The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom

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What is the book “The Happiness Hypothesis” about?

According to the book’s author, Jonathan Haidt, it’s devoted to exploring 10 “Great Ideas” that have evolved throughout different civilizations. The thing that binds them is their mutual devotion on how to achieve happiness. Haidt attempts to examine them from a contemporary point of view, to approach them without any prejudice of modern science, to cast everything superfluous aside and to extract valuable ideas only.

Haidt talks about how he was lecturing students at the University of Virginia (it was introductory courses in psychology) and he would strive to ensure that they’d learn and internalize given material. During the preparation, he noticed that several ideas would repeat in one way or another throughout different contexts since ancient times when ancient thinkers expressed them, and aside from them, also by poets and playwrights of the past. Gradually, he came to the same conclusion as Shakespeare once did: we define things as good or bad not for what they are, but for how we perceive them.

Haidt studied a lot of literary and philosophical works, including Upanishads, the works of Confucius, the Old and the New Testament, as well as many others, seeking ideas regarding human nature. He was looking for similarities between them, and when he’d find one, he’d write it down.

But his goal wasn’t to just find the most common and universal ideas on morality and ethics. He wanted those ideas to reinforce one another, strengthen each other and be united with one aim: to help people find happiness and meaning of their existence.

According to Haidt, his book is an attempt to find the origins of contemporary positive psychology in ancient wisdom.

Different parts of our brain interact as a “rider” and an “elephant”. The rider being the conscious mind might control the elephant (the subconscious mind) though only partially. For a full-fledged harmonious life, we should train these parts to be able to interact with each other, to work as a team.

Another way to have a harmonious life is to fight against prejudice and biased thinking, against false alarms and imaginary danger which don’t exist at all.

There is no harmony without interaction with other people, but it’s important to protect yourself against anyone who wants to exploit you for their selfish goals. But also you have to be objective; you have to be able to see other people’s shortcomings as well as your own. To understand how the brain works will help us to understand the nature of distorted pictures of the reality; it’s because of them we so firmly believe in our righteousness and infallibility, although, in fact, it may not be entirely accurate.

Haidt points out that there are several hypotheses of happiness. The simplest of them is that joy comes at the time of wish fulfillment, but unfortunately, it doesn’t last for a long time. Another universal concept being that happiness doesn’t come from the outside, it’s born within and doesn’t adhere to the principle of the world having to satisfy our desires. Ancient stoic philosophers, such as Buddha, thought that there was no point in attaching oneself to people, things or various events because all of this is accidental, short-lived and can be taken away at any moment. It is necessary to change not the world, but the state of your mind.

However, according to Haidt, contemporary research proves that there are external living conditions that can make people happier, for example, the bonds connecting us with other people. The author suggests that we should find the proper balance between the ancient wisdom and the modern life to be happier.

In addition to communicating with others, we’re also in need of personal growth and development. Haidt doesn’t agree with the fact that the firmness of character and personal growth must necessarily be associated with some tremendous challenges that supposedly are making us stronger.

Admittedly, post-traumatic growth is possible in some cases, but you have to approach it carefully, without any broad generalizations or universal advice, so that growth doesn’t turn into the opposite.

Haidt claims that positive psychology also explores various moral concepts, helping to unify old ideas with modern reality.

Indeed, every life has its meaning. In general, we tend to associate the meaning of our lives with connections on a spiritual plane, like God’s will that’s meant for us. Haidt examines this idea from different angles, linking ancient religions to our problems of today.

Summary and 10 Ideas of “The Happiness Hypothesis”

Idea №1 The mind splits into several parts that often will conflict among themselves.

Idea №2 If you want to change your life, you’re going to have to change your mindset first.

Idea №3 It’s impossible to achieve happiness without any cooperation or collaboration.

Idea №4 Most of us are sure in our righteousness, even if it may not be entirely correct.

Idea №5 You can find happiness everywhere, only if you know where to look for it.

Idea №6 Happiness is unattainable without love or affection.

Idea №7 Use adversities for self-improvement.

Idea №8 In striving for happiness don’t forget about dignity or virtue.

Idea №9 Our thoughts and actions can elevate us to God’s level, as well as to lower us to such of an animal.

Idea №10 Every person has to find their meaning in life, but, most importantly, it should always have a goal to strive for.

Review “The Happiness Hypothesis”

In Haidt’s book, there is neither excessive optimism nor any dreariness, his outlook on the world and its people is harmonious and balanced.

Harmony and balance, as the author sees them, are a universal concept. To achieve happiness, you need to strike a proper between ancient wisdom and contemporary psychology, science and religion, prosperity and life’s challenges, and so much more.

According to Haidt, a path to happiness is of balancing different aspects of life, not through the opposition. Both Yin and Yang coexist in harmony, not merging and not colliding as well. Eastern and western approaches to life should also coexist and complement each other like that. The East represents the acceptance and the concept of collectivism, while the West represents the desire for a purpose and the idea of individualism.

Both of these approaches have their value. It’s impossible to achieve happiness using only one of them. You must change the world as well as yourself; you must strive towards your goals as well as helping other people; you have to give love, and the others will do the same for you. The rider and the elephant must learn how to coexist with each other, and only then we shall find our path to happiness.

Pros and Cons

  • Valuable ideas; convincing synthesis of ancient philosophical ideas and modern discoveries in the area of psychology; consistency; coherence.
  • Recurring repetition of ideas; verbosity at times.

About Author Jonathan Haidt

Author of the book The Happiness HypothesisJonathan David Heidt is a social psychologist. He specializes in morality and moral emotions. Heidt was born in New York and grew up in Scarsdale. He received a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Yale University in 1985, and a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania in 1992. Then he studied cultural psychology at the University of Chicago. During his postdoctoral appointment, he won a Fulbright grant for three months of research in Orissa, India. In 1995 he received the post of assistant professor at the University of Virginia, where he worked until 2011. Heidt is the author of two books. Prospect Magazine included him in the list of global thinkers.

Watch and listen to his thoughts on TED

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