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Reflections from our Bookshelf: The Happiness Hypothesis

The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom
By: Jonathan Haidt
Reflection by: Ward Williams


Why I read it?

Two of my favorite pastimes are philosophy and research, and the tagline “modern truth (research) in ancient wisdom (philosophy)” seemed to merge the subjects. I had read one of the author’s more recent works, The Coddling of the American Mind (2018, with Greg Lukianoff), and appreciated how Dr. Haidt was able to provide clear explanations and practical applications to very nuanced and esoteric scientific studies.

What is it all about?

The author explored ancient schools of thought including philosophical, religious, and cultural principles, and found “Ten Great Ideas.” These serve as the basis for each chapter, overlapping multiple, and often disparate, traditions. Despite the potential for disconnect between chapters, they flow very logically to his conclusion and each chapter is engaging enough to stand on its own.

For example, one chapter covers the concept of Changing Our Minds.  “The whole universe is change and life itself is but what you deem it” (Marcus Aurelius) is a tenet of stoicism, but it is a common concept.  Major religions of the world, and even Shakespeare, recognize the power of perception, maintaining that “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”  This chapter also explores how ancient and modern techniques such as meditation, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and SSRI medications (anti-depressants) can affect how we think about the world.

Haidt wraps up the book with an overarching theme:  “The ancient idea of Yin and Yang turns out to be the wisest idea of all. We need the perspectives of ancient religion and modern science; of east and west; even of liberal and conservative.”

What caused me to pause?

The chapter on Reciprocity was especially profound for me because I easily recalled events in my past where I recognized it, but I also reflected on situations where using reciprocity appropriately would have changed outcomes for the better. This was one of the Ten Great Ideas found across all major philosophies, religions, cultures, neighborhoods, and office environments, so it must be important!

He also turns common adages on their heads. For instance, he debunks “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger” with “Yes, unless it gives you post-traumatic stress disorder.” This is not a book of trite clichés.

How will this book change my habits or influence me?

It has made me more mindful of how I react to certain situations, and more importantly, why I choose to respond in certain ways. In the author’s own words, this is a book about “how to construct a life of virtue, happiness, fulfillment, and meaning,” and I believe he hit his target.

Add this to your reading list if… you want to explore the underpinnings of why people (including yourself) act and react the way they do, how modern science from biology to psychology simply codifies what wise people and cultures have known for years, and which parts of our personalities and communities can be improved upon. Although the book falls squarely into the “self-help” genre, it is also a valuable social studies book. Finally, for all of the deep thoughts and scientific citations, the author is a very good storyteller and that makes for a very pleasant experience.

Pickle Rating: 4 out of 5

Shannon Dermody

Shannon DermodyTEST

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