The Happiness Hypothesis summary
To summarize the idea that our emotions, our reactions to events, and some mental illnesses are caused by the mental filters through which we look at the world, I could not say it any more concisely than Shakespeare: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
Human thinking depends on metaphor. We understand new or complex things in relation to things we already know.
...people will readily fabricate reasons to explain their own behavior - it's called “confabulation.” Confabulation is so frequent in work with split-brain patients and other people suffering brain damage that Gazzaniga refers to the language centers on the left side of the brain as the interpreter module, whose job is to give a running commentary on whatever the self is doing, even though the interpreter module has no access to the real causes or motives of the self’s behavior.
The brain started off with just three rooms, or clumps of neurons: a hindbrain (connected to the spinal column), a midbrain, and a forebrain (connected to the sensory organs at the front of the animal). Over time, as more complex bodies and behaviors evolved, the brain kept building out the front, away from the spinal column, expanding the forebrain more than any other part. The forebrain of the earliest mammals developed a new outer shell, which included the hypothalamus (specialized to coordinate basic drives and motivations), the hippocampus (specialized for memory), and the amygdala (specialized for emotional learning and responding). These structures are sometimes referred to as the limbic system (from Latin limbus, “border” or “margin”) because they wrap around the rest of the brain, forming a border.
In the more social mammals, particularly among primates, a new layer of neural tissue developed and spread to surround the old limbic system. This neocortex (Latin for “new covering”) is the gray matter characteristic of human brains. The front portion of the neocortex is particularly interesting, for parts of it do not appear to be dedicated to specific tasks (such as moving a finger or processing sound). Instead, it is available to make new associations and to engage in thinking, planning, and decision making—mental processes that can free an organism from responding only to an immediate situation.
Human rationality depends critically on sophisticated emotionality. It is only because our emotional brains works so well that our reasoning can work at all.
In sum, the rider is an advisor or servant; not a king, president, or charioteer with a firm grip on the reins. The rider is Gazzaniga’s interpreter module; it is conscious, controlled thought. The elephant, in contrast, is everything else. The elephant includes the gut feelings, visceral reactions, emotions, and intuitions that comprise much of the automatic system. The elephant and the rider each have their own intelligence, and when they work together well they enable the unique brilliance of human beings. But they don’t always work together well.
An emotionally intelligent person has a skilled rider who knows how to distract and coax the elephant without having to engage in a direct contest of wills.
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. It is the elephant who decides what is good or bad, beautiful or ugly. Gut feelings, intuitions, and snap judgments happen constantly and automatically (as Malcolm Gladwell described in Blink), but only the rider can string sentences together and create arguments to give to other people. In moral arguments, the rider goes beyond being just an advisor to the elephant; he becomes a lawyer, fighting in the court of public opinion to persuade others of the elephant’s point of view.
“Nothing is miserable unless you think it so; and on the other hand, nothing brings happiness unless you are content with it.”
Whenever you see or hear a word that resembles your name, a little flash of pleasure biases you toward thinking the thing is good.
Some commonalities of animal life even create similarities across species that we might call design principles. One such principle is that bad is stronger than good. Responses to threats and unpleasantness are faster, stronger, and harder to inhibit than responses to opportunities and pleasures. This principle, called “negativity bias,” shows up all over psychology.
You can change your affective style too—but again, you can’t do it by sheer force of will. You have to do something that will change your repertoire of available thoughts. Here are three of the best methods for doing so: meditation, cognitive therapy, and Prozac. All three are effective because they work on the elephant.
For Buddha, attachments are like a game of roulette in which someone else spins the wheel and the game is rigged: The more you play, the more you lose. The only way to win is to step away from the table. And the only way to step away, to make yourself not react to the ups and downs of life, is to meditate and tame the mind.
A big part of cognitive therapy is training clients to catch their thoughts, write them down, name the distortions, and then find alternative and more accurate ways of thinking. Over many weeks, the client’s thoughts become more realistic, the feedback loop is broken, and the client’s anxiety or depression abates. Cognitive therapy works because it teaches the rider how to train the elephant rather than how to defeat it directly in an argument.
