It can be hard to know what will really make us happy. Is it a great partner? A perfect job? A rock-solid financial foundation? Or should we be looking for deep satisfaction from within? In his book The Happiness Hypothesis (Basic Books, 2006), social psychologist Jonathan Haidt takes on this age-old “what is the source of happiness” question by considering ideas from ancient philosophers in the light of modern science, and he comes up with some pretty cool conclusions.
Riders and Elephants
At one time or another, most of us have recognized that we have certain habits or behaviors (from overeating to procrastination) that are making us miserable. Yet it’s one thing to have an “aha!” moment about unhelpful behaviors, and another thing to translate that moment into lasting change.
To help explain why the mind is hard to train, Haidt introduces the idea of the “divided self” used by a handful of great philosophers, including Plato, the Buddha and Sigmund Freud: “The metaphor I use when I lecture [to students] on Freud is to think of the mind as a horse and buggy . . . in which the driver (the ego) struggles frantically to control a hungry, lustful, and disobedient horse (the id).”
Another metaphor for the divided mind that Haidt uses throughout the book is even more powerful to me than Freud’s. He describes the conscious mind as a rider who is trying to control a giant elephant (the unconscious mind). Turning moments of insight into lasting change means wrangling that elephant.
“When pop psychology programs are helpful,” writes Haidt, “they succeed not because of the initial moment of insight, but because they find ways to alter people’s behavior over the following months.”
So it’s not enough to realize something new about ourselves; we need to practice realizing it over and over. Here are some ways to do just that.
Meditation and Cognitive Therapy
According to Haidt, two of the most effective ways to retrain the elephant are cognition and meditation, which he describes as a “magic pill.”
“Suppose you read about a pill you could take once a day to reduce anxiety and increase your contentment. Would you take it?” Haidt inquires. “Suppose further that the pill had a great variety of side effects, all of them good: increased self-esteem, empathy and trust; it even improves memory. Suppose, finally, that the pill is all-natural and costs nothing. Now would you take it? The pill exists. It is called meditation.”
He acknowledges that meditation can be a little hard for Westerners to grasp because it recommends “calm inaction” as opposed to our usual habit of “pulling out the tool box and trying to fix what’s broken.”
For decades we used Freudian psychotherapy as the tool, but Haidt turns to the wisdom of Aaron Beck, a psychotherapist who practiced in the 1960s and noticed that traditional psychotherapy was often making his patients feel worse. In response, Beck created a better tool: cognitive therapy.
“Depressed people are caught in a feedback loop in which distorted thoughts cause negative feelings, which then distort thinking further. Beck’s discovery is that you can break the cycle by changing the thoughts,” Haidt explains. “A big part of cognitive therapy is training clients to catch their thoughts, write them down, name the distortions,” and then find more productive, accurate ways of thinking. “Over many weeks, the client’s anxiety or depression abates. Cognitive therapy works because it teaches the rider how to train the elephant rather than how to defeat it directly in an argument.”
Pull Out the Splinter
Haidt identifies other surprising ways to incline the mind toward happiness, like taking responsibility when we say or do something hurtful — even when we’re convinced we had a right to do it. While this goes against the ego’s habit of justifying itself, owning up to faulty behavior can actually help us feel like more honorable people.
“When you first catch sight of a fault within yourself, you’ll likely hear frantic arguments from your inner lawyer,” Haidt writes. “When you extract a splinter it hurts, briefly, but then you feel relief, even pleasure. When you find fault in yourself it will hurt, briefly, but if you keep going and acknowledge the fault [to the relevant person], you are likely to be rewarded with a flash of pleasure that is mixed, oddly, with a sense of pride. . . . It is the feeling of honor.”
When we nurse feelings of being mistreated by others, we’re powerless. But when we take action, we’re using the power we have to make things better. And that leads us to another one of Haidt’s insights about what supports happiness: caring for others.
Strengthen Social Ties
Philosophers have spent a lot of time musing over the importance of relationships. They concluded that strong bonds with other humans are essential. Modern science concurs.
“[Studies show that] having strong relationships strengthens the immune system (more than does quitting smoking), speeds recovery from surgery, and reduces the risk of depression and anxiety disorders,” Haidt writes. “Even people who think they don’t want a lot of social contact still benefit from it.
“And it’s not just that ‘we all need somebody to lean on’; recent work on giving support shows that caring for others is often more beneficial than is receiving help. . . . We need the give and the take, we need to belong. An ideology of extreme personal freedom can be dangerous because it encourages people to leave homes, jobs, cities and marriages in search of personal and professional fulfillment, thereby breaking the relationships that were probably their best hope for such fulfillment.”
Haidt concludes that there’s no one formula for happiness, but that we can approach life in ways that make us more likely to find it.
“I don’t believe there is an inspiring answer to the question ‘What is the purpose of life?’” he says. “Yet by drawing on ancient wisdom and modern science, we can find compelling answers to the questions of purpose within life. . . . Happiness is not something you can find, acquire or achieve directly. You have to get the conditions right, and then wait.”