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Jonathan Haidt's views on happiness

The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt attempts a synthesis of various strands, of the ancient wisdom of the Greeks and Eastern philosophers and sages with the new 'science of happiness'.

 He selects ten recurring 'Great Ideas' culled from ancient wisdom and philosophy and considers them in the light of modern research. These ten ideas actually cover five broader areas:

How the mind works: In this area Haidt considers the various ways our minds are split into two often conflicting parts and the idea that our lives are largely a creation of how we think. He introduces his metaphor of the rider and elephant (see below) and adds the modern discovery of our mind's built-in bias towards negativity, commenting on three techniques to overcome this (discussed later).

Human cooperation and social relationships: The next chapters focuses on the universal golden rule of 'reciprocity'.  He then goes on to show the human tendency to be unable to see our own faults but quick to spot those of others. He suggests how our awareness of this blind spot can help overcome it: reduce conflict with others and also ways to avoid exploitation by people who use our built-in reciprocity reflex to their own advantage.

The source of happiness: Here Haidt challenges the Buddhist and Stoic idea that happiness comes only from within by pointing to research that happiness can also come, in part, from without. Chapter six considers the fundamental need for love and close relationships and its importance for happiness.

The conditions for psychological and moral growth: Haidt first considers how adversity can often, especially if one learns how to make sense of it, lead to psychological growth and reveal previously untapped strengths. But he concludes that adversity, to be beneficial, needs to faced with social support and is best managed in certain periods of life. In the following chapter, he agrees with Buddha, Epicurus and Aristotle that creating virtue will result in happiness and that virtue has to be cultivated through regular practice.

Finding meaning, purpose and fulfilment: These last two chapters discuss the spiritual dimension and Haidt draws on his own specialised area of the moral emotions of awe and elevation. He expresses his sympathy with the sentiments of such towering figures as William James, the father of American psychology, and Abraham Maslow, the founder of humanistic psychology, who lamented the desacralizing of the world, largely at the hands of science. His final chapter concludes that happiness, a sense of meaning and purpose within life, comes through gaining inner harmony between our conflicting parts and right relationships with others, work and something larger than ourselves.

The book is full of insights and revealing research. His reviews of the findings of neuroscience are particularly interesting. He discusses the work of Antonio Damasio and others, for example, that shows how emotion and reason are not governed by distinct parts of the brain as was previously thought - i.e the neocortex as the seat of reason and the limbic system as the seat of emotion. Rather, they are both inextricably linked, the one dependent on the other, with the frontal cortex, specifically the orbitofrontal cortex, playing a huge role in emotion. With the evolutionary emergence of the neocortex, not only did reason become possible but emotions were made more sophisticated  - they did not just stay behind in the limbic system.

Rider and the elephant
These findings give neuroscientific support a metaphor Haidt uses throughout the book to describe our dual nature: that of the rider and the elephant. The rider is seen as reason and the elephant as emotion and to behave intelligently they both have to work together, although Haidt stresses that the elephant does most of the work.

He stays with neuroscience to discuss the pioneering work of Richard Davidson. Davidson has shown that people who have more activity in the left prefrontal cortex ('lefties') are happier, experience less fear, anxiety and shame and are less prone to depression than people who show more activity in the right prefrontal cortex. The bad news, at least for the 'righties', is that we are born with either one of these neurological preconfigurations - what Haidt calls the 'cortical lottery' - and they colour our 'affective style' (the balance of positive or negative emotion and feelings) throughout our lives. But the good news is that we can do things to change our affective style and Haidt mentions three main tools: cognitive therapy, prozac and meditation. Since Haidt wrote this book there has been  major pieces of research published which question the efficacy of antidepressants, and so this last tool should be though of with a large question mark after it.

Three tools  to make changes
Cognitive therapy, and cognitive behavioural therapy, works by challenging and reframing our automatic thoughts. In Haidt's terminology, it teaches the rider how to train the elephant. It is surprising to see Haidt advocating the use of Prozac but here's his argument in favour, coming from his personal experience of being a 'righty' and using Prozac for a short period: it's easy for those who did well in the cortical lottery to preach about the importance of hard work and the unnaturalness of chemical shortcuts. But for those who, through no fault of their own, ended on the negative half of the affective style spectrum, Prozac is a way to compensate for the unfairness of the cortical lottery. As mentioned earlier this last point is questionnable - in light of the recent advances in science.

His third technique is meditation, which has none of the side-effects of Prozac and is completely natural. It works by taming the elephant and changing one's affective style.

Virtue and Moral Growth
This emphasis on the need to train the elephant is continued in his discussion on virtue and moral growth, where he claims that cultivating virtue will make you happy. After an interesting review of ancient and post-Enlightenment Western approaches to virtue he concludes that it was a fundamental mistake of the West to move from a concentration on character, which the Greeks did, to a focus on moral dilemmas and moral reasoning. This is because such a move involves only the rider, leaving the more powerful elephant intact and untrained. 'Trying to make children behave ethically by teaching them to reason well is like trying to make a dog happy by wagging its tail. It gets causality backwards'.

The question of character and virtue is something positive psychology has championed. One of its major works, designed to act as a counterpart to the all-powerful DSM classification of mental disorders, is a classification of character strengths and virtues, of those qualities that lead to mental health. Written by Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, it delineates a set of six abstract, universally held virtues  - wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance and transcendence - each of which embraces more concrete character strengths, like self-control, prudence and humility for the virtue temperance. By cultivating these character strengths we can cultivate the virtues they embody.

This conception of strengths and virtue brings back Aristotle's notion of the cultivation of virtue and excellences as the source of eudaimonia or happiness. It also resonates with the Buddhist Eight-Fold Path's focus on ethical behaviour and mental discipline and Confucius stress on the need for regular practice. A Haidt puts it, 'virtue resides in a well-trained elephant'.

And all this also has significant political implications. If is true that cultivating virtue, character and altruism leads to happiness - and Haidt marshals the scientific evidence in favour -  then it's incumbent upon society to create the conditions for such a cultivation. But with the extreme individualism of our postmodern societies and a moral diversity where there is no consensus on moral values, we remain in a state of anomie (a term Haidt borrows from the sociologist Durkheim) whereby people can do as they please since there are no respected institutions to enforce standards. Anomie, freedom without constraints, produces anxiety, lack of direction and anti-social behaviour.

Haidt suggests as a broad solution to this problem yet another synthesis: not just ancient and modern, East and West but also liberal and conservative. It is this integrative spirit that pervades the whole book.  The Happiness hypothesis is a great integration of old wisdom and modern science.


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