The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom - by Jonathan Haidt

Two ancient truths must be understood before you can take advantage of modern psychology to improve your life. The first truth is the foundational idea of this book: The mind is divided into parts that sometimes conflict. Like a rider on the back of an elephant, the conscious, reasoning part of the mind has only limited control of what the elephant does. The second idea is Shakespeare's, about how "thinking makes it so." (Or, as Buddha said, "Our life is the creation of our mind.")

The rider is an advisor or servant; not a king, president, or charioteer with a firm grip on the reins. The rider is an interpreter module; it is conscious, controlled thought. The elephant, in contrast, is everything else. The elephant includes the gut feelings, visceral reactions, emotions, and intuitions that comprise much of the automatic system. The elephant and the rider each have their own intelligence, and when they work together well they enable the unique brilliance of human beings. But they don't always work together well.

Events in the world affect us only through our interpretations of them, so if we can control our interpretations, we can control our world.

Bad is stronger than good. Responses to threats and unpleasantness are faster, stronger, and harder to inhibit than responses to opportunities and pleasures. This principle, called "negativity bias," shows up all over psychology.

For Buddha, attachments are like a game of roulette in which someone spins the wheel and the game is rigged: The more you play, the more you lose. The only way to win is to step away from the table. And the only way to step away, to make yourself not react to the ups and downs of life, is to meditate and tame the mind. Although you give up on the pleasures of winning, you also give up the larger pains of losing.

Meditation tames and calms the elephant. Meditation done every day for several months can help you reduce substantially the frequency of fearful, negative, and grasping thoughts, thereby improving your affective style.

The very process of give and take creates a feeling of partnership, even in the person being taken. So the next time a salesman gives you a free gift or consultation, or makes a concession of any sort, duck. Don't let him press your reciprocity button. The best way out, Cialdini advises, is to fight reciprocity with reciprocity. If you can reappraise the salesman's move for what it is -- an effort to exploit you--you'll feel entitled to exploit him right back. Accept the gift or concession with a feeling of victory--you are exploiting an exploiter-- not mindless obligation.

Thinking generally uses the "makes sense" stopping rule. We take a position, look for evidence that supports it, and if we find some evidence--enough so that our position "makes sense " -- we stop thinking. But at least in a low-pressure situation such as this, if someone else brings up reasons and evidence on the other side, people can be induced to change their minds; they just don't make an effort to do such thinking for themselves.

Over and over again, studies show that people set out on a cognitive mission to bring back reasons to support their preferred belief or action. And because we are usually successful in this mission, we end up with the illusion of objectivity. We really believe that our position is rationally and objectively justified.

"Naive realism": Each of us thinks we see the world directly, as it really is. We further believe that the facts as we see them are there for all to see, therefore others should agree with us. If they don't agree, it follows either that they have not yet been exposed to the relevant facts or else that they are blinded by their interests and ideologies. People acknowledge that their own backgrounds have shaped their views, but such experiences are invariably seen as deepening one's insights. It just seems plain as day, to the naive realist, that everyone is influenced by ideology and self-interest. Except for me. I see things as they are.

The anthropologist Clifford Geertz wrote that "man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun." That is, the world we live in is not really one made of rocks, trees, and physical objects; it is a world of insults, opportunities, status symbols, betrayals, saints, and sinners. They are the Matrix; they are a consensual hallucination.

Try this now: Think of a recent interpersonal conflict with someone you care about and then find one way in which your behavior was not exemplary. Maybe you did something insensitive (even if you had a right to do it), or hurtful (even if you meant well), or inconsistent with your principles (even though you can readily justify it). When you first catch sight of a fault in yourself, you'll likely hear frantic arguments from your inner lawyer excusing you and blaming others, but try not to listen. You are on a mission to find at least one thing that you did wrong. When you extract a splinter it hurts, briefly, but then you feel relief, even pleasure. When you find a fault in yourself it will hurt, briefly, but if you keep going and acknowledge the fault, you are likely to be rewarded with a flash of pleasure that is mixed, oddly, with a hint of pride. It is the pleasure of taking responsibility for your own behavior. It is the feeling of honor.

"The progress principle": Pleasure comes more from making progress toward goals than from achieving them. Shakespeare captured it perfectly: "Things won are done; joy's soul lies in the doing."

It turns out that there really are some external conditions that matter. There are some changes you can make in your life that are not fully subject to the adaptation principle, and that might make you lastingly happier. It may be worth striving to achieve them.

  • Noise

  • Commuting

  • Lack of control

  • Shame

  • Relationships

Drawing on Csikszentmihalyi's work, Seligman proposes a fundamental distinction between pleasures and gratifications. Pleasures are "delights that have clear sensory and strong emotional components," such as may be derived from food, sex, backrubs, and cool breezes. Gratifications are activities that engage you fully, draw on your strengths, and allow you to lose self-consciousness. Gratifications can lead to flow. Seligman proposes that V (voluntary activities) is largely a matter of arranging your day and your environment to increase both pleasures and gratifications. Pleasures must be spaced to maintain their potency. Pleasures should be both savored and varied.