Life is what we deem it, and our lives are the creations of our minds. But these claims are not helpful until augmented by a theory of the divided self (such as the rider and the elephant) and an understanding of negativity bias and affective style. Once you know why change is so hard, you can drop the brute force method and take a more psychologically sophisticated approach to self-improvement. Buddha got it exactly right: You need a method for taming the elephant, for changing your mind gradually. Meditation, cognitive therapy, and Prozac are three effective means of doing so. Because each will be effective for some people and not for others, I believe that all three should be readily available and widely publicized. Life itself is but what you deem it, and you can—through meditation, cognitive therapy, and Prozac— redeem yourself.
Because nearly all animals that live in cooperative groups live in groups of close relatives, most altruism in the animal kingdom reflects the simple axiom that shared genes equals shared interests.
Those species each evolved a reproduction system in which a single queen produces all the children, and nearly all the children are either sterile (ants) or else their reproductive abilities are suppressed (bees, mole rats); therefore, a hive, nest, or colony of these animals is one big family. If everyone around you is your sibling, and if the survival of your genes depends on the survival of your queen, selfishness becomes genetic suicide.
We humans also try to extend the reach of kin altruism by using fictitious kinship names for nonrelatives, as when children are encouraged to call their parents’ friends Uncle Bob and Aunt Sarah.
A species equipped with vengeance and gratitude responses can support larger and more cooperative social groups because the payoff to cheaters is reduced by the costs they bear in making enemies. Conversely, the benefits of generosity are increased because one gains friends.
Robin Dunbar has demonstrated that within a given group of vertebrate species—primates, carnivores, ungulates, birds, reptiles, or fish—the logarithm of the brain size is almost perfectly proportional to the logarithm of the social group size. In other words, all over the animal kingdom, brains grow to manage larger and larger groups. Social animals are smart animals.
Dunbar suggests that language evolved as a replacement for physical grooming. Language allows small groups of people to bond quickly and to learn from each other about the bonds of others. Dunbar notes that people do in fact use language primarily to talk about other people.
Gossip is a policeman and a teacher. Without it, there would be chaos and ignorance.
From this vantage point it all seems so silly, all this moralism, righteousness, and hypocrisy. It’s beyond silly; it is tragic, for it suggests that human beings will never achieve a state of lasting peace and harmony. So what can you do about it? The first step is to see it as a game and stop taking it so seriously. The great lesson that comes out of ancient India is that life as we experience it is a game called “samsara.” It is a game in which each person plays out his “dharma,” his role or part in a giant play. In the game of samsara, good things happen to you, and you are happy. Then bad things happen, and you are sad or angry.
The human mind may have been shaped by evolutionary processes to play Machiavellian tit for tat, and it seems to come equipped with cognitive processes that predispose us to hypocrisy, self-righteousness, and moralistic conflict. But sometimes, by knowing the mind’s structure and strategies, we can step out of the ancient game of social manipulation and enter into a game of our choosing. By seeing the log in your own eye you can become less biased, less moralistic, and therefore less inclined toward argument and conflict.
Buddhism and Stoicism teach that striving for external goods, or to make the world conform to your wishes, is always a striving after wind. Happiness can only be found within, by breaking attachments to external things and cultivating an attitude of acceptance.
But recent research in psychology suggests that Buddha and Epictetus may have taken things too far. Some things are worth striving for, and happiness comes in part from outside of yourself, if you know where to look.
The elephant works the same way: It feels pleasure whenever it takes a step in the right direction. The elephant learns whenever pleasure (or pain) follows immediately after behavior.
...when it comes to goal pursuit, it really is the journey that counts, not the destination.
The human mind is extraordinarily sensitive to changes in conditions, but not so sensitive to absolute levels.
When we combine the adaptation principle with the discovery that people’s average level of happiness is highly heritable, we come to a startling possibility: In the long run, it doesn’t much matter what happens to you. Good fortune or bad, you will always return to your happiness setpoint—your brain’s default level of happiness—which was determined largely by your genes.
Yes, genes explain far more about us than anyone had realized, but the genes themselves often turn out to be sensitive to environmental conditions. And yes, each person has a characteristic level of happiness, but it now looks as though it’s not so much a set point as a potential range or probability distribution. Whether you operate on the high or the low side of your potential range is determined by many factors that Buddha and Epictetus would have considered externals.
