, The Pursuit of Happiness, are:
Good men, at all times, surrender in truth all attachments. The holy spend not idle words on tings of desire. When pleasure or pain comes to them, the wise feel above pleasure and pain. – Buddha
Do not seek to have events happen as you want them to, but instead want them to happen as they happen, and your life will go well. – Epictetus
I made great works; I built houses and planted vineyards for myself; I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees . . . I also had great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem. I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and of the provinces; I got singers, both men and women, and delights of the flesh, and many concubines. So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem; also my wisdom remained with me. Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after the wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun. – Ecclesiastes 2:11
Haidt uses these quotes to illustrate that Buddhism and Stoicism (of which Epictetus is a philosopher) teach that happiness can only be found within, by breaking attachments to external things and people because to make the world conform to your wishes is always striving after wind.
He then teaches readers the “adaptation principle,” that people’s judgments about their present state are based on whether it is better or worse than the state to which they accustomed.
We are all stuck on what has been called the “hedonistic treadmill.” On an exercise treadmill you can increase the speed all you want, and accumulate all the riches, fruit trees, and concubines you want, but you can’t get ahead. Because you can’t change your “natural and usual state of tranquility,” the riches you accumulate will just raise your expectations and leave you no better off than you were before. Yet, not realizing he futility of our efforts, we continue to strive, all the while doing things that help us win at the game of lie. Always wanting more than we have, we run and run and run, like hamsters on a wheel.
Well doesn’t that sound sad! Thankfully, I was taught this concept at a young age and I’d like to think that I’ve at least turned down the speed of my hedonistic treadmill. After all, I drive a used car, replace my cell phone just once every 5 years (and only after it breaks), replace my computer only after it more or less stops working, and as the years go by I purchase fewer and fewer items of clothing. My main vice, however, is the purchase of books. I own about 400 books and it brings me so much pleasure that I continue to buy more and more books.
Haidt then goes on to illustrate using psychology research the errors in the beliefs that non-attachment is required for true happiness and changing external factors does not increase happiness. Research shows that we all have a set range of happiness but that external conditions influence where we are on that set range:
- Noise – Variable or intermittent noise interferes with concentration and increases stress.
- Commuting – Even after years of commuting, those whose commutes are traffic-filled still arrive at work with higher levels of stress hormones.
- Lack of control – One of the reasons noise and traffic affect happiness is that you can’t control them. Changing an institution’s environment to increase the sense of control among its residents, workers, students, patients, or other users is one of the most effective possible ways to increase their sense of happiness.
- Shame – Surprisingly, people who undergo plastic surgery report (on average) high levels of satisfaction with the process, and they even report increases in the quality of their lives and decreases in psychiatric symptoms (such as depression and anxiety) in the years after the operation. The biggest gains were for breast reductions and breast augmentations. Haidt explains this increase in well being as resulting from being freed from the shame and self-consciousness of being “different.”
- Relationships – Good relationships make people happy, and happy people enjoy more and better relationships than unhappy people. But having conflict in relationships reduces that happiness because we never adapt to interpersonal conflict and even on days when you don’t see the people you have conflict with, you may think about it.
Then Haidt discusses Robert Frank’s research (which was new to me) that theorizes that money does buy happiness but that you have to spend it properly. The problem is that most Americans are too focused on conspicuous consumption — goods whose value come less from their objective properties and more from the statement they make about the owner — which is more subject to an “arms race” (if you’re neighbors all upgrade to luxury cars, you’d probably feel a bit inadequate). Inconspicuous consumption — goods and activities that are valued for themselves, that are usually consumed more privately, and that are not bought for the purpose of achieving status (such as taking long vacations or having short commutes). So to “buy” happiness, spend less on expensive material possessions (usually purchased partly to impress other people) and spend more on activities with other people. Haidt also discusses Barry Schwartz‘s The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, which I have borrowed from the library as well and I’m even more excited to read it now.
This chapter concludes with the idea that Buddha’s philosophy of non-attachment may have been an over-reaction and that in our modern world, to cut off all attachments is an inappropriate response to the inevitable presence of some suffering in life.
Chapter Six, Love and Attachments, is about the idea that we all need other people (both for close relationships and for physical touch) and thus starts with these quotes:
No one can live happily who has regard to himself alone and transforms everything into a question of his own utility; you must live for your neighbor, if you would live for yourself. – Seneca
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. – John Donne
Attachment Theory, developed by John Bowlby, states that two basic goals guide children’s behavior:
- safety – a child who stays safe survives
- exploration – a child who explores and plays develops the skills and intelligence needed for adult life
As Haidt says:
So if you want your children to grow up to be healthy and independent, you should hold them, hug them, cuddle them, and love them. Give them a secure base and they will explore and then conquer the world on their own.
