Top positive review
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Brings a smile to your face
on 4 November 2012
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.