on 20 August 2007
This, in many ways, is the "self-help" book for people who don't read self-help books.
Its conclusions probably won't surprise anyone - the way to find happiness is mostly just what Socrates, Jesus, Buddha et al suggested - be nice to people, do a job that satisfies you, stop chasing after material wealth, etc.
All of which might lead you to think there's no point in reading it. But there is. Haidt is that rare beast, a serious academic who can write engagingly for the general (educated) readership. Somehow, seeing his synthesis of many, many areas of psychological research creates a real feeling of enlightenment, and I would be very surprised indeed at anyone who didn't find some serious "food for thought" within its pages.
Did reading it make me happier? Well, this is where I'm supposed to say "Well, no, but...", but - to my own surprise - the answer is actually "yes"! Just a little, but enough to justify making the book a "keeper".
Read it, and think about the way you live. Highly recommended.
This book is an underrated masterpiece and should be proudly occupying all thinking persons' bookshelves. Haidt couldn't have written this book better, and he is most certainly to be commended for producing a guide to finding happiness which trumps all others.
His narrative meanders a most cerebrally scenic course via ancient philosophy, comparative religion, science and modern day psychology and literally tests the paradigms of happiness. Thus e.g. : Was Buddhism right to preach the renouncing of all material things? Or, just partly right? What part does gossip really play in our lives? What should the depressed do about their condition? What is the best way to find true happiness in your life, assuming such a thing can be found at all?
These and many other thought engaging questions are analysed with no stone unturned by a most gifted thinker. This reviewer cannot recommend this book more highly (and I normally can't be bothered with the so called "self help section"), buy it you must! A brilliant book. I am left wondering what Haidt will write about next.
on 15 January 2007
This was my best non-fiction book of 2006. Haidt is an academic of genuine flair. In the Happiness Hypothesis he has produced for the general reader a synthesis of robust thinking and research around happiness. It is expressed in an accessible style, using some very simple metaphors to hold the reader's attention on key themes, as the author reviews the best of the philosophy, psychology and neurology of happiness.
To put it another way, this was accessible enough to read in bed, and robust enough to fill over 24 pages of references.
My only caveat, I thought the subtitle - 'Putting ancient wisdom and philosophy to the test of modern science' - did not get to the heart of the book. This makes it sound like a series of tests of famous aphorisms. In face, Haidt is primarily interested in evidence, but uses literary and philosophical sources to illustrate and enliven his science; to ask questions of it, and to keep an open mind. But then I think that's just good science.
What does Haidt mean by happiness? It means finding meaning within life, even if one cannot find the meaning of life. He offers a robust vision of how happiness can be found in this world without the absolute certainties of fundamentalist religious faith, but also considers seriously and sympathetically the sense of the divine that religion offers to underscore our moral sense. He avoids falling into the sort of hopeless posturing indulged by existentialist philosophers or nihilism. He seeks to put the wisdom of the ancients of both East and West to the test of whether their exhortations withstand scrutiny from modern science. Most ambitiously of all, he seeks to step into the cross fire of the US culture war to try and find some sort of reconciliation between the competing visions of liberals and conservatives, and between the secular and the sacred.
First of all he sets out what the nature of the self is - a divided self, a thin crust of rationalism that has evolved relatively recently on the bedrock of a brain better attuned to threats rather than opportunities. This is what makes us so susceptible to forms of thinking and behaving that make us miserable. But here the wisdom of ancient philosophers resonates with modern cognitive behavioural therapy that 'thinking makes things so' - you can change the way you think about events and shape the way you see the world. Meditation and even Prozac have a role to play and he offers a plenty of thought provoking justifications why we should not turn our noses up at the thought of psychopharmacological cosmetic interventions to alleviate mental suffering: some of us through a combination of genes and experience are more likely to be afflicted by negative affective styles and could benefit from it (he describes in vivid detail his own experimentation with Prozac and the mixed results it brought)
Haidt has much to say in praise of Buddhist meditation and its emphasis on severing ties with carnal and material desire. While there is much to be said for this, it is an overreaction to the state of things as people need ties in order to flourish. Indeed, the research of the sociologist Durkheim found that those with few or no commitments are more likely to commit suicide than those embedded in obligations. Too much freedom - in the sense of an absence of any commitment to others - is bad for you.
