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The Happiness Hypothesis

Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom

Jonathan Haidt

Basic Books; 1 edition (December 1, 2006), ISBN-13: 978-0465028023 - 320 pages, 25 pages of references, and 7 pages of index.

The Chapters start with Too Much Wisdom and move on thru Self, Mind, Reciprocity, Love, Adversity, Virtue, Divinity and Happiness. Several Hypotheses are considered and modified along the way - happiness based on our own pleasure, happiness is found within (based on detachment from the external world and variations. The final hypothesis is summarized in a rather long paragraph below - The Meaning of Life. There is a rather simple equation for happiness (p.91):

Happiness = S + C + V

Where S is your Set Point, C are your Conditions and V are the activities you participate in Voluntarily, while Volunteer activities tend to bring one happiness, the variable is voluntary, so, social activities rate highly, too.

Read the Book

This page is my notes to remind ME about the points I found most interesting. To really get it, you need to read it. I like what he says at the end of the introduction. There is a more "cut and dried" summary here: WikiPedia: The_Happiness_Hypothesis.

p.xiii - I could state that final version here in a few words, but I could not explain it in this brief introduction without cheapening it. Words of wisdom, the meaning of life, perhaps even the answer sought by Borges's librarians - all of these may wash over us every day, but they can do little for us unless we savor them, engage with them, question them, improve them, and connect them to our lives. That is my goal in this book.

Most powerful insight to me:
p.166 - "I saw the right way and approved it, but took the wrong, until an emotion came along to provide some force." . . . [jch: Haidt talks about understanding vegetarian goodness, but, when he saw some disgusting footage of a slaughterhouse, his visceral reactions matched his beliefs. To me, this explains why one day it became easy to quit smoking and stay stopped.

Haidt's Happiness Hypothesis: We need Love and Attachments, Gratifying Work, and a Connection to Something Larger.

The Elephant and the Rider

More important and powerful than the hypothesis itself is the Elephant & Rider metaphor. The elephant is all of the machinations of emotions and neuropeptides and unconscious and subconscious processes. Everything that happens before word gets to the rider is done by the elephant - fear, physical and emotional calculus. Let's call this all Elephant Calculus. I've been trying to come up with a name for the preconscious elephant decision making process. RSA Animates video featuring the Elephant & Rider.

p. 9 - You will catch the rider confabulating in later chapters. . . [jch: Paragraphs starting with p. N are direct quotes

Confabulating is the process of the rider taking credit for making decisions and inventing stories about why they were made. So, no immediate free will, only reacting when we can be as contemplative, then we have bit of free will. We can only "live our values" thru training the elephant such that its calculus and behavior match our values. Elephant Calculus. The extent to which we have trained our elephant is the extent to which we have free will. For planning, we can imagine and articulate alternatives. Elephant has an automatic "like-o-meter" and negativity bias. There is a lot of overlap between Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow with the fast thinking done by the elephant and the slow thinking done by the rider.

p.18 - Avoid a conflict of wills with the elephant. [jch: The elephant's will power requires no effort. Instead, train the elephant! Step 1 - shift your attention

The rider needs words and metaphors!

p.15 - Controlled processing requires language. You can have bits and pieces of thought thru images, but to plan something complex, to weight the pros and cons of different paths, or to analyze the causes of past successes or failures, you need words.

p.53 - Tribe size is about 150 people. . . => p. 55 Gossip paired with reciprocity allow karma to work here on earth and not in the next life. As long as everybody plays tit-for-tat augmented by gratitude,vengeance and gossip, the whole system should work beautifully. (it rarely does. . .

p.181 - Our life is the creation of our minds and we do much of that creating with metaphor. We see new things in terms of we already understand: life is a journey, an argument is a war, the mind is a rider on the elephant. With the wrong metaphor we are deluded; with no metaphor we are blind.

Set Point

p.33 - Cortical Lottery - A person's average or typical level of happiness is that person's "affective style". . . Some people have a more "approach-oriented style and, on average show greater cortical activity on the left side of the forehead. People who endorse Set B have a more withdrawal-oriented style. . . reduce anxiety and increase contentment . . . Here are the three best ways to change your affective style: meditation, cognitive therapy and Prozac. All three are effective because they work on the elephant.

