Reviewed in the United States on January 22, 2017
Jonathan Haidt is a thinker who seeks harmony where possible, and his book The Happiness Hypothesis strives to achieve a fruitful balance between ancient wisdom and modern science, between East and West, and between liberalism and conservatism.
The overriding metaphor of the book involves portraying the mind as as an elephant and its rider, which Haidt uses to explore the insights of evolutionary psychology. Crucial here is the distinction between automatic and controlled processes. The rider represents rationality (a controlled process), which has evolved to serve the elephant, which represents everything else (automatic processing such as intuitions, instincts and visceral reactions.) The rider and elephant work best when they work together, and the rider can influence the elephant, but the rider is not in charge, and Haidt elaborates how and why the interaction between rider and elephant is often dysfunctional. Though the notion that the mind is divided is hardly novel, Haidt provides a thought provoking, scientifically updated and defensible interpretation of this point of view.
Haidt views the notion that “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” as the root of much ancient wisdom. Haidt sees this Stoic and Eastern quest for serenity through acceptance as having beneficial aspects, but considers it as only part of the happiness equation. And to the extent that this quest is important, a particular criticism of the Western sages is that their valorization of reasoned insight as a freedom producing tool does not accord with our modern understanding of the mind. Though I’m sure Haidt would not dissuade a reader from tackling Marcus Aurelius or Boethius, he prefers cognitive behavioral therapy as a scientifically updated version of Boethius-like cognitive reframing activities that takes account of the powerful Elephant and its tendency-as seen through our evolved negativity bias-to be be pessimistic. As Haidt puts it: “Cognitive therapy works because it teaches the rider how to train the elephant rather than how to defeat it directly in an argument.” Haidt is also a big fan of meditation, an ancient practice that tames and calms the elephant directly. Haidt also is a supporter of SSRI’s like Prozac, and thinks that since our affective style-which reflects the balance of power between our approach and withdrawal systems-turns out to be largely genetically determined (though meditation and cognitive therapy shows there is obviously some room for self-improvement), SSRI’s can benefit some losers of the “cortical lottery” who otherwise might have very limited prospects for relief from depression, anxiety and the like.
Haidt points out that group life is enabled to a great degree by reciprocal “tit for tat” strategizing, and says such behavior is absolutely critical for personal happiness. However, there are problematic complications. Seeming to be a good team player is more practically important than the reality, and persuading others of our good intentions works better when we are convinced of these intentions ourselves regardless of the facts. Haidt notes “we are well-armed for battle in a Machiavellian world of reputation manipulation, and one of our most important weapons is the delusion that we are non-combatants.” This applies both to persons as individuals and to persons to the extent they identify as members of groups. Haidt explores concepts like the inner lawyer, the rose-colored mirror, naive realism, and the myth of pure evil to argue that we have come equipped with evolved cognitive processes that predispose us to hypocrisy, self-righteousness, and moralistic conflict. Haidt also thinks evolutionary pressures have certainly contributed to often joyless “rat race” pursuits and their accompanying worries: “the elephant cares about prestige, not happiness.”
Pursuing happiness necessitates becoming aware of and dissatisfied with the various self-promoting games we all tend to play-see his discussion regarding the progress and adaptation principles and the resulting weak relationship between environment and happiness-and striking out in a new direction. Haidt thinks that adversity is crucial for helping people to reassess and make meaningful alterations in their lives, and to develop greater coherence across what he takes to be the three levels of personality (basic traits, characteristic adaptations, and life story), all of which promotes human flourishing. He talks a lot about post traumatic growth-and he thinks that this insight if taken seriously has profound implications for how we structure our society and our lives. Haidt acknowledges, though, that one can experience too much adversity, and that it can strike at unhelpful stages in life. He thinks that adversity tends to be most profitable if experienced when one is in his/her 20’s. Though Haidt doesn’t mention it in his book, an obvious application here applies to college campuses. Haidt is a well known defender of free speech at the University level who laments the stultifying effects of PC orthodoxy on intellectual inquiry; if he is right about the 20’s being the best time to experience post-traumatic growth, than one could also criticize PC “snowflake culture” on the contemporary college campus as a factor inhibiting personal development because of excessive sheltering.
Haidt provides a Happiness equation, H=S+C+V, where S stands for the biological set point (the affective style, which can be altered to a degree), C stands for conditions (some of which are inalterable and others which can be changed), and V stands for voluntary activities. A stoic or an Eastern sage would define the happiness equation as merely H=S+V, with the voluntary activities in question being those that promote serene acceptance, thereby improving S. Haidt builds on this beginning, however, insisting that yes, there are conditions and other voluntary activities that matter. Meaningful relationships are important for Haidt, and by exploring attachment theory, he particularly argues for companionate love as a condition that definitely bolsters happiness. And utilizing the scholarship of Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, he points to activities that promote “flow” as part of the happiness equation as well. Summing up, if what one might call “the wisdom of the East” taught that happiness was to be found within, Haidt says that it is to be found within and without, though we need to be very discerning about where to look for it outside ourselves.
Haidt refines his outlook on happiness even further. We can find love in relationships and strive to find flow-ideally in our work-but Haidt goes further by speaking of “vital engagement,” a relationship to the world that is characterized both by experiences of flow and by meaning. Haidt’s vital engagement prioritizes journey over destination, an outlook that accords well with what he has to say about the effectance motive and the related progress principle. For Haidt, vital engagement is another way of saying that work has become love made visible. Haidt’s revised outlook on happiness is that it “comes from between;” since vital engagement exists in the relationship between the person and the environment, this right relationship is not entirely up to the individual.
Accordingly, Haidt emphasizes the importance of cross-level coherence between the physical, psychological, and sociocultural realms for creating a sense of meaning conducive to happiness. The liberal atheist Haidt-he has since started calling himself a political centrist- thus appreciates conservative, durkheimian insights into the importance of “community” for human flourishing, views the “character” approach to ethics as superior to the long dominant rationalist “quandry” approach, sees virtuous behavior as conducive to happiness, conceives of the perception of the “divine” as natural to man and as ennobling, regardless of whether or not God actually exists, and writes appreciatively of the work of David Sloan Wilson regarding religion as a evolutionary group adaptation designed to promote cross-level coherence. Haidt thinks the scientific community should accept religiosity as a normal and healthy aspect of human nature, and that maybe non-religious people can learn something from religious people, whether or not they believe in God.
Haidt’s book was a pleasure to read, and has spurred my interest regarding many authors and texts he weaves into his argument. In addition to opening new vistas and providing food for thought over a host of topics, evolutionary psychology in Haidt’s hands helps support time honored components of the “good life” such as family, vocational calling, faith, and community. And his own academic career strikes me as an example of the vital engagement he valorizes.
This book is definitely worth a read.