Further reflections are offered on the nature of human emotion. Far from being divorced from reason, emotions are chained to reason. Those who have no emotional capacity to inform their decisions are paralysed into inaction. They go to a supermarket and stand there dumbfounded by the range of choice open to them and are overwhelmed by data. Being social creatures, we value reciprocity and reputation and gossip is the lubricant of social interaction. Gossip is a form of information sharing. Altruism is the way we build favours and show our willing to co-operate with the rules as social animals. But of course the temptation to feign compliance with the rules and play a Machiavellian game of superficial compliance with social rules while manoeuvring for selfish advantage means we need to find a solution, to save ourselves from ourselves, for our own good. For Haidt religion evolves to solve the collective action problem by reinforcing the rules of good conduct with transcendental foundations.
Haidt's boldest move is to step into the cross fire of the US cultural war between liberals and conservatives, appealing to both sides to recognize that each camp is motivated by moral concerns, and to take off the blinkers and learn from each other. Whether this appeal has the remotest chance of success - judging by the state of US politics, it doesn't - is another question. And human beings are notorious for the biases whereby they spot the shortcomings of others but overlook their own. This has practical implications. The realization that your opponents are driven by moral considerations as much as you may take the vehemence out of conflict and pave the way to some sort of resolution.
This is a thought-provoking book that achieves this effect by careful, lucid and reasoned reflections. It appeals to both your heart and your head and avoids baiting or shallow provocation. It tries to mediate peace between competing visions of the world. Though one can find plenty with which to disagree -I think he verges toward the indulgent when it comes to supposed benefits religion provides in anchoring morality - none of my disagreements diminished my enjoyment of the book. I enjoyed reading it and it changed the way I think when it comes to understanding conflicting definitions of morality, disputes over which cannot be resolved by merely by shouting at each other at the top of your voice. It also offers no easy answers in the search for happiness within life but one thing I found that, while reading it, I was actually quite happy.
on 30 November 2006
This is a very readable humane book. It is both funny and insightful. I finish almost every chapter thinking yes that makes perfect sense. He expresses what we already know in our hearts about happiness; money doesn't do it,material goods don't do it for longer than five minutes. What makes us happy is a combination of genes, upbringing and lifestyle. Happiness is a journey not a destination.
on 7 February 2009
I am a GP and I have read this book more than once over the last 2-3 years. I keep copies of it to lend to patients and many others have ordered it at my suggestion.
The book brings together several important strands of life in a way which certainly makes sense to me and apparently to others. I suspect it will appeal most to people who are more logical in their thinking patterns and find it difficult to understand the apparent irrationality of certain types of belief and behaviour (in themselves and others).
Personally I found the idea of a tiny mahout of conscious rational thinking trying to control the charging elephant of subconcious drives very easy to explain to my patients.
I found a strong resonance with the section on the different kinds of love. My own Version of this chapter would be titled - "Fall in Love, Fall in Lust, but Grow a Trust". and don't have children with someone until you have known them for at least 4 years.
Like most really useful treatments in medicine this book will probably appeal more to people who need its advice least - because by buying the book they have already shown a desire to understand themselves and change. Peope who are sure that they are "right" are the ones who need to see the light under the shadow of the Elephant.
on 23 May 2008
The Happiness Hypothesis
It doesn't really matter what you believe in, we all seek happiness in our lives. So it might just make some sense to understand what happiness actually is and how it can be achieved? The Happiness Hypothesis is neither a self help book nor science for the academic ( although there are several academic papers referenced throughout), it's pop psychology for the curious and inquisitive reader.
Haidt picks his way through various religious aphorisms from Buddhism to Christianity from Hinduism to Islam and selects adages from acclaimed philosophers: Aristotle to Hume, Nietszche to Plato. He presents a selection of maxims from these various thought systems where the underpinning messages have an obvious and striking correlation. What do these correlations mean? And what can clinical psychology add as an explanation? It appears very obvious that there is an innate aspect of the human condition which pertains to happiness. It transcends beliefs, cultures and history. It's important that's understood in ones quest for happiness.
Haidt also goes a bit deeper and more towards the particular as he examines factors which determine happiness in one's job, one's relationships and things that are of a more personal nature. Why are some things more important than others in determining happiness? For example, why is commute time to work more important than the amount of free space in one's home? Haidt explains and substantiates his arguments by referring to experimental evidence and clinical psychology. So it's much more than just relying on 2,000 year old maxims, even though the snippets of ancient wisdoms dovetail nicely with modern scientific evidence he uses.
Some interesting ideas concern not only the remit of happiness but also the very opposite. He discusses best mechanism for dealing with depression: Prozac, meditation or cogitative therapy. He discusses some hard wiring in the brain and behavioural patterns for example the maximizers, who procrastinate and over analyse every choice and decision they make, and the more chilled out satisficers, who reside at the other end of fastidious spectrum. A very thought provoking point discussed is the hypothesis put forward by European Sociologist Emile Durkheim in the late 19th century which correlated probability of suicide with the lack of constraint or obligations in one's life. It's one I had never heard before and with the tragedy of suicide ubiquitous it would certainly make one wonder.