H = S + C + V --> The level of happiness that you actually experience (H) is determined by your biological set point (S) plus the conditions of your life (C) plus the voluntary activities (V) you do. The challenge for positive psychology is to use the scientific method to find out exactly what kinds of C and V can push H up to the top of your potential range.
It turns out that there really are some external conditions (C) that matter. There are some changes you can make in your life that are not fully subject to the adaptation principle, and that might make you lastingly happier. It may be worth striving to achieve them.
- Lack of control
Csikszentmihalyi’s big discovery is that there is a state many people value even more than chocolate after sex. It is the state of total immersion in a task that is challenging yet closely matched to one’s abilities. It is what people sometimes call “being in the zone.” Csikszentmihalyi called it “flow” because it often feels like effortless movement: Flow happens, and you go with it.
The keys to flow: There’s a clear challenge that fully engages your attention; you have the skills to meet the challenge; and you get immediate feedback about how you are doing at each step (the progress principle).
Variety is the spice of life because it is the natural enemy of adaptation.
One reason for the widespread philosophical wariness of sensual pleasure is that it gives no lasting benefit. Pleasure feels good in the moment, but sensual memories fade quickly, and the person is no wiser or stronger afterwards. Even worse, pleasure beckons people back for more, away from activities that might be better for them in the long run. But gratifications are different. Gratifications ask more of us; they challenge us and make us extend ourselves. Gratifications often come from accomplishing something, learning something, or improving something.
So V (voluntary activity) is real, and it’s not just about detachment. You can increase your happiness if you use your strengths, particularly in the service of strengthening connections—helping friends, expressing gratitude to benefactors.
Conspicuous consumption refers to things that are visible to others and that are taken as markers of a person’s relative success. These goods are subject to a kind of arms race, where their value comes not so much from their objective properties as from the statement they make about their owner.
Inconspicuous consumption, on the other hand, refers to goods and activities that are valued for themselves, that are usually consumed more privately, and that are not bought for the purpose of achieving status.
The psychologist Barry Schwartz calls this the “paradox of choice”: We value choice and put ourselves in situations of choice, even though choice often undercuts our happiness. But Schwartz and his colleagues find that the paradox mostly applies to people they call “maximizers”—those who habitually try to evaluate all the options, seek out more information, and make the best choice (or “maximize their utility,” as economists would say). Other people—“satisficers”—are more laid back about choice. They evaluate an array of options until they find one that is good enough, and then they stop looking. Satisficers are not hurt by a surfeit of options. Maximizers end up making slightly better decisions than satisficers, on average (all that worry and information-gathering does help), but they are less happy with their decisions, and they are more inclined to depression and anxiety.
Extend the happiness hypothesis into a yin-yang formulation: Happiness comes from within, and happiness comes from without. To live both the yin and the yang, we need guidance. Buddha is history’s most perceptive guide to the first half; he is a constant but gentle reminder of the yin of internal work. But I believe that the Western ideal of action, striving, and passionate attachment is not as misguided as Buddhism suggests. We just need some balance (from the East) and some specific guidance (from modern psychology) about what to strive for.
Attachment theory begins with the idea that two basic goals guide children’s behavior: safety and exploration. A child who stays safe survives; a child who explores and plays develops the skills and intelligence needed for adult life. (This is why all mammal babies play; and the larger their frontal cortex, the more they need to play). These two needs are often opposed, however, so they are regulated by a kind of thermostat that monitors the level of ambient safety. When the safety level is adequate, the child plays and explores. But as soon as it drops too low, it’s as though a switch were thrown and suddenly safety needs become paramount.
Evidence that romantic partners become true attachment figures, like parents, comes from a review of research on how people cope with the death of a spouse, or a long separation. The review found that adults experience the same sequence Bowlby had observed in children placed in hospitals: initial anxiety and panic, followed by lethargy and depression, followed by recovery through emotional detachment. Furthermore, the review found that contact with close friends was of little help in blunting the pain, but renewed contact with one’s parents was much more effective.
Humans are the only creatures on Earth whose young are utterly helpless for years, and heavily dependent on adult care for more than a decade. Given the enormous burden that is the human child, women can’t do it on their own. Studies of hunter-gatherer societies show that mothers of young children cannot collect enough calories to keep themselves and their children alive. They rely on the large quantity of food as well as the protection provided by males in their peak years of productivity.