Gratifications ask more of us; they challenge us and make us extend ourselves. Gratifications often come from accomplishing something, learning something, or improving something. When we enter a state of flow, hard work becomes effortless. We want to keep exerting ourselves, honing our skills, using our strengths. Seligman suggests that the key to finding your own gratifications is to know your own strengths. One of the big accomplishments of positive psychology has been the development of a catalog of strengths. You can find out your strengths by taking an online test at If you know your strengths and draw up a list of five activities that engage them, you can surely add at least one gratification to every day.

Activities connect us to others; objects often separate us. So now you know where to shop. Stop trying to keep up with the Joneses. Stop wasting your money on conspicuous consumption. As a first step, work less, earn less, accumulate less, and "consume" more family time, vacations, and other enjoyable activites.

Passionate love does not turn into companionate love. Passionate love and companionate love are two separate processes, and they have different time courses. If you are in passionate love and want to celebrate your passion, read poetry. If your ardor has calmed and you want to understand your evolving relationship, read psychology. But if you have just ended a relationship and would like to believe you are better off without love, read philosophy.

Having strong social relationships strengthens the immune system, extends life (more than does quitting smoking), speeds recovery from surgery, and reduces the risks of depression and anxiety disorders. It's not just that extroverts are naturally happier and healthier; when introverts are forced to be more outgoing, they usually enjoy it and find that it boosts their mood. Even people who think ihey don't want a lot of social contact still benefit from it. And it's not just that "we all need somebody to lean on"; recent work on giving support shows that caring for others is often more beneficial than is receiving help. We need to interact and intertwine with others; we need the give and the take; we need to belong. An ideology of extreme personal freedom can be dangerous because it encourages people to leave homes , jobs, cities, and marriages in search of personal and professional fulfillment, thereby breaking the relationships that were probably their best hope for such fulfillment.

Ancient texts rely heavily on maxims and role models rather than proofs and logic. Maxims are carefully phrased to produce a flash of insight and approval. Role models are presented to elicit admiration and awe. When moral instruction triggers emotions, it speaks to the elephant as well as the rider. They emphasize practice and habit rather than factual knowledge. Morality, for the ancients, was a kind of practical wisdom.

Diversity is like cholesterol: There's a good kind and a bad kind, and perhaps we should not be trying to maximize both. Liberals are right to work for a society that is open to people of every demographic group, but conservatives might be right in believing that at the same time we should work much harder to create a common, shared identity.

When people think about morality, their moral concepts cluster into three groups, which he calls the ethic of autonomy, the ethic of community, and the ethic of divinity. When people think and act using the ethic of autonomy, their goal is to protect individuals from harm and grant them the maximum degree of autonomy, which they can use to pursue their own goals. When people use the ethic of community, their goal is to protect the integrity of groups, families, companies, or nations, and they value virtues such as obedience, loyalty, and wise leadership. When people use the ethic of divinity, their goal is to protect from degradation the divinity that exists in each person, and they-value living in a pure and holy way, free from moral pollutants such as lust, greed, and hatred. In my dissertation research on moral judgment in Brazil and the United States, I found that educated Americans of high social class relied overwhelmingly on the ethic of autonomy in their moral discourse, whereas Brazilians, and people of lower social class in both countries, made much greater use of the ethics of community and divinity.

By giving each one of us an inner world, a world full of simulations, social comparisons, and reputational concerns, the self also gave each one of us a personal tormenter. We all now live amid a whirlpool of inner chatter, much of which is negative (threats loom larger than opportunities), and most of which is useless. It is important to note that the self is not exactly the rider--much of the self is unconscious and automatic--but because the self emerges from conscious verbal thinking and storytelling, it can be constructed only by the rider. The self is the main obstacle to spiritual advancement, in three ways. First, the constant stream of trivial concerns and egocentric thoughts keeps people locked in the material and profane world, unable to perceive sacredness and divinity. This is why Eastern religions rely heavily on meditation, an effective means of quieting the chatter of the self. Second, spiritual transformation is essentially the transformation of the self, weakening it, pruning it back in some sense, killing it--and often the self objects. Give up my possessions and the prestige they bring? No way! Love my enemies, after what they did to me? Forget about it. And third, following a spiritual path is invariably hard work, requiring years of meditation, prayer, self-control, and sometimes self-denial. The self does not like to be denied, and it is adept at finding reasons to bend the rules or cheat. Many religions teach that egoistic attachments to pleasure and reputation are constant temptations to leave the path of virtue. In a sense, the self is Satan, or, at least, Satan's portal.

If people are like plants, what are the conditions we need to flourish? In the happiness formula from chapter 5, H(appiness) = S(etpoint) + C(onditions) + V(oluntary activities), what exactly is C? The biggest part of C, as I said in chapter 6, is love. No man, woman, or child is an island. We are ultrasocial creatures, and we can't be happy without having friends and secure attachments to other people. The second most important part of C is having and pursuing the right goals, in order to create states of flow and engagement. Most people can get more satisfaction from their work. The first step is to know your strengths. Take the strengths test and then choose work that allows you to use your strengths every day, thereby giving yourself at least scattered moments of flow. If you are stuck in a job that doesn't match your strengths, recast and reframe your job so that it does.

People gain a sense of meaning when their lives cohere across the three levels of their existence (autonomy, community, transcendence.)