Three levels of personality

p.142 . . . approach personality by measuring the basic traits: neuroticism, extroversion, openness to new experiences, agreeableness (warmth/niceness), and conscientiousness. . . Dan McAdams suggested that personality really has three levels and that two much attention has been paid to the lowest level, the basic traits. A second level of personality, "characteristic adaptations", includes personal goals, defense and coping mechanisms, values, beliefs, and life-stage concerns (such as those of parenthood or retirement) that people develop to succeed in their particular roles and niches. . . the person's basic traits are made to mesh with the facts about the person's environment and stage of life. . . when those facts change . . . The elephant may be slow to change, but the elephant and rider, working together, find new ways of getting through the day. The third level of personality is the "life story". [jch: narrative ] . . . adversity might be necessary for optimal human development . . . "characteristic adaptations" can be sorted into four categories: work and achievement, relationships and intimacy, religion and spirituality, and generativitiy (leaving a legacy and contributing to society)

p.146 - When a crisis strikes, people cope in one of three ways: active coping (fix the problem), reappraisal (doing work within), and avoidance coping.

p.75 - The Myth of Pure Evil is the ultimate self-serving bias, the ultimate form of naive realism. It is the ultimate cause of the most long running cycles of violence because both sides use it to lock themselves into a [dualist] struggle. [it is ok to use any means to fight the bad guys - use evil to fight evil - terrorism]

p.82 - Happiness can only be found from within, by breaking attachments to external things and cultivating an attitude of acceptance. (Stoics and Buddhists. . .

The Adaptation Principle

p.85 - Lottery winner buys a new house and a new car, quits her boring job, and eats better food. She gets a kick out of the contrast with her former life, but within a few months the contrast blurs and the pleasure fades. The human mind is extraordinarily sensitive to changes in conditions, but not so sensitive to absolute levels. . . . The quadriplegic takes a huge happiness loss up front. He think his life is over . . . nowhere to go but up. . . People's judgements about their present state are based on whether it is better or worse than the state to which they have become accustomed. Adaptation is, in part, just a property of neurons: Nerve cells respond vigorously to new stimuli, but, gradually they "habituate" firing less to stimuli that hey have become used to. It is change that contains the vital information, not steady states.

p.92 - It turns of there are some external conditions that matter . . . not fully subject to the adaptation principle:

  • Noise - new and chronic sources of noise . . . never fully adapt . . . interferes with concentration and increases stress. It's worth striving to remove sources of noise in your life.
  • Commuting - . . . never adapt to the longer commute, particularly if it involves heavy traffic. . . It's worth striving to improve your commute.
  • Lack of Control - famous study . . . increase the sense of control . . . was one of the most effective possible ways to increase their sense of engagement, energy and happiness.
  • Shame - (body image) the power of shame in everyday life. . . Being freed from such a daily burden may lead to a lasting increase in self-confidence and well-being.
  • Relationships. The condition that is usually said to trump all others in importance is the strength and number of a person's relationships.
  • More

    Chapter 6 provides some history to the development of attachment theory - great reading. The result is the observation that children have one of three attachment behaviors: secure, avoidant, or resistant. If this is new info, it is well worth the read. Haidt believes that adults exhibit this behavior to some degree, too. In addition, he presents the "caregiving system".

    p.123 "Take one ancient attachment system, mix with an equal measure of caregiving system, throw in a modified mating system and voila, that's romantic love. I seemed to have lost something here; romantic love is so much more than the sum of its parts"

    p.127 & 128 charts of passionate vs. companionate love.

    p. 138 - Post Traumatic Growth. people can benefit in 3 ways:
    1) rising to the challenge reveals hidden abilities which changes your self concept
    2) relationships - "you find out who your friends are" and the bonds become stronger
    3) Trauma changes priorities and philosophies toward the present

    p.147 "the nature of the trauma turned out to be almost irrelevant. What mattered was what people did afterward: Those who talked with friends or with a support group were largely spared the health-damaging effects of trauma."

    p.148 "you have to use words to create a meaningful story"

    p.149 Some people benefit tremendously from writing 15 minutes a day - they make sense of it. Some do not benefit because they have already done the sense making, while others do not benefit because they just relive the trauma.

    People are less likely to grow from adversity after age 30.

