(10-minute read) What is the purpose of life? Where does happiness come from? Why do some people find meaning, purpose, and fulfillment in life, but others do not? NYU social psychologist, Johnathan Haidt’s Happiness Hypothesis extensively explored these ultimate questions using ancient philosophical, religious, and theoretical texts, along with modern scientific studies. This book is filled with pearls of wisdom – my top five takeaways:

I. Divided Self: Rider & Elephant
II. Growth from Adversity
III. The Happiness Formula
IV. The 3 Happiness Hypotheses
V. The Ultimate Question: “What is the meaning of life?”

I. Divided Self:Rider & Elephant

“For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want.”(Galatians 5:17)

Austrian neurologist and founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, said our mind is divided into three parts: “the ego (the conscious, rational self); the superego (the conscience, a sometimes too rigid commitment to the rules of society); and the id (the desire for pleasure, lots of it, sooner rather than later).”


Jonathan Haidt used an ingenious metaphor to describe this divided self: “The image that I came up with for myself, as I marveled at my weakness, was that I was a rider on the back of an elephant. I’m holding the reins in my hands, and by pulling one way or the other I can tell the elephant to turn, to stop, or to go. I can direct things, but only when the elephant doesn’t have desires of his own. When the elephant really wants to do something, I’m no match for him.”

1. Why training the elephant is important?

We all face this struggle to control the elephant by force – this inability creates confusion in our mental life, causing self-debt: “Why I have such trouble with weakness of will?” Learning how to train the elephant is the secret of self-improvement. “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.”

2. How to train the elephant?

  • Meditation: we all know the benefit of meditation by this point; the author quoted Buddha, “When a man knows the solitude of silence, and feels the joy of quietness, he is then free from fear and sins.”
  • Cognitive therapy: 

    Depressed people are convinced in their hearts of three related beliefs, known as [Aaron] Beck’s “cognitive triad” of depression. These are: “I’m no good,” “My world is bleak,” and “My future is hopeless.” A depressed person’s mind is filled with automatic thoughts supporting these dysfunctional beliefs, particularly when things goes wrong…

    Distorted thoughts cause negative feelings, which then distort thinking further, creating a negative feedback loop. Psychiatrist Aaron Beck discovered that you can break the cycle by changing the thoughts: “training clients to catch their thoughts, write them down, name the distortions, and then find alternative and more accurate ways of thinking.” It teaches the rider to train the elephant rather than defeat it directly. Initially, the rider doesn’t realize his conscious thoughts are being controlled by the elephant’s fears. Over time, the rider learns to use a set of tools to challenge automatic thoughts by engaging in simple tasks, such as going out to buy a newspaper rather than staying in bed all day. Assigned as daily homework, each simple task’s completion is followed by a little reward. This little flash of relief or pleasure is like a peanut given to an elephant as reinforcement for a new behavior.

  • Prozac: according to the author, “Prozac is a way to compensate for the unfairness of the cortical lottery.” “Prozac is controversial for at least two reasons. First, it is a shortcut. In most studies, Prozac turns out to be just about as effective as cognitive therapy… Second, Prozac does more than just relieve symptoms; it sometimes changes personality.” Using Prozac to control the elephant bothers me though because of potential drug misuse and abuse.

II. Growth from Adversity

“故天将降大任于斯人也,必先苦其心志,劳其筋骨,饿其体肤,空乏其身,行拂乱其所为,所以动心忍性,曾益其所不能。” 《孟子》
“When Heaven is about to confer a great office on a man, it first exercises his mind with suffering, and his sinews and bones with toil ; it exposes his body to hunger, and subjects him to extreme poverty; it confounds his undertakings. By all these methods it stimulates his mind, hardens his nature, and supplies his incompetencies.” (Mencius)

1. Why adversity is important in our development?

We all heard about stories of successful people overcoming adversity early in their career and “become happy ever after.” But why is adversity important in our development? To answer this question, Haidt introduced the three levels personality by psychologist Dan McAdams’s and explained why overcoming adversity can help to create happiness.

