The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom

The Happiness Hypothesis

Summary of “The Happiness Hypothesis”: Although ancient philosophies such as Stoicism and Buddhism offer very useful practices such as meditation and moderation, recent discoveries in modern science seem to prove that they were wrong in claiming that external factors have no influence on happiness.

By Jonathan Haidt, 2006, 320 pages

Note: this review is written by guest, Hugues Herrmann from the blog

Review and Summary of “The Happiness Hypothesis”:


How should I lead my life? Many people ask themselves this question, and they don’t have to go far to find answers, given that the subject has been covered in every way imaginable by authors and philosophers for millennia. The Happiness Hypothesis focuses on 9 big ideas, each chapter starting with advice given by ancient philosophies in order to re-evaluate it in the light of recent scientific discoveries. 

1. The divided self

Human thought is based on metaphor. Plato considered that the soul was a chariot of which the reins were held by reason. He felt that some emotions, like love of honor, were good, and others, like greed, were bad. However, today, we are trying more and more to compare the human mind to a computer. Social psychology seeks to explain the precise causes of all behaviors. Economists, when developing their theory, pretend that humans behave in a completely rational manner. But then we wonder why we keep doing so many stupid things. The answer is that there are several parts in constant disagreement within us.

  1. The first disagreement is that of the mind against the body. For example, we are not often in control of our facial expression.
  2. The second disagreement is that of the left part of the brain against the right part. It has been observed in some people with a rare disease that both hands refuse to cooperate. One hand can grab a phone but cannot pass it to the other hand. The parts of the brain are also divided between those that are young in the history of evolution and those that are older. Between these, the unconscious part often works much better than the conscious part to solve complex problems because the former had much more time to form during natural selection. There is an opposition between parts that function automatically and other parts that depend on conscious control. The latter allows for a long-term vision, unlike immediate responses.

2. Changing your mind

“What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: our life is the creation of our mind” – Buddha

The Happiness Hypothesis people life

The most important idea that we find in Buddhism and Stoicism is this: what happens in the physical world affects us only through our interpretation of it, so if we control our interpretations, we control our world. The philosopher Boethius, after a life of wealth and glory, found himself locked in prison and then executed. In “The Consolation of Philosophy“, written while he was imprisoned, he explains how philosophy has enabled him to overcome this bad situation, by simply considering it as one of the acts in the play of life.

Psychologists have noticed that for every patient who needs to be more organized in his life, there are dozens of others who should instead relax and make less of an effort to control everything.

Human beings have a strong negative bias: this means, for example, that the pain of losing 30 euros at the casino is much greater than the joy of winning the same amount. In addition, emotions lead us to interpret the outside world with a filter: a wave of anger will make us take everything that others say as an insult or an attack.

Genetics plays an important role in explaining the attitude of each individual dealing with external events, that is to say, their degree of pessimism or optimism. Depending on the parents, each person tends to have a higher or lower average degree of happiness. However, that does not mean that you cannot change if your genes have given you an unfortunate tendency.

The oldest and most effective method is meditation. This reduces stress and increases contentment.

It existed in India long before Buddhism, but the latter contributed to its spread throughout the world. For the Buddha, being attached to elements of the physical world is the same as playing a rigged roulette game: the more you play, the more you lose. Since we take away much more suffering from losing than joy from winning, we should stop playing roulette, that is to say, be detached from all the events that happen to us. In Chapter 5, the author comes back to this point to tell us if this is really a good strategy for most people.

To change one’s mind, meditation is the technique used in the Far East, while in the West, cognitive therapy is often used. Since depressed people tend to see the world through a negative mirror, patients are told to do light forms of exercise every day, each one bringing a dose of happiness: for example, walking for half an hour rather than staying at home brooding. It goes without saying that many people also resort to a much more dangerous therapy: drugs. The author used Prozac for several months. At first, the effects seemed only positive, but after a few weeks he suffered memory loss, not remembering the names of his close friends. This method is therefore strongly advised against in all cases.

3. Reciprocity and revenge

Zigong asked, “Is there any single word that could guide one’s whole life?” The master replied, “Shouldn’t it be reciprocity? What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others”  – Confucius, Chinese philosopher

When philosophers decide to choose a concept and place it above others, reciprocity is often the winner. The human species being characterized by its ultra-sociability, interactions between individuals who don’t know each other happen all the time. To know how to behave with strangers, you have to decide on a rule.

What would you do if a stranger gave you a Christmas present? In his book “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion“, Robert Cialdini explains that the majority of people will in return offer a gift to that person.