He then delves into research on styles of love, which I learned about from Seligman‘s Authentic Happiness and wrote about here. What’s new from The Happiness Hypothesis is that when oxytocin (a stress hormone in women) floods the brains of both men and women while two people are physically touching, the effect is soothing and calming and it strengthens the bond (attachment) between them. And for adults, the biggest rush of oxytocin comes from sex.
Perhaps the rush of oxytocin is what people think of when they talk about “true” love? Well actually Haidt says that its dopamine that is affected in passionate love and also discusses the myth of “true” love, a passionate love that never fades and that you can find “true” love if you just find the right person; if you are in true love you should marry him/her but if love ends you should leave that person because it means it was not “true” love.
Ugh, I find it infuriating that TV, movies, and even “chick lit” to some extent perpetuates this myth. I think so many people end perfectly good relationships because their expectations of “true” love are skewed.
As Haidt writes, often times “if the lovers had stuck it out, if they had given companionate love a chance to grow, they might have found true love.” True love here meaning strong companionate love with some added passion between two people who are firmly committed to each other. Companionate love grows slowly over the years as a couple begins to rely upon, care for, and trust each other.
Chapter Seven, The Uses of Adversity, is about the weaknesses in the theory that people need adversity, setbacks, and perhaps even trauma to gain strength, fulfillment, and personal development. In the last fifteen years, research has shown that severe stress can produce benefits in three primary ways:
- Hidden Abilities – Rising to a challenge reveals your hidden abilities and seeing these abilities change your self-concept. People realize that they are much stronger than they realized and gain the confidence to face future challenges.
- Relationships – Adversity separates the fair-weather friends from the true, strengthens relationships and opens people’s hearts to one another.
- Presentness – Trauma changes priorities and philosophies to the present and realize that life is a gift that they have been taking for granted, and that people matter more than money.
Haidt also discusses Robert Emmons’s research that life goals can be sorted into four categories: work and achievement, relationships and intimacy, religion and spirituality, and generativity (leaving a legacy and contributing something to society). People whose goals are primarily work and achievement related tend to be less happy, on average, than those who generally strive towards the other three goals likely because work and achievement related happiness tends to be short lived.
Thus when tragedy strikes and achievement goals lose their allure, people often shift towards the other types of goals and find themselves happier.
Haidt also discusses Jamie Pennebaker’s research that getting people to make progress towards resolving their problems by writing about them can result in better health! This, Haidt explains, is why meditation, cognitive therapy, and SSRIs work — all three make you less negative and more positive and therefore more able to withstand future adversity, find meaning in it, and grow from it.
So adversity is good, but is it good for children too? Haidt states that major adversity is unlikely to have any benefits for children (though children are not as easily damaged by one-time events as most people think) and that chronic conditions are much more important. But adversity between the ages of fifteen and twenty five — when young people, at least in Western countries, make many of the choices that will define their lives, when they experience their first love, college, intellectual growth, living and traveling independently — can be beneficial as it is an important period of identity formation. But people who face adversity after the age of thirty may be less likely to grow from their experiences.
Haidt concludes chapter seven with the idea that life’s most important lessons cannot be taught directly with this quote:
We do not receive wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can make for us, which no one can spare us, for our wisdom is the point of view from which we come at last to regard the world. – Marcel Proust.
Chapter Eight, The Felicity of Virtue, starts out with yet another quote from Buddha and one from Epicurus:
It is impossible to live the pleasant life without also living sensibly, nobly and justly, and it is impossible to live sensibly, nobly ad justly without living pleasantly. – Epicurus
Set your heart on dong good. Do it over and over again, and you will be filled with joy. A fool is happy until his mischief turns against him. And a good man may suffer until his goodness flowers. – Buddha
A discussion of virtue would not be complete without Benjamin Franklin (his Poor Richard’s Almanack was a compendium of sayings and maxims and was a bestseller in his day), and Haidt spends several pages on the importance Franklin placed on virtue and the techniques he employed to become more virtuous. Franklin used a virtue table made up of seven columns (one for each day of the week) and thirteen rows (one for each virtue) and he put a black spot in the appropriate square if he failed to live a whole day in accordance with a particular virtue. Concentrating on only one virtue a week — while still filling in the other rows when violations occurred — and then repeating the process, Franklin found that the table got less and less spotty.
The moral rule that I liked the best from this chapter was Immanuel Kant’s that for moral rules to be laws, they had to be universally applicable. So conversely, people should think about whether the moral rules guiding their own actions could reasonably be proposed as universal laws to decide whether they are acting morally.
Haidt also discusses the virtues and strengths of character of positive psychology, which I learned about from Seligman‘s Authentic Happiness and wrote about here, and that becoming virtuous and working on your strengths is hard work but should be thought of as intrinsically rewarding; virtue should be its own reward. What The Happiness Hypothesis emphasizes is the importance of working on your strengths, not fixing your weaknesses. I feel like today we are all aiming to be well-rounded and oftentimes that result is that we’re all just okay at everything instead of being excellent at some things and just okay at others. So constraint in the form of morals is good for us. So good that:
One of the best predictors of the health of an American neighborhood is the degree to which adults respond to the misdeeds of other people’s children. When community standards are enforced, there is constraint and cooperation. When everyone minds his own business and looks the other way, there is freedom and anomie [the condition of a society in which there are no clear rules, norms or standards of value.
