The Happiness Hypothesis | Jonathan Haidt


Published in: 2006

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Jonathan Haidt is an American professor of ethical leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business. The book is about what makes us happy and is based on modern research and time-tested wisdom from ancient times.

MATERIAL HAPPINESS IS SHORT-LIVED. A new house or a Ferrari makes us happier, but only temporarily. Relatively quickly we reach a new “happiness plateau” where we feel better materially, but feel as happy as before. The old Stoics believed that the hunt for external things was always a hunt for the wind – even if we catch it temporarily, it will blow away and the hunt will pick up speed again.

THE JOURNEY IS EVERYTHING. Another “happiness trap” is to go around and look forward to the future. That in x years I will do y. It is an unnecessary and difficult approach to life. There is a risk that nothing will come out of the dreams. So we have to make sure that the trip itself is worth it.

“When it comes to goal pursuit, it really is the journey that counts, not the destination. Set yourself any goal you want. Most of the pleasure will be had along the way, with every step that takes you closer. The final moment of success is often no more thrilling than the relief of taking off a heavy backpack at the end of a long hike. If you went on the hike only to feel that pleasure, you are a fool.”

THE HUMAN BRAIN 1.0. According to Haidt, we have only been able to reason as long as languages have existed. In the perspective of world history, it is not very long – an estimated 40,000 to 2 million years. At the same time, “human apes” evolved 20 million years ago. Our reasoning and our awareness are thus relatively new to us. It’s like a new software, version 1.0. While our automated software is in version 7.3.

THE GENETIC LOTTERY. What genes we have greatly affects our happiness. Haidt believes that if you are aware of that, it is easier to be understanding for those who have drawn the winning lottery tickets in life. If you have the “happiness gene”, it is easy to question others’ use of prozac. If you have an “unlucky gene”, medication can be vital.

MEDITATION. Suppose you are reading about a pill that you can take once a day to reduce anxiety and increase your satisfaction. Also, assume that this pill has a large number of positive side effects: increased self-esteem, empathy and confidence. It also improves memory. Also assume that the pill is completely natural and costs nothing. This pill is available. It’s called meditation. This “pill” has been developed for over 2,000 years and has over 500 million users.

FLOW LEADS TO HAPPINESS. When a task is just right difficult and it is something we really want to be able to do, we have great conditions to end up in flow. Haidt calls it “the state of total immersion”. This stage affects our happiness significantly more than, for example, good food or sex – we can get full of them. We can not get too much of flow – then we are and feel the best.

GOOD & BAD ADVERSITY. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche is said to have once said “what does not kill you makes you stronger”. There is also an “adversity hypothesis” that says we need great adversity to maximize what we accomplish in our lives. Haidt is hesitant about this and points out that post-traumatic stress can have a lasting negative impact on us. But adversity, when overcome, can make us realize that we are much stronger than we thought. However, Haidt believes that it is best to have adversity when we are 15–25 years old, if they occur after 30, they rarely have the same positive side effects.

“You can’t have a good life story without vicissitudes, and if the best you can come up with is that your parents refused to buy you a sports car for your sixteenth birthday, nobody will want to read your memoirs.”

RELATIONSHIPS ARE EVERYTHING. Studies have shown that environmental and demographic factors affect our happiness very little. What matters is relationships – especially a strong partnership such as being married or religious. To be a part of something. The other side of the coin is that there are few things that can make us as unhappy as bad relationships.

“Conflicts in relationships is one of the surest ways to reduce your happiness. You never adapt to interpersonal conflict, it damages every day, even days when you don’t see the other person but ruminate about the conflict nonetheless.

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