Dr. Haidt is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Virginia.
His studies have included ancient philosophies, Eastern cultures, and the roots
of Positive Psychology. In The Happiness Hypothesis, the author describes
what he calls “the moral emotions,” including universal experiences of beauty,
pleasure, excellence, love, awe, elevation, purpose, and other virtues of life.
The book looks at questions like Are happy people kinder, more honest, more
helpful, more satisfied, more altruistic, richer, more creative, and more spiritual
than unhappy people?
Haidt introduces a “Happiness Formula” wherein Happiness H = S (some individual biological/genetic set point) + C (the conditions of your life) + V (voluntary activities).
The more positive C conditions and the more V activities, the more likely one will
achieve happiness. He integrates psychological studies that relate to the formula,
including the findings that the more people perceive control over the conditions of life,
the greater their sense of satisfaction, health, connection, energy, progress, and happiness.
The greater one’s strengths and participation in relationships over time, and the more
meaningful activities and voluntary pursuits become, the more opportunities one will
have to experience happiness.
The author discusses how we may understand and break though levels of adaptation
with a caution that too much of any one activity (e.g., eating, sex , seeking prestige,
acquiring material wealth) can become boring, disgusting, and degrading. He believes
in the flow that can emerge from physical activity (e.g., dancing, running, playing,
singing, listening to music), that can be expressed when deeply engaged in friendly
conversation, that can occur when absorbed in painting, writing, or coping with medical
issues and adversity. These kinds of scenarios can move people into meaningful states
of happiness, courage, and self transformation.
Haidt offers an interesting three-dimensional model for the social worlds of all cultures
with 1) liking or closeness on the horizontal level 2) hierarchy or status on the vertical
level, and 3) perceived elevation, i.e., the feeling of being “lifted up” or inspired by
something greater than one’s self. The third dimension transcends levels one and two, and
its cultural development historically has been attributed to God, sacred sources, divine
objects, cleanliness, food handling, chanting, and pollution prohibitions and rituals.
With happiness, the author proposes variable elements likely to be included in a psychological definition capable of measurement and study. He reviews studies he believes describe and support connections to and within the happiness concept. Interestingly enough, Haidt often appears to reduce these complex, variable elements to underlying physiological structures,
brain and nervous system functions. For example, according to Haidt,
“[T]he vagus nerve is the
main nerve of the parasympathetic nervous system, which calms people down, and undoes
the arousal caused by the sympathetic (fight or flight) system, so if people feel something
in the chest, the vagus nerve is the main suspect.”
However, we cannot measure directly
all the activities of the vagus nerve or many of its functions. Undaunted, the author goes
on to assert the
“vagus nerve works with the hormone oxytocin to create feelings of calmness, love, and desire for contact that encourage bonding and attachment.”
Notice love, contact
with mother, kin, and emotional attachments to others are included in the first dimension
of the happiness model. Since people often make nonverbal gestures towards their chest
and verbal references about the heart and chest when overwhelmed with awe-inspiring
emotion, Haidt and colleagues studied the effects of elevation on happiness.
One ingenious study reported that when nursing mothers viewed a film clip of an
adult musician expressing gratitude for a music teacher who saved him from gang violence
and who also received from his students their appreciation and gratitude in person on The
Oprah Winfrey Show, fifty percent of the lactating mothers nursed more and played warmly
with their young children during this elevation condition. The lactating mothers in the
non-elevation condition (e.g., who viewed a film clip of a funny comedian) did not
experience these effects. Haidt concluded oxytocin stimulated lactation in nursing mothers
when elevated. The condition caused mothers to demonstrate more bonding behavior with
their children which may have generated feelings of love, trust, and openness in them.
The Happiness Hypothesis is an interesting collection of great ideals, teachings, and
psychological studies the author analyzes for positive connections to happiness within
our personal, social, and cultural life experiences. Do people become happier pursuing
their self-interests, material wealth, power, and position or will people find more happiness working with a set of implicit, virtuous rules that require more consensus, active cooperation,
and reciprocity with others? Are there ways to voluntarily flow “between” and balance out liberal and conservative positions, human rights issues, moral responsibilities, and improved settings for human kind? The author does a laudable task by providing historical context and ancient wisdom. He plows new moral ground with research questions about the elements and relationships to consider when in pursuit of happiness within life today rather than after life.