I read, a lot. At least one book a week, often more. My list of non-fiction books I’ve read but need to review is currently 43, and of that list the Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom is in my top five. Also, of that list this is one of only three books I’ve read twice.
The author Jonathan Haidt takes a lifetime of philosophical pursuit into the meaning and maximization of life, combines it with decades of personal scientific inquiry into moral psychology, and uses as its base recent advances in positive psychology. To keep this review succinct, I’ll be focusing on just three of its eleven chapters.
The Elephant & The Rider
The first step towards making significant change is acceptance. A common idea written about throughout positive psychology, cognitive science, social psychology, and behavioral economics is that the world is not as it seems – we as conscious, thinking humans are much less conscious than we believe. We know this already.
We make New Years resolution and resolution, and are not surprised when we fail. We decide to exercise, lose weight, spend more time at home, and stop watching so much TV. For a few days we may act different, but with no surprise we bend back into our old habits. Jonathan gives this occurance a name – the elephant & the rider.
“Modern theories about rational choice and information processing don’t adequately explain weakness of the will…. The image that I came up with for myself, as I marveled at my weakness, was that I was a rider on the back of an elephant. I’m holding the reins in my hands, and by pulling one way or the other I can tell the elephant to turn, to stop, or to go. I can direct things, but only when the elephant doesn’t have desires of his own. When the elephant really wants to do something, I’m no match for him.”
Acceptance is the first step, because once we acknowledge the true complexity of consciousness, instead of trying and failing to whip the elephant to our will, we can gently nudge it to greater and more permanent effect. What’s needed to implement massive personal change isn’t massive willpower – it’s just the right set of tools.
Meditation, Prozac, & Cognitive Therapy
The Happiness Hypothesis is like a mystery novel – the author explores a series of suspects, one by one, hoping that each in turn is the answer to the question, “What’s the best path to sustained happiness?” The first suspect was meditation, followed by Prozac and cognitive therapy.
H = S + C + V
As simple as the above answers may be, they were nothing more than pieces of the final answer. The second developed hypothesis that the author considered was:
Happiness (H) = Biological set point (S) + Conditions of your life (C) + Voluntary Activities (V)
Biological Set Point (S)
The biological set point, unfortunately for those that weren’t born with bundles of joy and enthusiasm (like myself), is an extremely strong beginning -
“Twin studies generally show that from 50 percent to 80 percent of all the variance among people in their average levels of happiness can be explained by differences in their genes rather than in their life experiences.”
That’s right – 50% to 80% of our life happiness is explained by genetic factors, essentially outside our control. Fortunately, the reason this blog exists is because science has also validated that there are proven ways to permanently increase our happiness.
Conditions of your life (C)
It’s not by getting that new car or big house you’ve been dreaming of. Because we quickly adapt to new things, new toys, furniture, electric devices, homes, refrigerators and like bring us increased joy for a few days, weeks, or months, and then that’s it. Three life conditions that really matter:
- Commuting: “Many people choose to move farther away from their jobs in search of a larger house. But although people quickly adapt to having more space,36 they don’t fully adapt to the longer commute, particularly if it involves driving in heavy traffic. Even after years of commuting, those whose commutes are traffic-filled still arrive at work with higher levels of stress hormones.”
- Lack of control: “In a review paper that Rodin and I wrote, we concluded that changing an institution’s environment to increase the sense of control among its workers, students, patients, or other users was one of the most effective possible ways to increase their sense of engagement, energy, and happiness.”
- Relationships: “The condition that is usually said to trump all others in importance is the strength and number of a person’s relationships. Good relationships make people happy, and happy people enjoy more and better relationships than unhappy people. Conflicts in relationships—having an annoying office mate or room-mate, or having chronic conflict with your spouse—is one of the surest ways to reduce your happiness. You never adapt to interpersonal conflict; it damages every day, even days when you don’t see the other person but ruminate about the conflict nonetheless.”
Voluntary Activities (V)
There are three classes of voluntary activities that have been shown to consistently increase levels of happiness:
- Expressing gratitude and kindness is a way to fight adaption effects. If we start taking something good for granted, it stops giving us joy. If we express gratitude, we can reverse that process: ”Studies that have assigned people to perform a random act of kindness every week, or to count their blessings regularly for several weeks, find small but sustained increases in happiness. So take the initiative! Choose your own gratifying activities, do them regularly (but not to the point of tedium), and raise your overall level of happiness.”
- Meditating and employing mindfulness techniques to enjoy the present, rather than ruminating on the past or stressing about the future can boost mood, both in the short term, but especially in the long term.
- Engaging in flow and pursuing our strengths has been associated with increased levels of satisfaction. Specifically, “Seligman proposes that V is largely a matter of arranging your day and your environment to increase both pleasures and [flow activities].” See here for a description of flow.
Conscious Pursuit of Happiness
This review has turned more into a summary, which was to be expected given the rich collection of information the book contains. Let me finish with what I think is the book’s most powerful quote:
“The elephant cares about prestige, not happiness, and it looks eternally to others to figure out what is prestigious. The elephant will pursue its evolutionary goals even when greater happiness can be found elsewhere. If everyone is chasing the same limited amount of prestige, then all are stuck in a zero-sum game, an eternal arms race, a world in which rising wealth does not bring rising happiness. The pursuit of luxury goods is a happiness trap; it is a dead end that people race toward in the mistaken belief that it will make them happy.”