Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Happiness Hypothesis - John Haidt

Read John Haidt's 'The Happiness Hypothesis' (Basic Books, US$16.99) for a longish time now, which has been recommended by Ram and passed on to me by him. Haidt is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia and has authored 'The Righteous Mind' earlier. Obviously he is concerned and interested in matters concerning the mind and fine matters that too - where he engages with the greatest minds and philosophers, religions and gods of all time.This book however is about 'finding modern truth in ancient wisdom' and deals with 10 great ideas. Since the book is written in an flowing narrative style I really could not differentiate the ten great ideas because there were several ideas and examples, scientific research and ancient wisdom (I am the one who looks for the 10 ideas listed out and summarised so you know what you are dealing with here). Anyway I read through - nodding my head at stuff I understood and identified with, and glossing over stuff that I did not.

The book starts with the idea that we have a mind in conflict - and not merely one mind but several - a loose confederation of parts of the mind to be precise. Haidt looks at the mind(s) through the metaphor of an elephant and a rider - the rider can only guide the elephant some part but the elephant finally seems to have its own say in the matter. That is how our mind works! So we have a bias towards engaging in needless worry and towards bad things and we may try to make the elephant understand our worry but the elephant goes on regardless - until there is real and imminent danger to us.

I loved the chapter on reciprocity where he points out that we all have a tendency to mimic and we love those who mimic us (and give them extra tips) and by knowing and understanding the idea of reciprocity, how we can actually exploit people or stop ourselves from being exploited. The examples of the Hare Krishna guys who first give something and then when you are in a mood to reciprocate, ask for donations (and we give them), sticks to the mind. How often have we all fallen for that devious smile by the one we do not really know or care about and preferred over someone we know who really deserves our support! Ah, reciprocity, how devious a tool is this! (Watch Woody Allen's Zelig for a lesson in reciprocity!). Haidt also says that we are all hypocrites and that happiness does not come from within as the Buddha says but from within and without. So Haidt goes on arguing with himself, proving that he has a divided self, and concluding something in between always. But some stories are interesting. And yes, reciprocity is good.

On adversity and post traumatic growth Haidt concludes not too shockingly for us that perhaps adversity could help our growth. There is one quote by some ancient Greek about how "suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character and character produces hope" that I liked. Adversity typically shows us hidden ability and improves the self concept, brings newer and nourishing relationships to the fore and helps major transformations. Adversity really is a driver for growth (though he does not really advocate suffering).

Haidt concludes that changing the mind is hard (Lives are a creation of our mind - Buddha) and that we could, instead of taking Buddha's tough path, take the easier path of meditation, cognitive therapy and Prozac! And how about looking at your own faults and not so much those of others? Then you could empathise with them a little more and be less harsh would you not? Happiness, Haidt concludes, is about acceptance. (Again, not too shocking a revelation really.) But I loved the happiness formula they ended up with - Happiness (H) = Biological set point (S)+Conditions of your life (C)+Voluntary activity (V). (Give me a break guys - a formula really?) He makes a case against the Buddha a bit, saying that perhaps we also need to have some passionate attachment and live with passion - and not just calm striving and detachment from desire.

Love and attachments are good, as social relationships strengthen the immune system, reduce depression and anxiety disorders, extend life and help in speedy recovery. Have someone to lean on, to give and take and know that man cannot be an island. Haidt also argues for virtue and positive psychology, and even for some kind of a belief as in divinity whether we believe in god or not, to be happy. In conclusion, Haidt says that happiness comes from somewhere in between and cannot be found, acquired or achieved directly (from supermarkets and shopping malls). However it is worth striving for to get the right relationships between oneself and others, between oneself and work, between oneself and something larger than oneself to find a sense of purpose and meaning (and happiness).

I find many new western authors, Malcolm Gladwell comes to mind, who write well and are good to read in parts and not so good in parts. They address many diverse ideas seemingly connected to whole and give tonnes of research and stuff like that but I can never get the whole idea they are presenting. Haidt falls into that category though he sticks to his central theme of happiness. I found it rather difficult to go through the book what with so many digressions and examples and ideas.  When I did finally I was disappointed to find that in almost every conclusion he finds some middle path - the truth is in between. Ancient wisdom is well in its place here and there is much already on the middle path, on balance, on the paradox in it, and I did not really find the modern truth in ancient wisdom as the book claimed. Or even if I did, it was not something new. If one is looking to find happiness by reading this book, I doubt whether one would be successful at it, but surely, one can find a lot of interesting stuff and analyses which make for good reading. Not top of my highly recommended list but falls somewhere in between. Don't kill yourself if you haven't got it but if its around, you could read it!

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