  • Lowest level- basic traits. For example, the “Big Five” personality traits: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, Neuroticism.
  • Second level- characteristic adaptations: person’s desires, beliefs, concerns, and coping mechanisms. “In this middle level, the person’s basic traits are made to mesh with facts about the person’s environment and stage of life. When those facts change—as after losing a spouse—the person’s characteristic adaptations change.”

    • About life goals, psychologist Robert Emmons developed four categories: work and achievement, relationships and intimacy, religion and spirituality, and generativity (concern for the future, a need to leave a legacy and contribute to the next generation).
    • “People who strive primarily for achievement and wealth are, Emmons finds, less happy, on average, than those whose strivings focus on the other three categories. The reason takes us back to happiness traps and conspicuous consumption: Because human beings were shaped by evolutionary processes to pursue success, not happiness, people enthusiastically pursue goals that will help them win prestige in zero-sum competitions. Success in these competitions feels good but gives no lasting pleasure, and it raises the bar for future success.”
  • Third level- narrative identity or life stories: stories that give a life a sense of unity, meaning, and purpose. “Although the lowest level of personality is mostly about the elephant, the life story is written primarily by the rider. You create your story in consciousness as you interpret your own behavior, and as you listen to other people’s thoughts about you.”

The coherence between these three levels of personality is important. Haidt used a hypothetical example: “Imagine a women whose basic traits are warm and gregarious but who strives for success in a career that offers few chances for close contacts with people, and whose life story is about an artist forced by her parents to pursue a practical  career. She is a mess of mismatched motives and stories…” Mentally healthy and happy people have a higher degree of coherence among their higher-level (long term) goals and lower-level (immediate) goals. When these are aligned, job –> career –> calling.

So how does adversity play a part in creating such coherence? “Trauma often shatters believe systems and robs people of their sense of meaning. In so doing it forces people to put the pieces back together, and often they do so by using God or some other higher purpose as a unifying principle. London and Chicago seized the opportunities provided by their great fires to remake themselves into grander and more coherent cities. [As confirmed by my Instagram post below.] People sometimes seize such opportunities, too, rebuilding beautifully those unitarily. When people report having grown after coping with adversity, they could be trying to describe a new sense of inner coherence. This coherence might not be visible to one’s friends, but it feels like growth, strength, maturity, and wisdom from the inside.”

2. How to Benefit from Adversity?

  • Step 1: before adversity strikes, change your cognitive style. If you are a pessimist, learn to train the elephant using meditation, cognitive therapy, or even Prozac.
  • Step 2: cherish and build your social support network. “Having one or two good attachment relationships helps adults as well as children (and rhesus monkeys) to face threats. Trusted friends who are good listeners can be a great aid to making sense and finding meaning.”
  • Step 3: develop faith. “Religious faith and practice can aid growth, both by directly fostering sense making (religions provide stories and interpretive schemes for losses and crises) and by increasing social support (religious people have relationships through their religious communities, and many have a relationship with God).”
  • Step 4: after adversity strikes, write about your experience. “Write about what happened, how you feel about it, and why you feel that way. Before you conclude your last session, be sure you have done your best to answer these two questions: Why did this happen? What good might I derive from it?”

III. The Happiness Formula

Happiness Formula

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

S – biological setpoint: “Each person has a characteristic level of happiness, but it now looks as though it’s not so much a set point as a potential range or probability distribution. Whether you operate on the high or the low side of your potential range is determined by many factors that Buddha and Epictetus would have considered externals.”

C – conditions: “facts about your life that you can’t change (race, sex, age, disability) as well as things that you can (wealth, marital status, where you live). Conditions are constant over time, at least during a period in your life, and so they are the sorts of things that you are likely to adapt to.” Researches do find people have a hard time adapting to a few conditions though, so try to change these if possible: noise, long commute with traffic, lack of control, bodily burden, interpersonal conflicts.

V – voluntary activities: “things that you choose to do, such as meditation, exercise, learning a new skill, or taking a vacation. Because such activities must be chosen, and because most of them take effort and attention, they can’t just disappear from your awareness the way conditions can. Voluntary activities, therefore, offer much greater promise for increasing happiness while avoiding adaptation effects.”

Can you guess what conditions & activities contribute the most to happiness?

