Saturday, November 22, 2008

Review - The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom

Wow, this is pretty excellent for an Amazon Review.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
5.0 out of 5 stars This might become a classic---so much wisdom in so little space, November 12, 2008
The blurb on the front cover of this book is "For the reader who seeks to understand happiness, my advice is: begin with Haidt." I believe this assertion is exactly right. I have never read a single volume that summarized and wove into a coherent whole the variety of insights concerning human happiness that have been discovered by philosophers and religious gurus of the past and modern social psychologists. Moreover, this book is beautifully written, the exposition of various theories always taking a fresh viewpoint, however venerable the source. Finally, I think this book is a vigorous endorsement of modern social psychology, which beautifully complements and supplements the insights of the grand masters. I am generally critical of social psychology because it does not use the rational actor model and hence consists of a grab-bag of nano-insights with no structural core. But, this body of empirical findings contributes richly to our understanding of human happiness (the reference section of this book is truly a masterpiece, by the way).

Haidt claims there are ten great principles for understanding happiness, and he devotes a chapter to each. The first is the "divided self," we may be summarized as "Our minds are loose confederations of parts, but we identify with and pay too much attention to one part: conscious verbal thinking." (p. 22) Haidt analogizes our mind as a conscious rider on an unconscious elephant. The elephant mostly goes where it wants to go, although our conscious mind never gives up the illusion that it should not only be in the driver's seat, but have a powerful steering wheel. The references here are many, but typical are Freud's Ego vs. Superego/Id, emotional brain vs. rational brain, left vs. right brain and split-brain studies, and the like. This fact about mind is key to understanding happiness because an excessive preoccupation with conscious, volitional action tends to lead people to slight the actions they can take that have little immediate effect, but in the long run lead the elephant to move in ways more conducive to our emotional well-being. The rest of the book explains how this might be done.

Like many chapters of this book, Chapter 2, "Changing your Mind," is deeply paradoxical, or perhaps dialectical. The basic message is well stated in the quotes at the head of the chapter: "life itself is but what you deem it," (Marcus Aurelius) and "our life is the creation of our mind." (Buddha). Whereas it is very natural to think of our perceptions of our lives as real and external as the coffee cup on my table, in fact our perception and interpretation of our personal psychic and interpersonal lives is, in a deep way, personally constructed by our minds. This fact implies that different minds might very well perceive the same situation in very different ways, and this disjunction in perceptions can lead to conflicts that reduce the happiness of all parties and defy resolution because of the disputing parties' lack of insight into the subjective nature of their perceptions.

The dialectical nature of the principle of the "personal construction of reality" is that this construction is normally not conscious, but rather a deep mechanism controlled by the "elephant" over which the rider has virtually no control. It a deeply unsatisfying fact that we are basically incapable of seeing the world in any way other than the way we do, although we may achieve some liberation by recognizing this fact, and "going with the flow" (e.g., by accepting that family members and friends do not see the world as you do, they are not guilty of misperception, and you will not get them to perceive otherwise with sufficient effort on your part).

Haidt brings in a major finding from social psychology here: "happiness is one of the most highly heritable aspects of personality." (p. 33) This does not mean that our happiness cannot be affected by our actions, but the battle to do so is extremely difficult and likely to be only partially successful. This is perhaps why the book is about understanding happiness, not achieving happiness. Nowhere in the book does Haidt claim to offer you the key that will unlock the door to happiness. Rather, Haidt suggests three methods of actually improving our happiness: meditation, cognitive therapy, and Prozac. "All three are effective," he claims "because they work on the elephant." I concur with Haidt in this regard, and especially recommend psychopharmacology for those who remain unhappy after all the objective reasons for being unhappy have been addressed (e.g., a bad marriage, commuting two hour to work in traffic, or having your hand caught in a car door), as long as the side effects are not themselves debilitating.
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