The Happiness Hypothesis
Apr 3 2010

I actually finished a book from beginning to end when I went out of town for a much needed week long break a couple of weeks ago.  This may not seem much to many of you but to me, I haven’t been able to concentrate (or have the time) to finish any book in a few years it seems like.  The book I read is called The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (Amazon Link) by Joseph Haidt.  Many of us search for happiness and never find it or are looking in the wrong places.  We’ve all heard the saying that happiness comes from within.  Well that’s partially true according to Haidt but there are so many other factors.

He performed extensive research and referenced many of the great thinkers, psychologists, philosophers, doctors, etc. to come to some conclusions of his own.  I think many entrepreneurs are happy when they are able to see the tangible results of their efforts, but many think they will be happy if only they were to accomplish this one thing.  But as we all know, there’s always the next thing, and we as a species have a hard time enjoying where we are and what we have accomplished.  We have a hard time being happy with who we are because we compare ourselves to others.

The author directs you a couple of times to the website  http://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/Default.aspx run by Dr. Martin Seligman, founder of Positive Psychology at University of Pennsylvania, so you can assess your own level of happiness. “Positive Psychology is a new branch of psychology which focuses on the empirical study of such things as positive emotions, strengths-based character, and healthy institutions. His research has demonstrated that it is possible to be happier — to feel more satisfied, to be more engaged with life, find more meaning, have higher hopes, and probably even laugh and smile more, regardless of one’s circumstances. Positive psychology interventions can also lastingly decrease depression symptoms. The research underlying these rigorously tested interventions is presented in the July/August edition of the American Psychologist, the journal of the American Psychology Association.”  You have to register to do the surveys.

Here is the review of the book by Publisher’s Weekly from the Amazon site.

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak, lamented St. Paul, and this engrossing scientific interpretation of traditional lore backs him up with hard data. Citing Plato, Buddha and modern brain science, psychologist Haidt notes the mind is like an “elephant” of automatic desires and impulses atop which conscious intention is an ineffectual “rider.” Haidt sifts Eastern and Western religious and philosophical traditions for other nuggets of wisdom to substantiate—and sometimes critique—with the findings of neurology and cognitive psychology. The Buddhist-Stoic injunction to cast off worldly attachments in pursuit of happiness, for example, is backed up by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s studies into pleasure. And Nietzsche’s contention that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger is considered against research into post-traumatic growth. An exponent of the “positive psychology” movement, Haidt also offers practical advice on finding happiness and meaning. 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. (Jan.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
–This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Since a couple of weeks have now passed since I read it and life has gotten in the way, the details are no longer clear to me but some of the things I remember are:

  • I found it odd/irritating that most of the experiments referenced (e.g., monkey’s taken away from their mother and put in cages with wire frame mothers, babies being left alone to cry, etc.) were done by men.  Freud, Spock and others thought babies should be sent to a baby farm away from their parents.   There were a couple of women (Anna Freud) who also bought into some of this stuff, but I wonder if she had children at the time.  I guess to me it seems obvious that happiness is partially influenced by your relationship with your parents/family and the amount of support/love you get from them.  If your primary caregivers don’t accept you for who you are and don’t provide an environment where you are encouraged to discover your passion, it can make finding that inner happiness harder.  There are those who make it to the top of the proverbial ladder who are still unhappy.

  • I resonated with the example he used of the elephant and the rider.  My favorite animals is the elephant and I used to collect images of them.  According to Haidt, we forget that as humans we are both the elephant and the rider.  As rational thinking beings we believe we are the rider controlling everything but if that elephant (base, primal, survival) decides it wants/needs something, there really is not much the rider can do other than find ways to train the elephant to move in another direction.  The elephant can be responding to fear, love, soul starvation, body starvation, boredom, etc. but the rational rider has to think of the long term effects of reacting to those urges and guides the elephant to safer ground.  As a flawed species, we don’t always do the right thing, our elephant desires are much stronger than we are and we fall off.  But then we must get back up on the elephant and try again, because if we don’t the elephant runs a muck and tramples a bunch of people in its way.

  • A study done on 4 year olds and marshmallows is an indicator of a person’s ability to achieve and in some way feel more happiness.  I, of course, asked my kids the question and they passed.  The study has a grown up in a room with a 4 year old and the grown up shows the 4 year old a plate with one marshmallow and another with two marshmallows.  The grown up tells the 4 year old that he/she is going to leave the room for a little bit.  If the 4 year old waits until the grown up gets back, the 4 year old can have two marshmallows.  If he/she can’t wait, then he/she could ring a bill bringing back the grown up who would give them the one marshmallow.  Those 4 year olds who could wait, did better overall in education, test scores, etc. and by exercising self restraint tended to be happier individuals.  I’m not quite sure the direct tie, but when I asked my kids if they would wait, they both said they would so I temporarily felt a little relief as a potentially good mom.  :-)

  • The big takeaway is that people usually can’t or don’t make significant changes in thinking or relating to people if they can’t train or convince the elephant why it’s better or at least cause the elephant to react in disgust to something.  Trying to convince the rational rider why it’s important to lose weight if he/she is fat is intellectually easy, but until the elephant is trained/convinced/physically disgusted it usually is a moot exercise to attempt to lose weight just based on rational thinking alone.

At any rate, it was a really good, though provoking read.  I started two other books The Art of Choosing (Amazon Link) by Sheena Iyengar and Outliers: The Story of Success (Amazon Link) by Malcolm Gladwell which I plan to blog about soon.  The Art of Choosing (like The Happiness Hypothesis) were my uncle’s books and I had to leave them with him when I came back home so I’ll have to get my hands on a copy so I can finish it.

May you be well.  May you be happy.  May you be free from suffering.  These phrases are part of the loving kindness meditation. Here’s another Amazon link to The Happiness Hypothesis.

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