The Happiness Hypothesis – book review

The Happiness Hypothesis – book review

The Happiness Hypothesis

Aug 5th, 2007 by bobleckridge

The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathon Haidt. ISBN 978-0-099-47889-8.

This book is by a Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Virginia. The book’s subtitle is “Putting Ancient Wisdom and Philosophy to the Test of Modern Science”. I read it because it was one of three books about happiness discussed by Jean Kazez here. I really enjoyed it. His writing style is easy and at times humorous. He discusses the understanding of happiness from the perspective of ancient Buddhist and Greek thinkers and in the light of findings from cognitive science and the more recent positive psychology.

He makes a good case for the idea that happiness in the result of several factors – some genetic (the given of the physical functioning of an individual brain), some situational (the conditions of life) and some behavioural (the choices we make, the actions we take). I”ve not really considered the first of those before. I guess I”ve thought that things like happiness, depression, optimism and pessimism are all learned phenomena that emerge from the experience of the events which happen in an individual’s life and the sense that individual makes of those experiences, the stories they tell themselves and others about their life. Recently though, both with certain patients in my practice and with what I”ve been reading in that crossover area between neuroscience, psychology and philosophy, I”ve been coming to understand the more complex and intimate links between the body and the mind and between the physical and the subjective. So it makes sense to me that as we don”t all have either a body or a mind which functions exactly the same way as anybody else’s that experiences of positive and negative emotions will be present to different degrees in different people. What he refers to as a person’s “affective style” emerges from the interplay of approach and avoidance behaviours which is influenced both from their genetic make-up and their early life experiences. I find that a helpful concept.

He shed a light on quite a few other issues for me. I like this phrase –

ê¢__‘Ô_those who think money can”t buy happiness just don”t know where to shop

He then goes on to explain the different effects of spending money on objects as opposed to spending it on quality time and activities with loved ones.

He distinguishes pleasures from gratifications – a pleasure is a sensory and/or emotional delight. It’s transient and if repeated too often the brain adapts to the stimulus and the amount of pleasure drops (you might like ice cream but eat too much of it at a sitting and the pleasure payback fades). A gratification is an activity which fully engages you, draws on your strengths and allows you to lose your self-consciousness. Gratifications improve your mood for longer and you don”t tire of them in the way you tire of pleasures.

He comes down in favour of positive psychology and its emphasis on understanding your strengths and playing to them, linking this to the older idea of acquisition and development of virtues. What goes along with this is his emphasis on taking actions rather than passively sitting waiting for happiness to just float past.

It is vain to say that human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquility; they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it. (Charlotte Bronte)

I liked what he had to say about goals. I often find that talk of goal-setting lacks something but I found it quite hard to put my finger on why. Here’s the explanation. First from Shakespeare –

Things won are done; joy’s soul lies in the doing.

And from the scientific perspective he describes “effectance motive” – we are all driven to make things happen. We get more pleasure from striving towards our goals than we do in achieving them.

His conclusion is this –

Happiness is not something that you can find, acquire, or achieve directly. You have to get the conditions right and then wait.

And he recalls Tolstoy to point to the areas where we need to get the conditions right –

One can live magnificently in this world if one knows how to work and how to loveê¢__‘Ô_..

Through love and through work (in the broadest sense, not work just as employment) we can be engaged with others and with the world and we can experience the joy of making things happen, drawing on our strengths, building our characters, and experiencing meaningful lives.