Flourishing in the 21st Century: An Informal Review of The Happiness Hypothesis

Recently, I have been researching the passions for a couple of the seminar papers I'm currently working on. Among the books I've been reading for research is Jon Haidt's The Happiness Hypothesis. If you take my opinion at all seriously, and if I could but recommend one book to you to read this decade, it would be this one.

The premise is simple. From the dawn of civilization gurus, prophets, and sages (at least, so-called) have come forth with advice on how to live well, to prosper, to flourish. Even though they have their sources in societies as diverse as ancient India, classical Greece, and present-day America, many of the same themes emerge independently in different cultures: life is what you make of it, suffering makes us grow stronger, virtue is its own reward, and so forth.

Nevertheless, when you get down to the particulars, conflicts abound. In a modern world in which ancient wisdom competes alongside the latest self-help fad, what's a thoughtful person to do?

Answer: Put them to the test! See what actually does make people happy. Treat the claims as hypotheses, subject to systematic observation and experimentation, and figure out if they hold up. Fortunately for us, over the last century scientists in a variety of fields have been doing just that, in bits and fragments. Haidt just assembles the pieces.

Every chapter is full of insight, a brilliant synthesis of ancient religious and ethical doctrines, contemporary research in psychology and other sciences, and a rich narrative and compelling argument that tie it all together. Haidt masterfully weaves inspiring anecdotes about scientific and religious figures with hard evidence and well-supported theory to create a text truly in the tradition of the Nichomachean Ethics, the various handbooks of the Stoics, and Spinoza's Ethics (to name a few of my favorite sources of wisdom).

The book is not without its flaws; with such an extensive scope, he is bound to run into trouble spots, and some of the moves in his argument are perhaps too quick. Similarly, Haidt is maybe too harsh on modern (contemporary) philosophy--though this is not so unexpected since he spent his undergraduate years studying analytic philosophy, a discipline unmatched in its ability to suck the life out of even the most interesting of subjects (see The Philosophy of Sex: Contemporary Readings).

The Happiness Hypothesis is truly inspirational; it's a book that may very well change your life. In a not insignificant way, it has changed mine, although I'd already made steps in that direction in my studies of philosophy and social science.

So what does Haidt advise after combing the evidence? Well, why not just buy the book, or check it out from your local library and find out for yourself?

The short answer: Begin with the formula for happiness, taken from positive psychology:

H(appiness) = S(etpoint) + C(onditions) + V(oluntary activities)

The setpoint is your average level of happiness. Unfortunately, this is largely a product of your genes, although regular meditation, cognitive therapy, and antidepressants like Prozac can help if you're not one of the winners of the genetic lottery.

(Drugs are perhaps the most effective and require the least effort, although they work best with therapy and other means to cultivate better habits. Even if you're just dissatisfied with life, I highly, highly recommend them. See my past entry on Peter Kramer's Against Depression.)

"Conditions" refers to the relatively fixed features of your environment. Factors experimentally proven to increase happiness include: having enough money to satisfy your basic needs (beyond this, there is no correlation between wealth and happiness); having a strong social support network of friends and family; having choices and some degree of freedom in your decisions (or at least the appearance thereof); and something as mundane as avoiding traffic (commuting, but also the noise that comes with living next to a busy street, have a significant adverse effect on well-being).

In other words, it's far better to live in a small, quiet place close to family, friends, and your workplace than to live in that big house in the suburbs. Most Americans waste their time pursuing goods that they easily adapt to, i.e., get sick of. Consumerism, like any drug, requires more and more to produce the same effect over time. The American Dream is a lie--but most of us probably know this already.

Lastly, we come to voluntary activities. Aristotle got this one exactly right. If most of what we do in a day is simply a means to some other end, we are letting life pass us by. The best life is one in which what you need to do meshes seamlessly with what you want to do. In work and in love, in particular, we need to be able to be present in the moment, lose track of time, and become totally immersed in what we're doing, what Aristotle calls energeia and Csikszentmihalyi, the experience of "flow".

In terms of occupation, those who see their work as a "calling" are the happiest. Less focus on achievement, wealth, and status would do most people a lot of good. If you don't have that luxury, it is at least valuable to have more leisure time to engage in hobbies and other pursuits you do enjoy, and to spend quality time with family and friends. It's a shame that in our workaholic culture vacation time has become such a scarce commodity.

Above all, life requires activities that are meaningful, personally rewarding, and connected to some good greater than yourself, whether it be pursuing great ideas, working for the common good of your community, or having a personal relationship with the divine. This should be common sense, but so many people seem to favor having over doing, a mistake that could cost us our very well-being.

This is why unrestrained capitalism is so evil. I am sick and tired of a society driven exclusively by the "profit motive". What moron suggested that pursuing individual interest exclusively will lead to the common good? Oh, yeah, that Adam Smith guy. Well, he's wrong. If greed, ambition, and self-interest are all that motivate you, you are a sad person--in more senses than one, it turns out.

Much more could be said about this, but I will leave it to other posts on different subjects. In particular, I have not said enough about the Haidt's most Spinozaesque point, viz., the importance of knowing how your body and mind work in order to exert better control over your passions and activities (willpower alone is never sufficient). Nor have I spoken about his fascinating analysis of the "myth of pure evil" and the impoverished psychology of Manichaeism.

In any case, what are you waiting for?! Go read!

No comments: