When pitching Jonathan Haidt’s “Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom” to friends, I often find myself explaining away the title — no, it’s not another self-help book and yes, it’s about more than just plastering a silly smile on your face. With that said, the title is appropriate; Haidt is chiefly concerned with what’s responsible for making humans happy.
The title fails, however, to convey the breadth and depth of Haidt’s search, which touches on philosophy, psychology, economics, evolution, and cognitive science, and skips effortlessly across the centuries, from the Stoics’ philosophical minimalism to Ben Franklin’s pragmatism to Robert Cialdini’s work on Influence.
Haidt documents the evolution of the human mind, producing an overarching narrative that explains everything from the use of gossip and prozac to mental tendencies that steer men away from their stated values and towards self-destruction.
Along with “Kluge,” this book has profoundly shaped the way I view my brain. Before Haidt, I was aware that our brains appeared to systematically work against our best interest, and that these tendencies manifested in more general cognitive biases. Haidt, however, takes you behind the curtain, and provides a look at what exactly is going on in your brain and the evolutionary logic behind it. This book provided a more systematic take on cognition than the discrete observational work I had previously encountered.
My interest in correcting my cognitive failings largely emanates from my concern with my ability to grasp the truth. Haidt rightly adds that it’s profoundly important to happiness in general. Cognitive therapy has allowed many to escape depression by directly attacking distortions in thought. These depressive distortions are direct relatives to those that scare up trouble in all of our lives, and Haidt provides an excellent primer on how to exorcise your cognitive demons through a few different means, thereby improving the way you think and possibly making you happier.
This isn’t the end of my cognitive kick, I’m working on a series of posts that explore Haidt’s ideas in greater detail, which will dovetail nicely with Kluge, which I’m currently finishing up.
- to blink or think is not the question
- the self’s compromising of moral aims
- don’t be bob bias
- passenger or policy-maker?
- one point for social cripples
- living with cognitive bias
- health care as a moral issue