The Happiness Hypothesis, by Jonathan Haidt

The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt

The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt

Various religions and philosophical schools of thought have tried to explain why the human mind behaves the way it does. For example, why does it instinctively drive us to do certain things that are beyond rational explanation?

Social psychologist and Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York’s Stern Business School, Jonathan Haidt, in his book The Happiness Hypothesis, reveals the working of the human brain through his famous Elephant-Rider metaphor and uses it to explain the sources of happiness within ourselves.

Haidt argues that the human brain is not just an information-processing unit that makes rational decisions. Rather, it works as an Elephant-Rider unit, where the emotional and intuitive part is akin to a wild elephant, and the rational part to the Rider.

The social sciences were uniting under the idea that people are rational agents who set goals and pursue them intelligently by using the information and resources at their disposal.

But then, why do people keep doing such stupid things? Why do they fail to control themselves and continue to do what they know is not good for them? I, for one, can easily muster the willpower to ignore all the desserts on the menu. But if dessert is placed on the table, I can’t resist it… But it was during some larger life decisions, about dating, that I really began to grasp the extent of my powerlessness. I would know exactly what I should do, yet, a part of me was dimly aware that I was not going to. Feelings of guilt, lust, or fear were often stronger than reasoning. (On the other hand, I was quite good at lecturing friends in similar situations about what was right for them.)

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.

Rationality vs. Intuition

Haidt argues that while the sub-conscious processes rely on intuition, the conscious and controlled processes require words. Language allows the mind to analyze the past, to imagine the future, and to weigh the pros and cons of any situation. While intuition and instincts are known to be present in animals for millions of years, human capacity for rationality was developed only a few thousand years ago, partially to free the mind from automatic responses to temptations. As a result, the seat of intuition in the brain is more nuanced and powerful than the seat of rationality. Haidt offers that, in fact, rationality evolved to serve intuition and not to rule over it, thereby explaining the powerlessness of the conscious mind.

This theory leads to a paradigm shift in our understanding of how our mind works. In line with David Eagleman’s hypothesis in Incognito (see our article on it), Haidt claims that the sub-conscious mind drives our actions most of the time. The conscious mind (Rider) is seen as the advisor, helping the sub-conscious mind (Elephant) make better choices. However, Haidt does explain how, through years of practice, meditation and intervention, the rider can train the elephant to steer away from temptations towards intelligent behavior.

The Good Side of Emotions

While the narrative of an uncontrolled elephant and a powerless rider might suggest the evil nature of the intuitive mind, Haidt clarifies that the automatic and intuitive mind is also responsible for positive emotions. Contrary to popular perception, without the emotional guidance of the automatic mind, one would fail at basic decision-making. Without internal feelings of like or dislike, one may be able to weigh the pros and cons of every choice, but will see little reason to pick one over the other.

Human rationality depends critically on sophisticated emotionality. It is only because our emotional brain works so well that our reasoning can work at all…Reason and emotion must both work together to create intelligent behavior, but emotion (a major part of the elephant) does most of the work.

Moral and value judgment too can be traced to intuition. Haidt conducted a study where he told his subjects about siblings Julie and Mark who participated in incestuous sex for the sake of adventure. Both used contraception, enjoyed the experience but vowed never to do it again. They kept it a secret, which actually brought them closer to each other. When the subjects were asked if this was acceptable behavior, they immediately said no. However, when asked to justify their judgment, they fumbled, making weak arguments such as citing the risk of genetically abnormal children (not possible due to use of birth-control) or of a ruined relationship (they actually got closer). Some gave up finally and said, “I know it’s wrong, I’m just having a hard time explaining why.” Haidt suggests that moral judgment are made automatically, beyond the realm of the controlled brain.

Two people feel strongly about an issue, their feelings come first, and their reasons are invented on the fly, to throw at each other. When you refute a person’s argument, does she generally change her mind and agree with you? Of course not, because the argument you defeated was not the cause of her position; it was made up after the judgment was already made. If you listen closely to moral arguments, you can sometimes hear something surprising: that it is really the elephant holding the reins, guiding the rider.

How Does All This Connect To “Happiness”?

One of the key takeaways from the book is how the Elephant-Rider metaphor is connected to happiness. Both intuition and rationality are vital to our being, and happiness or unhappiness is an expression of how these two interact. If they’re in sync with each other, you’re happy. If there’s conflict between your instincts and your rational decisions, you find that you’re stressed, and often unhappy.

Jonathan Haidt’s book explains the working of the human mind with simplicity and clarity, and if you want to find out more about the “Happiness Hypothesis” we recommend you read the book.

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