“The Happiness Hypothesis”: How to Find Happiness and Meaning

Author Jonathan Haidt‘s newest book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion, sounds timely and interesting. However, it’s his previous The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (2005) that’s today’s topic.

Haidt explains the universal condition of “the divided self” by using a Buddhist metaphor of the rider and the elephant. From a summary of this concept on his website:

The mind is divided in many ways, but the division that really matters is between conscious/reasoned processes and automatic/implicit processes. These two parts are like a rider on the back of an elephant. The rider’s inability to control the elephant by force explains many puzzles about our mental life, particularly why we have such trouble with weakness of will. Learning how to train the elephant is the secret of self-improvement.

Although, Haidt notes, the baseline level of happiness for each of us is largely determined by the biological stuff we’ve inherited from our parents, the thing we can learn to change is “the elephant.” He offers some possible solutions.

Publishers Weekly: “Riches don’t matter much, he observes, but close relationships, quiet surroundings and short commutes help a lot, while meditation, cognitive psychotherapy and Prozac are equally valid remedies for constitutional unhappiness. Haidt sometimes seems reductionist, but his is an erudite, fluently written, stimulating reassessment of age-old issues.”

Another key point of The Happiness Hypothesis: “Reciprocity is the most important tool for getting along with people.” As in the Golden Rule. Do unto others…

So, will we really figure out from reading this book how to attain happiness and meaning? Psychologist Daniel Nettle, Nature.com, breaks it down:

Haidt quotes from the Monty Python film The Meaning of Life, in which the answer is given as: ‘Try to be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try to live in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.’ This spoof formulation nonetheless contains an important point: there is, in fact, no single meaning to life. However, life has a definite form, a set of recurring emotions, interactions and experiences, and even if there is no ultimate solution to the dilemmas they pose, there are ways of understanding them better and navigating them with greater wisdom and purpose. And, as Haidt has shown, the ancient sages and modern psychologists often agree on these.

Ultimately, balance is essential. Haidt quotes Heraclitus: “All things come into being by conflict of opposites.” Further elaboration on this point is available on his website:

The ancient idea of Yin and Yang turns out to be the wisest idea of all. We need the perspectives of ancient religion and modern science; of east and west; even of liberal and conservative. Words of wisdom really do flood over us, but only by drawing from many sources can we become wise.

Below is an interesting mash-up of recent college commencement speeches—because what are commencement speeches after all other than advice from the older and wiser about how to find happiness, how to find meaning.

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