Do you have any idea how many books have been written about the subject of happiness? I certainly didn’t. A search on Amazon reveals over 88.000 results! It is hard to imagine any other topic that has been explored and pursued more. With so many self-help books not to mention a myriad of other resources on the topic of happiness, it is safe to say that happiness, for most of us, remains elusive. We know when we are lucky enough to feel it, but we are largely at a loss as to how to get it. However I just finished a wonderful book by Jonathan Haidt, called “The Happiness Hypothesis” that sheds some real light on what happiness is all about and what we have to do attain it.
The book, published in 2006, reflects years of research on the various elements that constitute human fulfillment. It explores ancient wisdom, eastern thought, western theology, modern neuroscience, evolution, cultural influence and other elements. Haidt, a respected professor of psychology, cites numerous research studies and takes a very inclusive view of the many potential facets of happiness. However he isn’t afraid to take controversial positions. For example, although he is an atheist, he is able to see and respect the role that religion plays in happiness. He is also presents challenging queries such as who is likely to be happier – a multi-million dollar lottery winner or a paraplegic accident victim? The answer is, of course, not what you are probably thinking, and the reason why is extremely eye-opening!
Haidt was a contributor to the positive psychology movement, founded by Martin Seligman in the late 90’s. Positive psychology was created because there was entirely too much focus placed on pathology, in other words, what was wrong with people rather than on the study of people’s strengths and virtues. Haidt stays true to the theme of positive psychology by looking for the positive qualities than can lead to happiness rather than believing that happiness is about “curing” negatives such as anxiety or depression. He develops a wonderful analog of the human mind; that of an elephant and its rider. The elephant represents much of the unconscious aspects of our personality, and the rider represents our conscious elements. Needless to say, the rider has limited influence over the elephant and needs to learn gentle methods to persuade and guide, as well as accept his limits.
What hypothesis does the book ultimately discover? The elegant and simple finding is that happiness is largely the result of finding purpose within ones life. Drawing on ancient wisdom and modern science, Haidt concludes that happiness cannot be achieved directly, rather it comes about by creating the right conditions in one’s life. And at the risk of oversimplifying these conditions, they are a combination of internal and external factors. People need love, work and a feeling of elevation through a connection to something larger than themselves. Or stated differently, we need to develop the right relationships between ourselves and others, between ourselves and our work, and between ourselves and something larger, however we choose to define that.
I read many books, but seldom do I find one that is both so learned and illuminating and yet so difficult to put down. I will revisit this one again and again and its lessons will certainly find their way into my therapeutic practice.