Friday, February 10, 2012

The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt


Happiness hypothesis combines philosophical wisdom and scientific research to understand the way we think and act. The author cites some of the elegant studies done in the field of psychology to give us some surprising insights. He shows how gossips, reciprocity, selfishness, sacredness, divinity, virtue, adversity, spirituality have shaped us through time. He finishes the book by attempting to help us through the process of answering the grand question, “What is the meaning of life?”.

The elephant and the rider

The author says that we are made of two different beings - a rational self and an emotional self. He explains this with the metaphor of a rider on an elephant. 

The rider (our rational thoughts) can control the elephant (our emotional self) with the rein on his hands to turn, to run, to stop or to go, only as long as the elephant doesn’t have a will of its own. When the elephant wants to do something of its own, the rider is of no match to the elephant. What could possibly better illustrate this than these kids fighting to control their elephant?


The author adds that most of the times, particularly in moral arguments, the rider just becomes the lawyer for the elephant, fighting in the court of public opinion to persuade others of his elephant’s point of view. When you see a painting, you instantly know if you like it or not. You then invent reasons on the fly to support your liking or disliking and latch on to the first argument that makes sense.

The author points out that we have been paying too much attention only to the conscious verbal thinking. Because we see only a small part of our mind, and ignore our emotional being, we are surprised when urges, wishes and temptations seem to arise from nowhere. How many times have you been surprised by your own powerlessness to carry out your vows and resolutions? 

Do you believe in god?

Let’s imagine for a moment that we live in a flatland. You are a square and I am a triangle. We have been living in this flatland forever. All we know to perceive are just length and breadth. We have never encountered an object with a thickness. Life goes on.

One day a sphere crosses our flat land. All you and I are able to see is a circle that appears from nowhere, appears to grow, shrinks in size after a while and then disappears. (Visualize the sphere being cut by a plane to form a circle). Something magical just happened in our flatland, that is beyond our ability to explain.

Say the sphere gives you some ‘special’ powers to lift you up to get a view of the sphere and our flatland. Now that you have experienced something like never before, you come back to the flat land and narrate your experience. All you can explain and all I can relate to are all sadly in terms of triangles, squares and circles - for I have never experienced a 3D world. Now I can do three things:
  1. I can just reject your experience either as hallucination, or a story that was made up and blatantly reject the existence of the 3D world.
  2. I can blindly accept the existence of the 3D world even though it is beyond my understanding capabilities. 
  3. Keep questioning and keep trying to find ways to experience the 3D world.

So do you believe in god?

Our misguided pursuits

Let’s try this: What would you choose?
  1. A job that pays you $90,000 a year and your co-workers earns on average $70,000 or a job that pays you $100,000 but your co-workers are paid on average $140,000? (Most chose option 1 in a study)
  2. A job that offers you 2 weeks of vacation and your co-workers get 1 week of vacation or a job that gives you 4 weeks of vacation and your co-workers are given 6 weeks of vacation? (Most chose option 2 in a study)
Most activities that cost a lot of money are things to do with people and most of the expensive material possessions are purchased to impress them. Activities connect us to others and objects separate us.


Whoever said money can’t buy happiness doesn’t know where to shop. We know where to shop – stop wasting money on conspicuous consumption, work less, earn less, accumulate less, and “consume” more family time, vacation and other enjoyable activities.

And let’s also be warned it will be extremely difficult to follow for the elephant will always  wrap its trunk around the precious material goods and plays to win the game of life – to impress others, gain their admiration and rise in relative rank.

The bottom line: Happiness is not something that you can find, acquire, or achieve directly. You have to get to the right conditions and then wait. Some conditions are within you and other conditions require relationships to things beyond you. 

Quotes garden
  • If passion drives, let reason hold the Reins.
  • I see the right way and approve it, but follow the wrong.
  • The elephant cares about prestige and not about happiness.
  • Work itself is but what you deem it.
  • A he-goat doesn’t realize that he smells.
  • Gossip paired with reciprocity allow karma to work here on earth, not in the next life.
  • The world we live in is not really one made of rocks, trees, and physical objects; it is a world of insults, opportunities, status symbols, betrayals, saints, and sinners.
  • Do not do to others what you do not want others to do to you.
  • Asking children to grow virtues, looking only within themselves for guidance, is like asking each one to invent a personal language - a pointless and isolating task if there is no community with whom to speak.
  • Awe is the emotion of self-transcendence.

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