The Happiness Hypothesis

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This book got a laudatory mention from Will Wilkinson. There was also a flurry of web discussion in many of the sites I frequent about how the theories of the book's author, Jonathan Haidt, intersect with American politics. (Jonah Goldberg joins the discussion, and points to a lot of others here.) So I picked it up at the UNH library, and it's a pretty good read.

The subtitle is "Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom" and the sub-sub-title is "Why the Meaningful Life Is Closer Than You Think". It sounds like a schlocky self-help book, and you can probably use it for that, but it's more. Haidt is a research psychologist at the University of Virginia, and his work shows where and how those old coots in robes had decent insights into the mind.

At the beginning, Haidt introduces, an arresting metaphor that weaves itself into the rest of the book.

Modern theories about rational choice and information processing don't adequately explain weakness of the will. The older metaphors [proposed by Buddha and Plato] about controlling animals work beautifully. The image that I came up with for myself, as I marvelled at my weakness, was that I was a rider on the back of an elephant. I'm holding the reins in my hands, and by pulling one way or the other I can tell the elephant to turn, to stop, or to go. I can direct things, but only when the elephant doesn't have desires of his own. When the elephant really wants to do something, I'm no match for him.
Obviously, rogue elephants can be rough on both the rider and innocent bystanders. So the discussion of happiness quite quickly becomes a story about how to control your inner elephant better. And (it turns out), this rapidly becomes a discussion of moral systems: the happy life is the ethical life.

Haidt describes himself as a "Jewish atheist" and a "political liberal," so it's especially revalatory to have him take up seriously in the later chapters discussions of religious insights into morality. He (seemingly reluctantly) has come to believe that these can't be ignored when discussing how to live the good life; to a happiness researcher, they're as real as gravity and electromagnetism are to the physicist.

If you'd like to see more about the book, there's a website devoted to it here. You'll note that the paperback version has an elephant on the cover …

Last Modified 2024-02-02 4:15 AM EDT