Haidt, Jonathan: The Happiness Hypothesis

Introducing the book, the proposer – who had been looking particularly chipper in recent months – said that he had resolved to read more non-fiction and science books this year. “The Happiness Hypothesis” by Jonathan Haidt (2006) had been recommended by an eighty year old friend, who was still very much interested in questions such as the meaning of life.

The proposer had found the book to be stimulating and thought-provoking. It was a cross-disciplinary amalgam of fable, literature, psychology, philosophy, literature, and genetics and own-life experience. Haidt’s approach was based on evidence rather than assertion. The style was very accessible and readable, and revealed enough personal information about the writer to humanise the book without making it irritating.

A film of Haidt speaking could be found on the internet at ted.com, a site he recommended. It showed him to be also an extremely cogent speaker. The proposer had been sufficiently impressed to read the book twice, and skim it for a third time. He had recommended it to both his daughters, who were in turn enthusing about it to their friends. It was thus a book that was creating interest across the generations.

The majority of the group shared his enthusiasm. This was so much more than the standard American self-help manual that some had feared. Haidt had a remarkable ability to make complex ideas and research accessible, and to encompass a vast range of learning in concise and elegantly written prose. The range and density of the subjects covered was such that many would want to read the book for a second time to get the full benefit from it. It was an understated book which – unlike, for example, “The Black Swan” – did not trumpet its own virtues.

While much of the book did indeed focus on issues of what made people happy and the possible meaning of life, the book was much broader than that. It provided a wide survey of much modern psychological research, and of many systems of philosophy. To pick up one of Haidt’s own themes, the journey through the book was more rewarding than the destination it reached. Thus the title of the book – no doubt proposed by the publisher – was rather misleading. The yellow Mr Happy smile cover had proved something of an embarrassment to those reading the book in a public place, but at least it reflected the appealing fact that the book did not take itself too seriously.

Much of our discussion therefore did not focus on the happiness issue as such, but on some of the intriguing gems unearthed in the book. Thus we liked the metaphor of the elephant and the rider as a more apt image for the human mind than that of horse and charioteer or id/ego/superego. The elephant’s ability to respond quicker than the conscious mind was echoed in day-to-day experience. We also recognised only too well Haidt’s description of the rider rationalising the prejudices of the elephant. We were also sympathetic to his arguments against the ‘blank slate’ view of the human mind at birth.

 We were struck by Haidt’s ability to empathise with people who took a different world view to his own, based partly on fieldwork. Thus most of us (but it should be said not all) found his analysis of the Eastern mind-set and philosophies compelling. His fair-minded analysis of the role of religion was impressive, particularly when he was not religious himself. He made an interesting point that transcendence was a central concept in religion, but that bureaucrats who had never had a transcendental experience then ran religions. His analysis of the concept of disgust, and how that helped create a whole religious and ethical system that would find Western practice abhorrent, was compelling.

 Similarly his scrupulously even-handed attempt to define the psychological reasons for the difference between Republican and Democrat values in the US, despite being himself a liberal, was most illuminating, and had much wider applicability. It was a refreshing change to the judgemental tone of most political analysis. To understand all is to forgive all, and we were particularly swayed by Haidt’s analysis that the “myth of absolute evil” was a conceptual trap to be avoided.

 (One of our members at this point risked the comment that the newly formed Liberal/Conservative coalition had found that their differences were in reality much less than their tribal rivalries had suggested. Various elephants in the room lumbered to their feet sensing scope for a re-match of last month’s political dust-up over Chris Mullin’s diaries. Mercifully the riders got a grip on their beasts just before they tumbled into that fatal elephant trap…)

 There was general sympathy with the case Haidt made for the positive and active teaching of virtues rather than teaching children to act by reasoning out each individual case. We were intrigued by his discussion of the shift from talking of “character” to talking of “personality”. How often these days did you hear it said that someone was of “good character”? Today’s children could make little sense of Victorian novelists talking about “reputation” and the importance of avoiding pre-marital sex.

 We also recognised the picture of journalism as a profession in which there was a disjunction between the ideals that had led people to join the profession and the reality of the way they were forced to operate, and a consequent impact on the happiness of journalists.

 We liked his analysis of the psychology and ethics of groups, agreeing that in the case of soldiers they were essentially fighting for their mates rather than any wider cause (and noting his ironical observation that cowards were more likely to add to the gene pool).

 So was everyone happy with the book? Well, no – there were some who had plenty of reservations to express (no doubt coincidentally, the group with particularly vocal reservations was the same group which had been spotted hitting the search for happiness in Mathers Bar before the meeting…).

 Wasn’t everything Haidt recommended predictable? A little bit of this, a little bit of that, and everything pretty conventional and rather boring? And wasn’t there a bit of a vogue just now for this type of popular science book?

 And why did Haidt not explore the opposite viewpoint more? Did we really want happiness? What about the viewpoint of the schizophrenic? How would the Chain Saw Massacre murderer feel? (Hmm…difficult one). And what about double-glazing salesmen then?

 Was Haidt right to say that the brain could never be matched by a computer? Evidence from injuries to the brain and progress in artificial intelligence suggested to one reader that he might be wrong.

 The sections of the book dealing with younger people, where he could draw on his own experience (he was in his mid-forties) seemed considerably more convincing than those dealing with older people, where he could only draw on research, as was perhaps inevitable.

 However, most were very positive about the book. But was there anything in it that would change their lives? Well, someone now understood a new way of persuasion, which illuminated a youthful adventure and might now be put to productive uses. Hmmm… Another, far from accepting Haidt’s advice to volunteer because volunteering made the volunteer happy, found it reinforced his suspicion that volunteering was more about the needs of the volunteer than the recipient. But most of us found a lot to ponder on in the book rather than a lot immediately to act on, found that in many cases the book had confirmed things we suspected, and wanted to reflect further through another reading.

 And what about Haidt’s opening section on whether incest between brother and sister, in which there was no chance of children, was in fact immoral? “Ah well”, noted our medical adviser “experts nowadays consider that horizontal incest is less troubling than vertical incest.”

 ??   Run that by me again?

 As we left someone suggested returning to Mathers for a libation. The elephant quickly said yes before the rider could formulate the arguments for temperance.