The Happiness Hypothesis

The Happiness Hypothesis
Social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, evaluates 10 “great ideas” on happiness expressed over time and filters them through a contemporary perspective to see if they still apply to modern life. This book is very in-depth. What we look at below only scratches the surface of the content!

The Big Ideas!

  • Humans are made up of divided “selves” which have their own motivations. These divided selves have been subject of interest since ancient times. Examples:
    • mind vs body
    • left brain vs. right brain
    • old brain vs. new brain
    • controlled vs. automatic
  • Haidt focuses on this last idea (the recently evolved conscious or “controlled” mind versus the much older unconscious or “automatic” mind). These two parts are often in conflict.
  • Happiness is not derived wholly from within (internally) or wholly from without (externally). Humans exists both as individual beings and as an entity within social groups. Happiness comes from finding harmony among these existences.
  • Humans are emotional, psychological, social, and spiritual beings. Happiness comes from understanding yourself in all of these contexts.
  • The easiest path is not always the path to happiness.
  • Genetics contributes to a baseline (“setpoint”) of happiness, yet there are other factors which can influence happiness.

Neutrino’s Nutshell

Haidt’s ideas are the sorts that may really blow your mind, humanoid! The book is extremely in-depth, so this nutshell only gives you a glimpse at some of the ideas.

Haidt focuses on a division of the controlled versus automatic selves (conscious reasoned processes versus automatic/implicit processes) to explain why humans make certain choices.

 Modern theories about rational choice and information processing don’t adequately explain weakness of the will. The older metaphors about controlling animals work beautifully. The image that I came up with for myself, as I marveled 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.”

“There are really two information processing systems at work in the mind at all times: controlled processes and automatic processes”.

The elephant above represents one’s subconscious disposition, while the rider is the conscious mind. The rider tries hard to steer or control the elephant, but can only affect little change. Haidt proposes that most humans delude themselves into believing they are in control of their actions via controlling the rider or conscious reasoning when in reality the elephant or automatic processes have far more control; the conscious mind is essentially just rationalizing the behavior of the automatic mind. Haidt uses this rider-elephant metaphor throughout the book to illustrate a  tension which exists between this divided self. Much of what humans endure as unhappiness results from this tension.

Research shows us, for example, most people would be happier spending less time commuting to work, working fewer hours, spending more time engaged activities with their close friends and family, and spending money on experiences instead of things. If this is the case, why doesn’t everyone do what is good for them? This would require giving up status symbols the elephant instinctively values (more money, bigger houses, social artifacts indicating greater income). Haidt notes, the elephant wins most of these battles; as a result many do not attain the happiness they seek.

Given this divided self theory and power of the elephant, how does one actually go about changing their mind? Haidt discusses three methods of changing automatic reactions which include cognitive therapy, meditation, and SSRI medications.

What does Haidt have to say about becoming happier? Haidt deems that happiness is a choice and he alludes to research from the field of positive psychology which suggests that Happiness = Voluntary Actions + Biology + Conditions. While there is a genetic “setpoint” or baseline of happiness, you have some control over your happiness.

Haidt concludes by happiness is a function of the right conditions. While many philosophers posit that happiness comes from within and not from external circumstance, Haidt suggest happiness is found somewhere in-between. Humans exist as both individuals and members of social groups and finding a place of harmony among these spaces are the conditions which can best facilitate well-being.


Love and work are crucial for human happiness because, when done well, they draw us out of ourselves and into connection with people and projects beyond ourselves. Happiness comes from getting these connections right.”

“The rider evolved to serve to the elephant.”

“A good place to look for wisdom… is where you least expect to find it: in the minds of your opponents. You already know the ideas common on your own side. If you can take off the blinders of the myth of pure evil, you might see some good ideas for the first time.”

IMEO (In My Eudamonian Opinion)

The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt is a must read. It draws upon both ancient wisdom and the growing body of research in the modern field of positive psychology.  As an individual, you will learn a lot about your own personal happiness. As a parent or teacher, you will also pick up some wisdom on how to nurture the happiness of your youthlings.

The Deets

The Happiness Hypothesis 
Author: Jonathan Haidt
Publication Date:  2006

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