The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt

  1. Haidt uses an elephant to represent emotions and the rider of the elephant as reason. Reason attempt to control emotions but is often unsuccessful. This book helps define and clarify what truly makes people happy and what steps you can take to get there

Key Takeaways

  1. Happiness doesn’t just come from within as the Buddha or other sages claim. It comes from somewhere between in and out – people need both strong social ties, good relationships and being content from within to be happy
  2. Control your perceptions and you can control your world. There is no reality, only perception
  3. Central belief of Hinduism is that we all have our role to play and should play it well but not be attached to the results or outcomes. Be unmoved by praise or blame and contented with whatever comes your way. This mindset is required for happiness
  4. Decide that you do not want events to happen a certain way but that you want them to happen as they do happen. Amor Fati
  5. Success is often more often received with relief than ecstasy
  6. Feel more joy while making progress towards your goal than when you actually accomplish your goal. The journey and not the destination is what counts
  7. Happiness formula: Happiness = set point + conditions + voluntary activities
  8. Seems counter-intuitive but fewer social constraints leads to higher rates of of suicide. People need some boundaries to function and be happy
  9. Weak vs. strong adversity hypothesis – can grow from trauma vs. need trauma to grow. If strong is true, then we need to take more risks and chances

What I got out of it

  1. An interesting read which does a great job of making abstract concepts of happiness concrete and actionable through real world examples. Helpful to be aware that happiness tends to come from a balance of both inner and outer factors such as being grateful, not being attached to results, helping others, etc. Do not make assumptions or be tied to results. Want things to happen as they do happen. I think these two concepts are so simple and so powerful


  • “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking it makes it so” – Shakespeare
  • The mind is divided into parts which sometimes conflict. Our life is the creation of our mind
  • Happiness comes from within so break your dependence on people and events.
  • Try to take traumas in stride and learn from them.

1- The Divided Self

  • “If passion drives, let reason hold the reigns” – Ben Franklin
  • Mind is divided into 4 parts:
    1. Mind vs body. Certain parts of body have their own desires and “thoughts.” Facial expressions give away true thoughts, gut brain, etc
    2. Left vs right. Left side of your brain is more for language processing and right side for distinguishing patterns. Confabulation is the concept that people come up with reasons for what they do for everything, even if don’t truly know why they did something.
    3. New vs old. New brain used for more complex tasks, patterns, expansions of emotional range, etc. whereas old brain is more primal and instinctive.
    4. Controlled vs automatic processes. Subliminal messages about professors make you smarter and if image shows soccer hooligans, it make you dumber. These subliminal images have shown that they have a noticeable effect on how we think and proves that most mental processes are automatic.
    5. The rider (reason) cannot make the elephant (emotion) do what it does not want to. Reason is the slave of emotions and we should not kid ourselves by thinking otherwise
  • 3 quirks of rider and elephant
    1. Failure of self control- marshmallow experiment of delayed gratification. Help self-control by avoiding negative stimuli or changing it when it is around.
    2. Mental intrusions – experiments by telling people not to think about something makes them a little obsessed with this thing
    3. Moral judgments are often implicit. Mind is made up of many parts but we give far too much attention and power to one part – conscious verbal thinking

2- Changing Your Mind

  • Control your perceptions and you can control your world. There is no reality, only perception
  • 3 tools to retrain the elephant
    1. Like vs dislike – determine your level of liking of anything but realize that it can be influenced subliminally
    2. Negativity bias- bad experiences avoided more strongly than good experiences sought out
    3. The cortical lottery – some people are born with a more negative mindset than others and genes have more influence upon our happiness than most people realize.
  • 3 ways to change thoughts and brain function – meditation, cognitive therapy and Prozac.
  • 3 underlying beliefs of depressed people – I’m no good, my world is bleak, the future holds no promise

3- Reciprocity with a Vengeance

  • Love and reciprocity the most common advice of the sages
  • Ultra social animals evolved to share the burden and to help chances of survival
    • Bats help feed other bats when needed and keep track of who they have helped and who has helped them
  • Larger brains directly correlated to size of social circles
  • Gossip an important social tool
  • Reciprocity and love connects us with others

4- The Faults of Others

  • Easy to see others’ faults but as easy to spot one’s own
  • People believe they often make unbiased opinions but often they read into and follow up on information that only confirms their already established opinions
  • People don’t see the true extent of what there do and overestimate their own goodness
  • Evil and negative emotions are contagious
  • People often do evil things but believe they are doing them for good reasons. Often high self-esteem and moral idealism are the reasons people do evil things
  • As often as possible look at things from others’ point of view and you’ll often find they’re not crazy and have some valid points