Like all good writers, Haidt has the ability of explaining the esoteric. He does an excellent job of explaining Kant's categorical imperative, scientific concepts such as group selection and the fact that human brain and head size mean that babies are born at very early stage of biological development compared with our primate cousins.
In summary, this book is not an eureka. It's a gentle reminder that happiness is important. There are ways of understanding it that can both be generic or particular and that they are cues from ancient wisdom which we can examine using some modern science and clinical psychology.
on 6 December 2013
A psychologist looks to address the question of the meaning of life and draws on the work that's relevant - ancient philosophy, religions of all kinds, and modern scientific/psychological studies.
There's much to learn from this book about leading an enjoyable and rewarding life, ie a 'meaningful' life, even if Haidt concludes that the questions 'why do we exist?' and so on are questions he is not trying to answer and on which he sheds no light.
There's a prior question about what sort of creature we are, which Haidt thinks of as an 'elephant with a rider' or 'part chimp, part bee' at various times; and in the first chapter as creatures with a mind and a body, with a left brain and a right brain, with a brain composed of different parts (like a building with new extensions), but above all as creatures who work on automatic systems most of the time, then confabulate to justify our actions. No wonder we can be divided and conflicted selves.
Moving on: can we change ourselves? Answer is yes, through cognitive therapy, through meditation, and through Prozac. All can re-orient us and help us feel happier.
Then of course we are social animals, probably geared up (ratio to brain sizing) to live in communities of 100 to 150 people. And 'tit for tat' strategies work for us. But we are much better at finding faults in other than in ourselves - and believe all too readily in the myth of pure evil - most evil coming from threatened self-esteem and idealism.
Moving on to what makes us happy: making progress, rather than arriving; avoiding the things we don't adapt to where they are bad (noise, difficult commuting, not being in control generally) and pursuing them where they are good (plastic surgery). We enjoy the pleasures of the body, need secure attachments, and 'flow' in our activities. Later Haidt summarises as our needing to love and work (as Freud had said).
Haidt also asks 'Is adversity good for us?' (answer at the right age, in the right amount and so on - what we need to do is to make sense of the adversity through a narrative). And studies feelings of transcendence and religion before summing up.
I learned a lot from this book. Some things I would question: Haidt distinguishes between 'attachment' based love and 'passionate' love - but he has no explanation to offer of the latter (beyond saying it activates the brain in the same way as heroin and cocaine). He points out that we are geared for success, not happiness - but this too could do with more discussion. And I'm not sure how convincing it is to write off whole professions as not offering 'vital engagement' in life. (And indeed why does this concept of 'vital engagement' suddenly appear at the end of the book only?)
All that said, however I would very strongly recommend this book to others.
on 23 April 2009
This book describes what we know about happiness, from Greek philosophers vis Buddha to modern psychology. The author has clearly thought about this topic a great deal and explains his ideas clearly and with enthusiasm.
I really liked the way that the ideas were related to how people live their lives in a modern society. The author suggests ways to increase happiness without radically changing the way you live.
I found the book really thought-provoking. Some of the ideas feel like common sense, but reading them set out in such a clear and well-explored way made me think more about the things that do and don't make me happy and why that might be.
I'd recommend this book to anyone who is going through a soul-searching period. It's a good mix of science and life advice.
on 15 June 2014
I bought this on the strength of positive reviews, so feel it is only fair to give a more balanced perspective by pointing out what were for me the weaknesses of the book.
Firstly, most of the ancient "views" are simply presented as simple historical quotes, without context or charm. The many quotes often seem plonked down like soundbites, feeling completely out of place. The modern "test" seems often to be a turgid trawl through various people's research of the 20th century, from Bowlby's attachment theories to the famous marshmallow test - where children were tested to see if they could "wait" for an extra marshmallow, as a prediction of social "success" in life later. (Though author does not clarify or investigate what the yardstick or measure of success was here)
There are other presentations of well-trodden, repeated truisms dressed up as fact and insight without any further illumination e.g. 'humour helps people cope in adversity', or happily married people live longer (what about unhappily married people?). The style of writing was rather dry and uninspiring too, much of it written like a PhD research paper.
There were a few interesting and better parts later in the book e.g. musings on passionate v. companionate love, agape, etc, the uses of adversity and musings on the nature of sacred on his personal reflections on some Hindu ideas. But this was unfortunately overshadowed by the general 'hotchpotch approach' of various unrelated ideas strung rather lovelessly together, a sense of the whole being a lot less than the sum of the parts. Better to preview these bits in the library rather than be stock with the whole book.