A critique of the happiness hypothesis

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A critique of the happiness hypothesis

Buddha compared the experience of being human to that of a trainer rationality sitting astride an elephant animal impulse ; Plato to that of a charioteer the rational mind trying to control two horses, a noble one pulling to the right and a libidinal one pulling to the left.

And of course there's Freud's Victorian version: In the late 20th century these pictures were dismissed by many in the social sciences and replaced with metaphors of information processing and rational consumption, metaphors which in turn reflected the preoccupations of their time.

When Jonathan Haidt suggests that we now abandon these and return to the idea of elephant and rider as a template for the workings of the mind, it seems at first blush rather an unpromising start to a book purporting to tell us how to be happy.

But unlike so many of the world's purveyors of self-help and lifestyle philosophy, not to mention its economists and computational psychologists, Haidt knows what he's talking about. Thanks to having taught psychology at the University of Virginia for 20 years he has a deep understanding of his subject.

He adds to that the distinction of being broadly right.

The Elephant & The Rider

What horses and chariots and elephants with riders draw attention to, he argues, is something that psychologists have only recently begun to realise: You can do a lot with automatic processes. You can navigate by the stars migrating birdsfight wars and run fungus farms antseven make tools early hominids.

The mechanism central to all of these highly specialised automatic systems is dopamine release, little bursts of this neurotransmitter being the way the brain rewards animals for doing things like eating, building nests and having sex that are good for the survival of our genes.

Controlled processing, however, is an altogether more slippery - and rarer - beast. To start with, it requires language. Higher cortical functioning came on the scene only around 40, years or so ago, and is weak and buggy by comparison.

This, Haidt points out, "helps to explain why we have inexpensive computers that can solve logic, maths and chess problems as well as any human can" but no robot that can walk in the woods as well as a six-year-old child.

So here we are: What has this got to do with happiness? The answer to that is at the crux of this marvellous book. Haidt's key insight is that emotion is just the expression of the mechanisms by which rider and elephant interact. Happy people are the ones in whom the interaction is smooth, in whom the gears mesh, in whom the different levels add up to a more or less coherent whole.

Unhappiness occurs when rider and elephant have major differences about how to do things, a fairly common situation since, while the rider tends to be more interested in happiness, the elephant is bent on achieving prestige and the possibilities for gene dissemination and survival that it brings.

A critique of the happiness hypothesis

It doesn't help that, despite being big and lumbering and bent on being alpha animal, the elephant is also a total scaredy-cat.

A "negativity bias" against strange people and new experiences is built into the actual structure of the brain in the way the amygdala and thalamus are wiredbut though this might be annoying, it does make sense: Miss a chance for a meal and the likelihood is that another one will be along in a while.

Miss the sign of a nearby predator and it's game over. Having thus developed his metaphor into a detailed and robustly argued picture of the mind, Haidt then takes us on an extraordinary journey. On the way he explains why meditation, cognitive therapy and Prozac are all extremely sensible ways to treat depression, why Buddhism is an over-reaction to the state of things, in what way religion is a canny cultural solution to the problems of group selection in evolution, why lovers often behave like children and what this means, how gossip is the key to human culture, and why journalists are miserable.

He also has a stab at explaining the current political divide in US politics, though this is one of the very few moments in the book when things begin to sound a little glib.

Book Review: The Happiness Hypothesis

That aside, I don't think I've ever read a book that laid out the contemporary understanding of the human condition with such simple clarity and sense.They proposed a particular happiness hypothesis: Happiness comes from within, and it cannot be found by making the world conform to your desires.

Both doctrines are based on an empirical claim, a happiness hypothesis that asserts that striving to obtain goods and goals in the external world cannot bring you more than momentary happiness.

The Happiness Hypothesis is a rare achievement: a book that is both scientifically sound and well-written. This academic masterpiece reads like a novel and is at the same time a genuine moral achievement.

The Happiness Hypothesis is like a mystery novel – the author explores a series of suspects, one by one, hoping that each in turn is the answer to the question, “What’s the best path to sustained happiness?” The first suspect was meditation, followed by Prozac and cognitive therapy.

Jun 28,  · This week going over best 10 ideas on: The Happiness Hypothesis.

The Happiness Hypothesis - Wikipedia

Today’s book summary and book review: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. A great read on the positive psychology movement. 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 Happiness Hypothesis Summary December 24, January 3, niklasgoeke Self Improvement 1-Sentence-Summary: The Happiness Hypothesis is the most thorough analysis of how you can find happiness in our modern society, backed by plenty of scientific research, real-life examples and even a formula for happiness.

Book Review: The Happiness Hypothesis | Greater Good Magazine