Additionally, Haidt mentions the research that happy people are kinder and more helpful than those who are less happy partly explaining why people who do volunteer work are happier and healthier people than those who don’t. But research also shows that adults, and especially the elderly, who give more help and support to friends and relatives live longer than those who give less. And volunteer work, particularly that which involves direct person-to-person helping or is done through a religious organization, does increase happiness and well-being.
Haidt appropriately wraps up this chapter on a discussion of the morals of conservatives versus liberals (in terms of politics), which brings us to chapter Nine, Divinity With or Without God, which starts out with these quotes:
We must not allow the ignoble to injure the noble, or the smaller to injure the greater. Those who nourish the smaller parts will become small men. Those who nourish the greater parts will become great men. – Meng Tzu, 3rd Century BCE
God created the angels from intellect without sensuality, the beasts from sensuality without intellect, and humanity from both intellect and sensuality. So when a person’s intellect overcomes his sensuality, he is better than the angels, but when his sensuality overcomes his intellect, he is worse than the beasts. – Muhammad
And describes Edwin A. Abbot‘s Flatland — a short novel that takes place in a two-dimensional world whose inhabitants are geometric and the protagonist is a square who is visited by a sphere from the three-dimensional world Spaceland — as a metaphor for understanding morality, religion, and the human quest for meaning. When the sphere visits Flatland, all the Flatlanders can see is the part of the sphere that is in their two-dimensional world — a circle that grows and shrinks as the sphere moves in the third dimension. When the square finally sees for himself the third dimension, the square is awestruck. Haidt compares each of us to the square before his enlightenment. He imagines us going through our social world with a horizontal dimension of closeness or liking and a vertical dimension of hierarchy or status and claims:
that the human mind perceives a third dimension, a specifically moral dimension . . . “divinity” . . . that [is] not assuming that God exists and is there to be perceived . . . Rather . . . that the human mind simply does perceive divinity and sacredness, whether or not God exists.
Haidt‘s descriptions of divinity seem a lot like Seligman‘s description in Authentic Happiness of the category of virtue called spirituality and transcendence. The Happiness Hypothesis philosophizes about the role of transcendence in every day life and specifically how political liberals and conservatives differ in their views — liberals want to maximize autonomy by removing limits, barriers and restrictions while conservatives want to structure personal, social, and political relationships in three dimensions (as Haidt, a self-described liberal defines them) and so create a world of purity and pollution where restrictions maintain the separation of the sacred from the profane. (Haidt spends a large part of the conclusion, Chapter Eleven, on the differences between liberals and conservatives.)
And that brings us to Chapter Ten, Happiness Comes from Between, which discusses the meaning of life. First Haidt analyzes the different meanings of the word meaning: definitional, symbolism or substitution, help in making sense of something. Using the third meaning of the word meaning, Haidt re-frames the question “What is the meaning of life” to “Tell me something enlightening about life” and breaks it down into two sub-questions:
- Purpose of life – What is the purpose for which human beings were placed on Earth? Why are we here?
- Purpose within life – How ought I to live? What should I do to have a good, happy, fulfilling, and meaningful life?
Haidt chooses to focus on the question of finding purpose within life and says that people are like plants:
As long as they are not completely dead, they will spring back to full and glorious life if you just get the conditions right. You can’t fix a plant; you can only give it the right conditions — water, sun, soil — and then wait. It will do the rest.
If people are like plants, then the conditions that we need to flourish are:
- Love (chapter six) – we are ultrasocial creatures and cannot be happy without friends and secure attachments to other people.
- Having and pursuing the right goals (chapter seven) – those which create states of flow and vital engagement; find work that is not just a job or even a career but a calling — work that utilizes your signature strengths and that you find intrinsically fulfilling that you see as contributing to the greater good or as playing a role in some worthy (as you define it) larger enterprise.
If this sounds a lot like Authentic Happiness, it shouldn’t surprise you since both authors have used positive psychology to determine how to find meaning in life. But again, Haidt is more philosophical before coming to his conclusion:
Happiness comes from between. Happiness is not something that you can find, acquire, or achieve directly. You have to get the conditions right and then wait. Some of those conditions are within you, such as coherence among the parts and levels of your personality. Other conditions require relationships to things beyond you; Just as plans need sun, water, and good soil to thrive, people need love, work, and a connection to something larger. It is worth striving to get the right relationships between yourself and others, between yourself and your work, and between yourself and something larger than yourself. If you get these relationships right, a sense of purpose and meaning will emerge.