Haidt believes the answer is love and work. “Love and work are, for people, obvious analogues to water and sunshine for plants.” He also quoted Leo Tolstoy, “One can live magnificently in this world, if one knows how to work and how to love, to work for the person one loves and to love one’s work.”

  • #1: love – “We are ultrasocial creatures, and we can’t be happy without having friends and secure attachments to other people.”
  • #2: work pursing the right goals, in order to create states of flow and engagement.
    • Hungarian-born cofounder of positive psychology, Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, discovered many people value the state of flow even more than chocolate after sex.
    • It is the state of total immersion in a task that is challenging yet closely matched to one’s abilities. It is what people sometimes call “being in the zone.”
    • The keys to flow: “There’s a clear challenge that fully engages your attention; you have the skills to meet the challenge; and you get immediate feedback about how you are doing at each step (the progress principle). You get flash after flash of positive feeling with each turn negotiated, each high note correctly sung, or each brushstroke that falls into the right place. In the flow experience, elephant and rider are in perfect harmony. The elephant (automatic processes) is doing most of the work, running smoothly through the forest, while the rider (conscious thought) is completely absorbed in looking out for problems and opportunities, helping wherever he can.”
    • Progress Principle: Harvard psychologist Robert White’s “effectance motive” is a discovery of overwhelming evidence that people have a basic need to develop competency through interacting with and controlling one’s environment. As a result, “We get more pleasure from making progress toward our goals than we do from achieving them because, as Shakespeare said, ‘Joy’s soul lies in the doing.'”

IV. The 3 Happiness Hypotheses

  1. “Happiness comes from outside by getting what you want.” We all know this hypothesis is a false promise – happiness built on materialistic procession is short-lived.
    • Have you heard about Nobel Prize Winner, Angus Deaton’s find that “which found that at the national level, making more than $75,000 per year won’t significantly improve your day-to-day happiness.”
      Income and Happiness_Angus Deaton
  2. “Happiness comes from within and cannot be obtained by making the world conform to your desires” This hypothesis was widespread from Buddha in India to Stoic philosophers in Greece and Rome. It counsels people to cultivate an accepting attitude by breaking the emotional attachments to unpredictable and uncontrollable external people and events. Haidt: “Recent research in psychology suggests that Buddha and Epictetus may have taken things too far. Some things are worth striving for, and happiness comes in part from outside yourself, if you know where to look.” Love and work mentioned above are definitely two places to look.
  3. Happiness comes from between.” After years of research, Haidt came to this conclusion. Why? Read below.

V. The Ultimate Question: “What is the meaning of life?”

The Ultimate Question_Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Haidt did an amazing job concluding the book by attempting to answer a question that took Deep Thought, the super computer in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, 7.5 million years to answer:

“I don’t believe there is an inspiring answer to the question, “What is the purpose of life?” Yet by drawing on ancient wisdom and modern science, we can find compelling answers to the question of purpose within life. The final version of the happiness hypothesis is that happiness comes from between. Happiness is not something that you can find, acquire, or achieve directly. You have to get the conditions right and then wait. Some of those conditions are within you, such as coherence among the parts and levels of your personality. Other conditions require relationships to things beyond you: Just as plants need sun, water, and good soil to thrive, people need love, work, and a connection to something larger. It is worth striving to get the right relationships between yourself and others, between yourself and your work, and between yourself and something larger than yourself. If you get these relationships right, a sense of purpose and meaning will emerge…

By drawing on wisdom that is balanced—ancient and new, Eastern and Western, even liberal and conservative—we can choose directions in life that will lead to satisfaction, happiness, and a sense of meaning. We can’t simply select a destination and then walk there directly—the rider does not have that much authority. But by drawing on humanity’s greatest ideas and best science, we can train the elephant, know our possibilities as well as our limits, and live wisely.”

Action step:

Gotta love authors who call for actions at the end of their books! That’s what WeZBest is all about – empower you to put theories into practice, turn ideas into action, and goals into results. Check out Johnathan Haidt’s 5 steps to help you apply the ideas above to make yourself lastingly happier: HappinessHypothesis.com/beyond-GetHappy

If you desire to accelerate your learning & growth with a team of driven, compassionate, & passionate people, join the WeZBest CommunityTogether, we will push each other to achieve our fullest potential!

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