    Great chapter on how virtue is its own reward. And Haidt is brilliant about morals, but, as an atheist, I think he misses the mark on religion, but he does have some insight into the divine.

    p.167 - Although no specific virtue made every list, six broad virtues, or families of related virtues, appeared on nearly all lists: wisdom, courage, humanity, temperance, and transcendence (the ability to forge connections to something larger than the self) . . . list of virtues

    Haidt names a new emotion: Elevation, which is the opposite of disgust. . .
    p.197 We've all been intrigued by the frequency with which people who had been feeling elevation point to the heart. We believe they are not just speaking metaphorically. Chris and Gary have found hints that the vagus nerve of the parasympathetic nervous system, which calms people down, and undoes the the arousal causes by the sympathetic (fight-or-flight) system. The vagus nerve the main nerve that controls the heart rate, and it has a variety of other effects heart and lungs. . .

    p.225 - Whenever a system can be analyzed at multiple levels, a special kind of coherence occurs when the levels mesh and mutually interlock. We saw this cross-level coherence in the analysis of personality: If your lower-level traits match up with your coping mechanisms, which in turn are consistent with your life story, your personality is well integrated and you can get on with the business of living. When these levels do not cohere, you are likely be torn by internal contradictions and neurotic conflicts. You might need adversity to knock yourself into alignment. And if you do achieve coherence, the moment when things come together may be one of the most profound of your life. Like the moviegoer who later finds out what she missed in the first half hour, your life will suddenly make more sense. Finding coherence across levels feels like enlightenment, and it is crucial for answering the question of purpose within life.
    . . . To understand ourselves fully we must study all 3 levels: physical, psychological and sociological.

    The Meaning of Life

    p.238 - What can you do to have a good, happy, fulfilling, and meaningful life? What is the answer to the question of purpose within life? I believe the answer can be found only by understanding the kind of creature that we are, divided in the many ways we are divided. We were shaped by individual selection to be selfish creatures who struggle for resources, pleasure, and prestige, and we were shaped by group selection to be hive creatures who long to lose ourselves in something larger. We are social creatures who need love and attachments, and we are industrious creatures with needs for effectance, able to enter a state of vital engagement with our work. We are the rider and we are the elephant, and our mental health depends on the two working together, each drawing on the others' strengths. I don't believe there is an inspiring answer to the question, "What is the purpose of life?" Yet by drawing on ancient wisdom and modern science, we can find compelling answers to the question of purpose within life. The final version of the happiness hypothesis is that happiness comes from between. Happiness is not something that you can find, acquire, or achieve directly. You have to get the conditions right and then wait. Some of those conditions are within you, such as coherence among the parts and levels of your personality. Other conditions require relationships to things beyond you: Just as plants need sun, water, and good soil to thrive, people need love, work, and a connection to something larger. It is worth striving to get the right relationships between yourself and others, between yourself and your work, and between yourself and something larger than yourself. If you get these relationships right, a sense of purpose and meaning will emerge.


    p.5 "gut brain" Vagus Nerve.
    p.223 - Vital Engagement - Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's Flow

    p.138 Post-traumatic Growth XXX

    Jonathan Haidt's Moral Modules: (notes from Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique, by Michael S. Gazzaniga - Also note, he has added a 6th module in The Righteous Mind.
    1) Reciprocity Module
    - moral emotions: sympathy, anger, guilt, shame, and gratitude.
    - virtues: sense of fairness, justice, trustworthiness, and patience.
    2) Suffering Module
    - moral emotions: sympathy, compassion, empathy
    - moral virtues: compassion, kindness, righteous anger
    3) Hierarchy Module - navigating social world where status matters
    - moral emotions: guilt, shame, embarrassment, respect, awe, and resentment
    - moral virtues: respect, loyalty and obedience
    4) In-Group/Out-Group Coalition Module -
    - moral emotions: compassion, contempt, guilt, embarrassment, and gratitude.
    - moral virtues: trust cooperation, self-sacrifice, loyalty, patriotism, and heroism.
    5) Purity Module - roots in defending against disease. Long discussion on disgust which is uniquely human and probably developed when we started eating meat ( p.137 )

    2013.07.30 News: Happiness affects your genes, High levels of"eudaimonic well-being", happiness that comes from having a deep sense of purpose and meaning, showed very favorable gene-expression profiles in their immune cells. Hedonic happiness, not so much. News,   Journal,   doi:10.1073/pnas.1305419110

    5 steps to a happier life, great infographic by Leo Romero, based on my book Happiness Hypothesis.

    — Jonathan Haidt (@JonHaidt) February 14, 2015

    last update: 2013.07.30 - 2012.11.24 + 12.21 +tweet 2015.02.15 YON