5- The Pursuit of Happiness

  • Happiness comes primarily from within yourself but there are some outer things worth striving for
  • The adaptation principle describes that people are much better at adapting to situations than they think and are very bad at predicting how they’ll feel in the future
  • People have a baseline of expectations and goals and happiness is directly tied to this baseline. If you win lottery, your baseline rises and soon after we base happiness on this new level. Ultimately, what happens to you doesn’t really matter as you will recalibrate your goals and expectations
    • Hedonic treadmill – happiness adjusts to our situation, what we’ve done and where we are. As we accomplish more, we expect and desire more and therefore cannot gain permanent happiness
  • Money buys happiness but only up to a certain level
  • Strong social ties and a good marriage the most important factors for happiness
  • Pleasures should be spread out and varied. Variety is the spice of life since we cannot adapt to it
  • Gratification comes from accomplishing something and happiness derived from gratification lasts much longer than sensual pleasures
  • Happier people spend more time and money on inconspicuous expenses such as experiences and good food than on conspicuous expenses such as an expensive watch

6- Love and Attachments

  • Harlow created a monkey farm in Wisconsin with a “perfect” environment but none of the monkeys developed normal social skills. Monkeys clung to fake, soft “mom” as opposed to the one made of wire but had food. Determined that love and social attachment are essential for primates and humans to develop normally
  • Passionate and compassionate love. Passionate love is euphoric but doesn’t last long and compassionate love focuses on the good of the other. True love is compassionate love with spurts of passion
  • Caring for others often more beneficial for us than receiving help
  • People value choice and try to put themselves in positions with choices but more choices often make us unhappier
  • Wiser people are able to either adapt, shape their environment and/or know when to move to a new environment

7- The Uses of Adversity

  • “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” – Nietzsche
  • Post traumatic growth occurs when you are able to learn and grow as a result of a very stressful situation
  • Rising to the challenge shows you your true limits. People almost always stronger than they realize
  • Adversity is a filter for relationships. Shows who the true friends are and strengthens those relationships
  • Trauma and subsequently growth come from 4 areas – work and achievement, relationships, spirituality and leaving a legacy
  • Optimists more likely to benefit from trauma
  • Nature of trauma almost irrelevant but what you do after (speak with friends or therapists) is what matters most. People who let off steam tend to be healthier and happier long-term
  • Free writing often helps people overcome trauma. No restrictions at all but make sure you answer – “why did this happen” and “what good can be derived from it?”
  • Wisdom comes from tacit knowledge instead of explicit knowledge

8- The Felicity of Virtue

  • One develops virtue through constant training and awareness
  • Morality can be thought of as a type of practical wisdom – knowing what to do and wanting to do it
  • Kant was determined to define moral laws and believed that they must be universally applicable
  • Bentham is considered the father of utilitarianism – greatest good for the greatest number
  • Can be morally opposed to something but until you have an emotion which compels you to follow it, you won’t. Haidt uses his personal example of not adhering to vegetarianism until he actually saw slaughterhouse footage
  • 6 key virtues – wisdom, courage, transcendence, humaneness, courage, justice, temperance
  • Can take several different happiness tests at to see where you stand
  • Important to also develop your strengths instead of just working on weaknesses
  • Doing the right thing does not always feel good
  • Social and other constraints are healthy and necessary to be happy

9- Divinity With or Without God

  • Argues humans can see another dimension – morality/divinity
  • Disgust is an evolutionary trait and is the guardian of the temple in the body
  • People get a sense of elevation when they see someone do something virtuous
  • The development of the self extremely important but holds us back when it comes to self realization because it focuses our attention on trivial things and keeps people’s focus on the material world, Growth of spiritual self often means killing of the self

10- Happiness Comes From Between

  • Love and having the right goals is very important for happiness
  • Get more joy from making progress towards goals than actually achieving the goals
  • Culture evolves too and at a very rapid pace since it can usually be adopted quickly
  • Mysticism always about uniting with some larger being(s). Masters of meditation or yoga can achieve a state in which they lose the limits of their body and becomes one with everything. Loss of self and paradoxical expansion of self into space. Repetitive, synchronized movements, especially with others, helps induce this state
  • Happiness comes from between in and out. Can only give yourself right environment and let everything else work itself out

11- Conclusion: On Balance

  • Both sides are required for balance and to live wisely (yin and yang)