True love exists, I believe, but it is not—cannot be—passion that lasts forever. True love, the love that undergirds strong marriages, is simply strong companionate love, with some added passion, between two people who are firmly committed to each other.
Emile Durkheim, performed a scholarly miracle. He gathered data from across Europe to study the factors that affect the suicide rate. His findings can be summarized in one word: constraints. No matter how he parsed the data, people who had fewer social constraints, bonds, and obligations were more likely to kill themselves.
An ideology of extreme personal freedom can be dangerous because it encourages people to leave homes, jobs, cities, and marriages in search of personal and professional fulfillment, thereby breaking the relationships that were probably their best hope for such fulfillment.
...“adversity hypothesis,” which says that people need adversity, setbacks, and perhaps even trauma to reach the highest levels of strength, fulfillment, and personal development.
Dalai Lama said: “The person who has had more experience of hardships can stand more firmly in the face of problems than the person who has never experienced suffering. From this angle, then, some suffering can be a good lesson for life.”
The second class of benefit concerns relationships. Adversity is a filter. When a person is diagnosed with cancer, or a couple loses a child, some friends and family members rise to the occasion and look for any way they can to express support or to be helpful.
Trauma changes priorities and philosophies toward the present (“Live each day to the fullest”) and toward other people.
Psychologists have devoted a great deal of effort to figuring out who benefits from trauma and who is crushed. The answer compounds the already great unfairness of life: Optimists are more likely to benefit than pessimists. Optimists are, for the most part, people who won the cortical lottery: They have a high happiness setpoint, they habitually look on the bright side, and they easily find silver linings.
Pennebaker’s results seemed to support an old-fashioned Freudian notion of catharsis: People who express their emotions, “get it off their chests” or “let off steam,” are healthier.
Pennebaker discovered that it’s not about steam; it’s about sense making. The people in his studies who used their writing time to vent got no benefit. The people who showed deep insight into the causes and consequences of the event on their first day of writing got no benefit, either: They had already made sense of things. It was the people who made progress across the four days, who showed increasing insight; they were the ones whose health improved over the next year.
The first step is to do what you can, before adversity strikes, to change your cognitive style. If you are a pessimist, consider meditation, cognitive therapy, or even Prozac. All three will make you less subject to negative rumination, more able to guide your thoughts in a positive direction, and therefore more able to withstand future adversity, find meaning in it, and grow from it. The second step is to cherish and build your social support network. Having one or two good attachment relationships helps adults as well as children (and rhesus monkeys) to face threats. Trusted friends who are good listeners can be a great aid to making sense and finding meaning. Third, religious faith and practice can aid growth, both by directly fostering sense making (religions provide stories and interpretive schemes for losses and crises) and by increasing social support (religious people have relationships through their religious communities, and many have a relationship with God).
And finally, no matter how well or poorly prepared you are when trouble strikes, at some point in the months afterwards, pull out a piece of paper and start writing. Pennebaker suggests that you write continuously for fifteen minutes a day, for several days. Don’t edit or censor yourself; don’t worry about grammar or sentence structure; just keep writing. Write about what happened, how you feel about it, and why you feel that way.
...adversity may be most beneficial for people in their late teens and into their twenties.
The strong version of the adversity hypothesis might be true, but only if we add caveats: For adversity to be maximally beneficial, it should happen at the right time (young adulthood), to the right people (those with the social and psychological resources to rise to challenges and find benefits), and to the right degree (not so severe as to cause PTSD).
In all these ways, the ancients reveal a sophisticated understanding of moral psychology, similar to Franklin’s. They all knew that virtue resides in a well-trained elephant. They all knew that training takes daily practice and a great deal of repetition. The rider must take part in the training, but if moral instruction imparts only explicit knowledge (facts that the rider can state), it will have no effect on the elephant, and therefore little effect on behavior. Moral education must also impart tacit knowledge—skills of social perception and social emotion so finely tuned that one automatically feels the right thing in each situation, knows the right thing to do, and then wants to do it. Morality, for the ancients, was a kind of practical wisdom.
