The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom

The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom

by Jonathan Haidt

The Happiness Hypothesis by award-winning psychologist Jonathan Haidt analyzes happiness from a psychological and philosophical standpoint. In the book, Haidt has perfectly suggested different paths to happiness, having examined them through the lens of modern research. 

The Happiness Hypothesis explores the nature of human happiness, blending the philosophical and theological wisdom of ancient thinkers with insights from the field of positive psychology. Each chapter to the end is deeply engaging, covering happiness-related topics from a variety of angles with a mix of neuroscience, psychology, history, philosophy, and personal reflection.

Summary Notes

The Divided Self

“If Passion drives, let Reason hold the Reins.” - Benjamin Franklin

Our minds are divided in four ways: 

  1. Mind vs body
    • Each part of the body has its own emotions, agenda and reactions.
  2. Right vs left side of the brain
    • Each side of the brain has its own functions and is able to send separate signals to our body.
  3. New vs old 
    • The base structure of our mind was established a long time ago, but it has been “extended” since then. Our brain originally evolved to deal with survival issues (digestions, breathing, etc). Our cortex then developed to take care of our abilities to reason, think logically, and process information.
  4. Controlled vs automatic processes 
    • We process information in two ways - intentionally (controlled) and subconsciously (automatic).

Changing Your Mind

“The whole universe is change and life itself is but what you deem it.” —MARCUS AURELIUS

Our perspective - the way we interpret the world around us - influences the way we feel. If we can manage our perspective, we can control our world. There is no reality, only perception. 

However, people often see the bad more than the good. After all, responses to threats and unpleasantness are faster, stronger, and harder to inhibit than responses to opportunities and pleasures. 

However, pain that most people experience from events in their personal lives comes not through the actions of others but through our interpretations of those events.

Our behavior is governed by opposing motivational systems: an approach system, which triggers positive emotions and makes you want to move toward certain things, and a withdrawal system, which triggers negative emotions and makes you want to pull back or avoid other things. Both systems are always active, monitoring the environment.

When you feel threatened with losing something, such as your safety, your withdrawal system is triggered and you may feel like fleeing.  

Actions to take

Reciprocity with a Vengeance

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

Among mammals, only humans are ultra-social. Only we live in large numbers with extensive division of labor. 

This ultrasociality has helped humans evolve a natural sense of “tit-for-tat”, or reciprocity. We easily feel both gratitude and vengefulness, and it’s important to realize that they are two sides of one coin. 

It would be hard to evolve one without the other. An individual who had gratitude without vengefulness would be an easy mark for exploitation, and a vengeful and ungrateful individual would quickly alienate all potential cooperative partners. 

This sense of “tit-for-tat” is also present in our communications and language. Gossip elicits gossip, and it enables us to keep track of everyone’s reputation without having to witness their good and bad deeds personally. 

Many species reciprocate, but only human beings gossip. Reciprocity is an all-purpose relationship tonic. Used in a balanced way, it strengthens and rejuvenates social ties. For example, if you give the same attention, self-disclosure, and time to your friends as they do, your friendship will only strengthen because there is a reciprocation of mutual respect and love.

Actions to take

The Faults of Others

We tend to see the faults of others more clearly than we do our own. People are skilled at finding reasons to justify themselves and their values - we tend to see ourselves through rose-colored lenses. 

People also tend to believe that they each see the world for what it is. This is also known as naive realism. Basically, we tend to think that all the facts, as we see them, are there for everyone to see, so there’s no reason others shouldn’t agree with us. The only possible reasons for disagreement would be not having exposure to the relevant facts yet, or being blinded by conflicting interests and ideologies. 

Naive realism is truly the biggest obstacle to world peace and social harmony. It moves from the individual to the group level easily - “My group is right, because we see things as they are. Those who disagree are obviously biased by their religion, their ideology, or their self-interest.” 

People want to believe in villains and victims. When they have strong moral feelings about a controversial issue, they care much less about procedural fairness. They want the good guys freed and the bad guys punished by any means. When a moral mission and legal rules are incompatible, people usually care more about the mission. The only way to overcome these biases is to acknowledge one’s faults and debias oneself.

Actions to take

The Pursuit of Happiness

“Do not seek to have events happen as you want them to, but instead want them to happen as they do happen, and your life will go well.” –EPICTETUS

Even if you were to have all the riches in the world, you’re not guaranteed satisfaction or happiness.  It is only through breaking attachments to external things and cultivating an attitude of acceptance that one can achieve happiness. 

The pleasure of getting what you want is often fleeting. For example, if you dream of a promotion at your job, the rush of dopamine that you get when you are promoted is short-lived. You’ll soon be asking yourself, “Okay, what do I have to do now?” 

Actual happiness does not come from the achievement of a goal. It’s more about the journey and the efforts you make to achieve that goal. 

Since ancient times, philosophers have believed that the only way to achieve happiness is to sever all attachments to external, material relationships through meditation and stillness. Focus on the things you can control (your thoughts and reactions) instead of the things that are out of your control. 

In contrast, modern research on happiness has resulted in the famous happiness formula which equates happiness to the sum of one’s biological set point, the conditions of their lives, and voluntary activities that one undertakes to cultivate acceptance and weaken emotional attachments. By improving their life conditions and partaking in such activities, it is possible to increase one’s happiness.

Actions to take

The Uses of Adversity

“What doesn't kill me makes me stronger.” — NIETSZCHE

The adversity hypothesis states that an individual needs to suffer adversities, setbacks, and trauma in life to reach the highest levels of strength, fulfillment, and personal development. 

Modern research has shown that people who suffer adversities in life and cope with their stress gain three key benefits:

  1. Rising to a challenge reveals your hidden abilities which change how you view yourself. You might think that you wouldn’t be able to survive something, but you can adapt to anything over a period of time.
  2. Adversity acts as a relationship filter. Whenever an individual goes through a traumatic event, some friends and family members help in any way they can while others turn away. 
  3. Trauma changes your priorities and philosophies towards the present as well as towards other people. 

This is the weak version of the adversity hypothesis. The strong version has an unsettling implication: according to it, adversity is necessary for growth. One must endure trauma if one is to grow and prosper. Even if you are a pessimist, you can also benefit from adversity by talking about your trauma.

Actions to take

The Felicity of Virtue

“It is impossible to live the pleasant life without also living sensibly, nobly and justly, and it is impossible to live sensibly, nobly and justly without living pleasantly.” — EPICURUS

Virtue appears to be an all-purpose tonic. It’s often claimed that by being virtuous, one not only becomes healthy, wealthy, and wise, but also becomes able to experience all the joy on earth. 

Every culture is concerned about the moral development of children, and in every culture that has left us more than a few pages of writing, we find texts that reveal the approach to morality at the time. What all these texts have in common is a focus on the importance of cultivating the right virtues.

There are two schools of thought about virtue. Deontologists, followers of Immanuel Kant, focus on duties and obligations that ethical people must respect, even when their actions lead to bad outcomes. On the other hand, there are the consequentialists, followers of Jeremy Bentham, who try to work out the rules and policies that will bring about the greatest good, even when doing so violates other ethical principles. 

These two groups have had a great influence over modern legal and political theories and practices. Modern research has identified a set of characteristics relating to different virtues. For example, characteristics such as curiosity, and wisdom were found to be related to wisdom, valor, and perseverance to courage, kindness and love to humanity, and so on. 

According to this research, working to overcome your weaknesses can cause you to lose the willpower to do so. Instead, focus on cultivating these characteristics and achieving the related virtues.

Actions to take

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