The Happiness Hypothesis

Our Sunday, March 25, Science & Buddhism discussion was led by Ross Smith, who looked at The Happiness Hypothesis, by Jonathan Haidt. Ross's focus was on the first four chapters. Here are Ross's discussion notes.


Introduction: This book began when Haidt started using quotes and stores from ancient cultures (mainly India, China, and the Middle East) as a way to help students understand ideas in his psychology course. In this discussion, we will look at the first four chapters, using meditation as a framework.

Chapter 1: The divided self (pdf chapter sample)

For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh... (St. Paul)

The mind is divided in many ways, but the division that really matters is between conscious/reasoned processes and automatic/implicit processes. These two parts are like a rider on the back of an elephant. The rider’s inability to control the elephant by force explains many puzzles about our mental life, particularly why we have such trouble with weakness of will. Learning how to train the elephant is the secret of self-improvement.

  • First Division: Mind vs. Body – Rider and elephant
  • Second Division: Left vs. Right – Confabulation – we fabricate reasons to explain behavior
  • Third Division: New vs. Old – Brain is like a house built in 1900 and extended repeatedly
  • Fourth Division:  Controlled vs. Automatic – Automatic system triggers quick and reliable action, it includes parts of brain that make us feel pleasure and pain. Controlled system is the advisor.
  • Failures of Self Control – Need to create conditions to help meet your goals.
  • Mental Intrusions – Poe’s Imp of the Perverse. Trying not to think about something can create an “ironic process”, where the mind automatically monitors progress towards the goal of not thinking
  • The Difficulty of Winning an Argument – Elephant decides good and bad, the rider is the lawyer

Chapter 2: Changing your mind

The whole universe is change and life itself is but what you deem it. (Marcus Aurelius)

Why are some people optimists and others pessimists? Why do people tend to choose mates, and even professions, whose names resemble their own? The automatic emotional reactions of the elephant guide us throughout our lives. Learn how to change those automatic reactions, using using meditation, cognitive therapy, and Prozac.

  • Like-O-Meter – Buddhist notion of avoiding pain, pursuing pleasure (attachment)
  • All animals must make decisions effortlessly and automatically. “Yes! More ice cream!”
  • Negativity Bias – Cost of failure is high (death). Better to react as if you see snakes, not ropes.
  • Withdrawal system is quick and compelling.
  • Cortical Lottery – Our level of happiness is largely determined by genetics
  • How to Change Your Brain – Meditation, Cognitive Therapy, Prozac

Chapter 3: Reciprocity with a vengeance

Zigong asked: ‘Is there any single word that could guide one's entire life?’ The Master said: ‘Should it not be reciprocity? What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others.’ (Analects of Confucius)

Many species have a social life, but among mammals, only humans (and naked mole rats) are ultra-social – able to live in very large cooperative groups. The golden rule, supplemented with gossip, is the secret of our success. Understanding the deep workings of reciprocity can help you to solve problems in your own social life, and guard against the many ways people try to manipulate you.

  • Ultrasociality – Violates laws of evolution (survival of fittest, competition)
  • You Scratch My Back, I'll Scratch Yours  –  Vengeance and gratitude amplify tit for tat.
  • You Stab His Back, I'll Stab Yours - Gossip is overwhelmingly critical, primarily about social and moral violations. Acts as a policeman and a teacher (how to play the game well)
  • Use the Force, Luke – The force refers to reciprocity, an all-purpose relationship tonic.

Chapter 4: The faults of others (pdf chapter sample)


Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? (Jesus)

Part of our ultra-sociality is that we are constantly trying to manipulate others perceptions of ourselves, without realizing that we are doing so. We see the faults of others clearly, but are blind to our own. Hypocrisy is part of human morality, and it sets us all up for lives of conflict. Learn how to take off the moral glasses and see the world as it really is.

  • Keeping up appearances - Moral hypocrisy – we don’t think we are doing anything wrong. Worse, we don’t believe there’s a problem.
  • Find your inner Lawyer – The rider is skilled at supporting our feelings. The elephant is not a curious client. People look for reasons to support their belief or action.
  • Rose-Colored Mirror – We are reasonably accurate about others, but our self-perception is distorted. Positive illusions can make us happier, but lead to conflict and resentment
  • I'm Right; You're Biased – “naïve realism” my experience makes me realistic, yours makes you biased
  • Satan Satisfies – We want to believe we serve a purpose. A belief in evil provides the foe.
  • The Myth of Pure Evil – We want to believe in villains and victims, but the perpetrator almost always sees himself acting because he feels threatened, and the victim usually does things to escalate the situation (perhaps unwittingly)
  • Finding the Great Way – Welcome to Jikoji! Eight-fold path develops all of these:
    • Ch. 1 & 2: The nature of mind (divided self/change)
    • Ch. 3 & 4: How to get along (reciprocity/faults of others)
    • Ch. 5 & 6: The nature of happiness (happiness/love and attachments)
    • Ch. 7 & 8: Growing psychologically (adversity/virtue)
    • Ch. 9 & 10: Purpose & meaning (sacredness/connectedness)

Discussion reference: Work with Me: The 8 Blind Spots Between Men and Women in Business - Barbara Annis and John Gray.