Pure evil is much less common than we think. In most cases of conflict, both parties have an important responsibility. Studies have shown that in half of the cases of physical violence within a couple, both parties were physically violent. In all the serious cases that make the headlines, the story is far more complex than what the newspapers suggest.

4. The principles of progress and adaptation

The people who wrote Ecclesiastes sought to avoid the disappointment of success. Think about it: for many things in life, we work hard to reach them. Then once we have succeeded, we feel a moment of intense excitement for a few hours or a few days. After, we no longer feel any joy in having accomplished the goal, and we can only observe the disproportion between the intense effort necessary for months to get closer to the goal and the terribly brief moment of euphoria that we got in return.

Imagine two events that would be the best and the worst things that could happen to you. The first would be winning 20 million euros in the lottery, and the second would be a car accident that would prevent you from walking for life. You probably think you that have achieved eternal happiness in the first scenario and that you could never go through the second scenario. In reality, you are wrong.

The difference in your happiness between these two events won’t be that significant. Admittedly, it’s still better to win the lottery than to have an accident.

However, the brain has a very good capacity to adapt to all situations, even the most extreme ones. And when you adapt, you no longer feel joy or sadness. In addition to adaptation, don’t forget about social relationships. The person who has won the lottery will see many of their “friends” and family members flock around them like birds of prey and are likely to find themselves very isolated. Conversely, the accident victim will probably be witness to the generosity of everyone they know. While the winner, after hitting the lottery, will find things more and more bland, and therefore enter an endless spiral of buying material goods in order to try to satisfy an insatiable desire, the victim will now have understood how precious life is and will fully appreciate each minute as a blessing.

5. An early happiness hypothesis

Buddha and Epictetus criticized the tendency of people to dedicate their lives to a rat race and encouraged them to stop. Their happiness hypothesis can be summed up as follows: “Happiness comes from within, and it cannot be found by seeking to make the world conform to your desires”. However, they did not ask their disciples to go and live in the back of a cellar: Buddhists and stoics were allowed to continue living in society.

The Happiness Hypothesis people life

If they were right, it means that we should radically change the way we think about our lives. But were they actually right? As much as research shows that genetics have a great influence on the level of happiness, the social level seems to have little impact. Take the example of Bob and Marry. Bob earns $100,000 a year, lives in southern California, and his physical condition is impeccable.

Marry lives with her husband in Buffalo, New York, and their combined salary is $40,000. She suffers from significant obesity issues and spends most of her spare time volunteering for the church. If I ask you which life you would choose, you will no doubt answer Bob’s. However, Marry is much happier for the simple reason that she has something that Bob is sorely lacking: social relationships. It seems that social relationships are the external factor that has the most impact on happiness.

Sheldon called the following equation “the formula for happiness”:

H = S + C + V

This means that the level of your happiness (H) is equal to your genetic configuration (S), plus the conditions of your life (C), plus the voluntary activities you do (V).

Living conditions are things that stay constant over a period of time, and to which you are likely to adjust as with your wealth or where you live. Conversely, voluntary activities are things you decide to do, like meditating, going on vacation, or reading a book.

According to Buddhists and Stoics, the equation is actually H = S + V since they encouraged voluntary activities like meditation but said that the conditions of your life have no impact on happiness. The extreme genetic hypothesis, according to which only your genes determine your happiness, considers that H = S. Modern science considers that only some of the conditions in your life actually matter, and that making certain specific changes can lead to more happiness in the long run, or even more unhappiness… Among the situations to which you never fully adapt, there is the stress of traffic jams and a noisy environment that prevents sleep at night. This means that living far from work in order to live in a very large house is a very bad idea.

An axiom of all economics is that people’s choice is rational, and that gets Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” working. Yet, many people devote themselves to goals that work against their own happiness. We wonder why most people spend so much money on bulky material goods of which they’ll tire very quickly, rather than simply working less to have more time to spend with family. People would be happier if they worked less and took more vacation, even if that meant lower pay.

6. The happiness hypothesis reconsidered

When the author wrote The Happiness Hypothesis, he thought that Buddha could win the title of “best psychologist of the last three thousand years”. However, by looking further, he found that Buddhism may be based on an exaggeration or even a myth. According to the accounts, Buddha was the son of an Indian king. At his birth, the king had a prophecy indicating that he was destined to leave the kingdom.

For this reason, he tried to flood him with material pleasures in order to spare him the sufferings of the world. But one day, the Buddha went out into the city, and saw three men: an old man, a sick man and a dead man. From this experience, he deduces that life is only suffering. But what would have happened if he had gone to speak to these three people? Perhaps he would have discovered that they were not suffering as much as he thought.

That’s what the very adventurous psychologist, Robert Biswas-Diener, did.

