The Happiness Hypothesis

The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom is a book by Jonathan Haidt. In it Haidt, a psychologist, looks at the ideas of happiness developed by Eastern religions, and puts them in a context of modern science in an attempt to develop an evidence-based happiness hypothesis.

He uses the analogy of an elephant and a rider. The rider is the higher-level rational part of your mind, the elephant is the rest. The rider can decide the think happy thoughts, eat healthily, exercise regularly and not spend all one’s time eating cake. It can even tell the elephant. But unless you actually train the elephant, the elephant is going to do what it wants.

Haidt starts off my demonstrating just how little control over our lives we really have. For example people who are named Dennis are more likely to become dentists. You are also more likely to marry someone with a similar sounding name to you. He gives his own personal example: he (John) is married to Jane. I did a quick scan of my friends and family and the rule does not work so well, but statistically it does seem to hold. It’s kind of horrible when you think about it. Are we pawns to environmental biases to quite such an extent? It would seem so.

Haidt points out that if you try hard to not think about negative thoughts, you end up thinking about them more. This has interesting implications for anxiety. Actively trying to avoid negative thoughts for example could actually reinforce them. I also identified strongly with his example of feeling the urge to shout random things at dinner parties just because I know I shouldn’t.

Another example of Haidt being a soulmate was his discussion of vegetarianism. He, like myself, is a vegetarian. He believes that killing animals for food is wrong. But, like me also, he can’t quite seem to actually cut meat out of his diet.

He talks about the negativity bias. We are programmed to reactive to negative things more strongly than positive. This is because if we miss a meal, we will probably find some more. If we miss a predator, we we will probably be eaten. This is not be confused with the positivity bias that Kahneman demonstrates we also have.

Haidt argues in favour of gossip. He suggests it is an important social tool for maintaining fairness. If someone is cheating the system, morality only works when people know about the transgressor. Whether that justifies the deep invasion of people’s personal lives that is often associated with gossip is another matter, but gossip as concept serves a useful evolutionary purpose.

We all have a base level of happiness, and we tend to return to it. This is probably had news for someone like me that seems to have a low level of happiness. Winning the lottery is not going to fix that. However, on the flip side, getting a terrible debilitating disease is unlikely to decrease it in the long term either. We get used to the situation and our base levels return to normal. Material possessions will only bring very short-lived happiness. Spend the money on experiences instead, and for maximum affect ensure you do it with the people you love.

Some things we do not adjust to though. For example noise levels, traffic and commuting are always bad. It is worth eliminating noise from your life were possible, especially traffic noise. As I learnt in Happiness By Design, commuting really is the worst thing you can do with your time. Given that, and that money does not make you happy because you adjust, taking a pay cut to live closer work is a smart move that will increase your happiness.

Critically, social connections correlate with happiness more than almost anything else. This backs up something I can come to realise and begun preaching over the past few years. Moving away from your friends and family to a different city, for career advancement, is a bad move. Yes you get more money. However, as discussed, this does not make you happy. What does make you happy is friends and family and these you lose when you move cities.

Unless your job is literally your entire life’s passion, take a lower-paid job in a city where your friends and family live, with a short commute. Don’t worry if it’s not your perfect job, it’s not your life.

Too many choices are bad. You want some choice, but above half a dozen it actually decreases your happiness because you expect a better match than you get and the probably that you selected an imperfect match increases. If you, like myself, have had the experience of walking into a shoe store, seeing 200 different trainers, and not liking any of them, you will know what I mean. If there were five styles of trainer, it would actually be a lot easier.

In his conclusion he says that the ancient wisdom and modern science often converge and both are needed, to some extent, to achieve true happiness. Happiness does come from within (to the extent that you cannot buy it) but the only way to achive it is through behaviour changes, and these can only be achived by re-training your elephant, not merely deciding as a rider.




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This entry was posted on Saturday, January 9th, 2016 at 10:24 am and is filed under Books. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.