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The Happiness Hypothesis
Read in 22 min.
Listen in 27 min.
Learn the key ideas of the book by Jonathan Haidt

The Happiness Hypothesis

Applying science, philosophy, and psychology to the pursuit of happiness

Today, we all cling to the idea that only by having more money, love, or success will we become truly happy. In The Happiness Hypothesis, psychologist Jonathan Haidt traces a connection between the philosophy of the past, and contemporary science and psychology. He investigates whether the fundamental principles of past thinking can be applied to modern life, and how we can put them into practice in a way that improves our understanding of life, love, and happiness. Ten extraordinary ideas and a recurring metaphor guide the reader as we embark on our pursuit of happiness.

The Happiness Hypothesis
Read in 22 min.
Listen in 27 min.

Satisfaction in our lives is driven by emotion, which in turn is determined by the ways in which our mental filters affect how we interpret and react to events and situations

The human brain is constantly battling between emotion and reason. The key to happiness lies in finding the right balance between these two elements. The best metaphor for the human mind is to visualise the image of a rider sitting on the back of an elephant, in which the rider represents reason, and does his best to try and guide the elephant. However, the animal is much more powerful, and has a will of its own, so it will only comply with the rider’s commands if they do not conflict with its own desires. Therefore, the rational part of our mind can advise and guide our emotional core but, in a battle of wills, emotion almost always wins over reason. 

The mind is divided in four ways: mind versus body, left versus right, old versus new, and control versus reflex. We have all experienced involuntary bodily reactions, because our bodies reveal our innermost thoughts, even when we would rather they did not. For example, our palms sweat when we are nervous, and our eyes water when we are sad or angry. This is because our autonomic nervous system, or 'gut brain', controls many of our bodily functions independently of our 'head brain', where conscious thought is generated. The two influence each other simultaneously, but can also operate separately from one another.

The brain is divided into two hemispheres, where the left controls language and analytical activities, and the right side recognises patterns, and is responsible for facial recognition. Neurologists have found that people with higher brainwave activity in the left hemisphere of their brain tend to also have higher levels of overall happiness, compared to people with more activity in the right side of their brain.

The frontal cortex is one of the 'newer' parts of the brain, in terms of its overall evolution. In the rider and elephant metaphor, the frontal cortex is the rider, and enables greater thinking, analysis, and decision-making. This is what enables us to learn from our experiences. Reason and emotion are not mutually exclusive, but work together. One of the most effective ways to increase happiness is to bring them both together in harmony with one another, using the power of reason to guide our emotions towards healthier and more fulfilling desires. 

Mental processes are mostly unconscious, although they are capable of influencing the behaviour that we consider conscious, which involves complex strategies and planning. The conscious processing parts of our brain, such as language, are relatively ‘young’, and we have not yet completely understood how to use them. They allow us to exert control over our immediate desires for pleasure, such as food and sex, but the automatic system still has the upper hand.

As human beings, we are mainly controlled by our desires, which are in turn driven by emotions, not reason. One part of our brain, the elephant, determines our opinions and positions on moral issues, while the other part, the rider, creates reasons to justify those opinions, but only after the elephant has already made its decision. 

We would all be healthier and happier if we paid less attention to the controlled and conscious parts of ourselves, and accepted that the elephant is just as important.


The key ideas of "The Happiness Hypothesis"

Satisfaction in our lives is driven by emotion, which in turn is determined by the ways in which our mental filters affect how we interpret and react to events and situations
One of the main obstacles on our path to happiness is our tendency towards negativity. We need to shift our mental structures and thought patterns towards more positive and fulfilling interpretations of events
Happiness is also influenced by our connections with other people. Reciprocity shapes and governs our happiness by strengthening the relationships we have with others
The key to happiness is not to avoid desire, but to desire the right things
Love and attachment are fundamental to the development of independence, in animals as well as in humans
Under certain circumstances, adversity can be beneficial to happiness and human fulfilment
In order to understand the meaning of life, we must see human beings for what they really are
Take-home message
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