He traveled the world to ask people about the level of satisfaction in their lives. What he discovered is that people who live in horrible conditions are often less unhappy than you think. Even women in Calcutta who were forced into prostitution to survive were generally quite satisfied with their lives. Despite their very poor condition, they had very close friends and families they loved very much. Another reason for the extreme theory of Buddhism is the time when it originated: at that time, the political turmoil was so great that life and fortunes were constantly destroyed. Admittedly, this also happens in our time, but it’s not comparable.

For the first time in humankind, most people in developed countries will live to be more than70. Many Western philosophers have looked at the same afflictions as Buddha – old age, illness, and death – and came to the opposite conclusion: life should be lived while embracing one’s emotions. The emotional indifference recommended by Buddha and Epictetus would make life bleak and uninteresting. Attachment may bring pain, but it also gives us our greatest joys. However, this does not mean that the author rejects these doctrines 100%, but rather he offers us a principle like yin and yang: “Happiness comes from inside, and happiness comes from outside”.

7. The use of adversity

Many societies have a tradition of predetermined fate. Hindus believe that everyone, at birth, is assigned a path to follow. Imagine that you are a parent, and that you can see the paper on which your child’s destiny is written. You would probably be tempted to erase all negative events with the stroke of a pen. But beware, while wanting to do the right thing, you could cause harm. If Nietzsche was right when he said that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, you could make your child weak and incompletely developed. Perhaps people need adversity to achieve the highest levels of strength and personal development.

Of course, Nietzsche was mistaken: many events are traumatic without increasing the strength of the person. One of the author’s friends saw his wife flee with his children. He did not find them until several months later. Obviously, we don’t wish such events upon anyone, but there were positive aspects. First of all, he realized the importance of family and he greatly increased the time spent with his children. Then, the experience allowed him to deepen his ties with his friends, who all came to support him, and with his parents, who even moved to help him raise his children. Facing a challenge will force you to push the limits of your abilities.

Does this mean it would be dangerous to protect your children too much? We are faced with a dilemma. The only advice one can give is to do neither too much nor too little.

8. The felicity of virtue

The Happiness Hypothesis people life

When old wise men recommend virtue to the young, they act like salespeople, saying to them: come, I have a substance which will give you peace, happiness and wisdom. Even if these wise men, when they were young; rebelled against the old authorities: Buddha fled his father’s palace to create his philosophy. But does virtue really make you happy? Is it true that acting on behalf of others is good for yourself? If you believe in a religion, you take into account the almost omnipresent judgment after death. But even if you are an atheist, there is considerable evidence that making donations and providing support to others increases happiness. Likewise, giving blood helps people to feel good and have high self-esteem.

9. Conclusion: balance

The ancient Chinese symbol of yin and yang represented the idea of the value of the eternal balance between two opposing principles. This is not just a far eastern idea, but a “Big Idea”; which sums up the rest of The Happiness Hypothesis. Science and religion have often been viewed as opposites, but as we see in The Happiness Hypothesis, the wisdom of ancient religions and the wisdom of modern science are both necessary in our quest for happiness.

Buddha, Epictetus, and Lao Tzu didn’t know much about neuroscience, but they were very good psychologists, and although they weren’t 100% right, the techniques they taught, like meditation, has changed the lives of billions of people. It is also said that the approaches of western and far eastern life are opposite: The East encourages collectivism, and the West individualism. Different people at different times in their lives will benefit from striving for one or the other approach. What’s noticeable is that each culture has developed an expertise in one part of human existence; but none is expert in all of them.

Conclusion on “The Happiness Hypothesis”:

The Happiness Hypothesis offers a fairly exhaustive overview of all the theories that exist on happiness; whether these come from philosophy or modern science. The author manages, to a certain extent; to bring together the best ideas of each theory to help us make our choice. Whether through meditation, the proper use of money; or the recognition that the other person is not necessarily wrong just because they criticize us; there is no shortage of concrete and simple ideas to put into action.

Strong points:

  • Lots of practical tips to apply
  • Well-argued ideas and reasoning
  • One of the only such comprehensive books on the subject

Weak points:

  • Some chapters are a little too long with passages not necessarily very interesting and somewhat pointless
  • For some of the key points, we’re a bit left unsatisfied: at times; a few more details would have been appreciated

My rating : The Happiness Hypothesis people life The Happiness Hypothesis people life The Happiness Hypothesis people lifeThe Happiness Hypothesis people lifeThe Happiness Hypothesis people lifeThe Happiness Hypothesis people lifeThe Happiness Hypothesis people lifeThe Happiness Hypothesis people lifeThe Happiness Hypothesis people life

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