Where the Greeks focused on the character of a person and asked what kind of person we should each aim to become, modern ethics focuses on actions, asking when a particular action is right or wrong. This turn from character ethics to quandary ethics has turned moral education away from virtues and toward moral reasoning. If morality is about dilemmas, then moral education is training in problem solving.
Although no specific virtue made every list, six broad virtues, or families of related virtues, appeared on nearly all lists: wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence (the ability to forge connections to something larger than the self).
Those who reported giving more help and support to spouses, friends, and relatives went on to live longer than those who gave less (even after controlling for factors such as health at the beginning of the study period), whereas the amount of help that people reported receiving showed no relationship to longevity. Brown’s finding shows directly that, at least for older people, it really is more blessed to give than to receive.
Anomie is the condition of a society in which there are no clear rules, norms, or standards of value. In an anomic society, people can do as they please; but without any clear standards or respected social institutions to enforce those standards, it is harder for people to find things they want to do. Anomie breeds feelings of rootlessness and anxiety and leads to an increase in amoral and antisocial behavior.
...quickly realized that there are two main kinds of diversity—demographic and moral.
Once you make this distinction, you see that nobody can coherently even want moral diversity.
We humans have always lived in larger, denser groups than most other primates, and we lived on the ground, too, not in trees, so we were more exposed to the ravages of microbes and parasites that spread by physical contact. Disgust makes us careful about contact. But the most fascinating thing about disgust is that it is recruited to support so many of the norms, rituals, and beliefs that cultures use to define themselves.
If the human body is a temple that sometimes gets dirty, it makes sense that “cleanliness is next to Godliness.
Eliade had perfectly pegged my feeble spirituality, limited as it is to places, books, people, and events that have given me moments of uplift and enlightenment. Even atheists have intimations of sacredness, particularly when in love or in nature. We just don’t infer that God caused those feelings.
The self is the main obstacle to spiritual advancement, in three ways. First, the constant stream of trivial concerns and egocentric thoughts keeps people locked in the material and profane world, unable to perceive sacredness and divinity. This is why Eastern religions rely heavily on meditation, an effective means of quieting the chatter of the self. Second, spiritual transformation is essentially the transformation of the self, weakening it, pruning it back—in some sense, killing it—and often the self objects. Give up my possessions and the prestige they bring? No way! Love my enemies, after what they did to me? Forget about it. And third, following a spiritual path is invariably hard work, requiring years of meditation, prayer, self-control, and sometimes self-denial. The self does not like to be denied, and it is adept at finding reasons to bend the rules or cheat. Many religions teach that egoistic attachments to pleasure and reputation are constant temptations to leave the path of virtue. In a sense, the self is Satan, or, at least, Satan’s portal.
On issue after issue, liberals want to maximize autonomy by removing limits, barriers, and restrictions. The religious right, on the other hand, wants to structure personal, social, and political relationships in three dimensions and so create a landscape of purity and pollution where restrictions maintain the separation of the sacred and the profane. For the religious right, hell on earth is a flat land of unlimited freedom where selves roam around with no higher purpose than expressing and developing themselves.
Love and work are crucial for human happiness because, when done well, they draw us out of ourselves and into connection with people and projects beyond ourselves. Happiness comes from getting these connections right. Happiness comes not just from within, as Buddha and Epictetus supposed, or even from a combination of internal and external factors. The correct version of the happiness hypothesis, as I’ll illustrate below, is that happiness comes from between.
People don’t necessarily need to find meaning in their national identity—indeed, in large and diverse nations such as the United States, Russia, and India, religion might hold greater promise for cross-level coherence and purpose within life. Religions do such a good job of creating coherence, in fact, that some scholars believe they were designed for that purpose.
Religion, therefore, could have pulled human beings into the group-selection loophole. By making people long ago feel and act as though they were part of one body, religion reduced the influence of individual selection (which shapes individuals to be selfish) and brought into play the force of group selection (which shapes individuals to work for the good of their group).
By drawing on wisdom that is balanced—ancient and new, Eastern and Western, even liberal and conservative—we can choose directions in life that will lead to satisfaction, happiness, and a sense of meaning. We can’t simply select a destination and then walk there directly—the rider does not have that much authority. But by drawing on humanity’s greatest ideas and best science, we can train the elephant, know our possibilities as well as our limits, and live wisely.