The Happiness Hypothesis

I read a book this weekend called The Happiness Hypothesis, a thought-provoking blend of psychology and philosophy written by Jonathan Haidt. At the time of publication, he was a psychology professor at the University of Virginia.  In addition to discussing interesting experiments in the field of psychology and how lessons learned from these align with wisdom posited by people such as Buddha, Jesus, and Ben Franklin, he gives practical advice into changing our way of thinking, overcoming conflict, and becoming happier. I can only give it four stars out of five, however, because towards the end of the book, he gives his own personal views on politics and religion which I felt unnecessary.

So why did I feel compelled to read a book like this? I wanted more insight into how humans tick and what, according to psychological studies and philosophy, makes people happy. It turns out that positive relationships are a large key to being happy which reinforced what I saw in a TED video recently by Robert Waldinger who is the latest in line of several directors of a Harvard study that’s been conducted over the past 60+ years into happiness. I’ve also discovered several other TED Talks on happiness, in fact, which I hope to watch soon. Who wouldn’t want to know how to be happy or happier, right?

Another way to be happier, according to Haidt, is in acknowledging or expressing gratitude which I was glad to read since it validates my practice of having a Blessing Jar this year which now, I’m HAPPY to say, has three slips of paper in it. Studies have also shown that we also feel happy when we’re making progress towards goals. When we reach the goal, it’s great, but that feeling is short-lived, so it seems that we should always be striving towards goals and developing new ones as we achieve old ones.

As far as adversity goes, Haidt agrees that “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger”(Nietzsche), but only to a certain extent or in certain circumstances. If you have PTSD or crippling anxiety, you are not stronger. I’ve said Nietzche’s quote to myself in times of struggle and I’ve even said it to a few people, but now it seems like an insensitive platitude, one that I plan to keep to myself from now on.

As an educator, my favorite chapter may have been on virtue. It used to be that children were taught virtues typically through fables and proverbs. These were reinforced in movies and television way back when but at some point, we decided it would be best to have discussions and debates with children about behavior instead of teaching children values. We’ve become a society that is “normless” or anomic which, Haidt believes, is leading to an increase in amoral and antisocial behavior. As I reflect on the senseless violence taking place in our country perpetrated by people who seem to have no sense of right and wrong or human dignity, I have to agree.

Jonathan Haidt also explained that some people are lucky in the “Corticol Lottery” when it comes to their brains. I’m not going to go into specifics because it’s complicated, and you should really read the book if you’re interested in this sort of thing. However, Haidt goes on to provide suggestions for dealing one’s depression or anxiety through meditation, cognitive therapy, and/or Prozac, and he gave good reasons for all of these. I tried meditation yesterday and today, and I have to admit that I found some benefit to to it. I find more benefit, however, in the exercise “Silence and Awareness of Creation” as instructed by James Bryan Smith in his book The Good and Beautiful God. I’ve been meaning to keep up this exercise but I have not, and I’ve also not been good at maintaining a margin in my daily life in which I can do things such as meditate or focus on creation in silence, something that is extremely important to one’s well-being.

A large part of the book was devoted to the idea of reciprocity, what we get out of doing for others and how it strengthens relationships. Reciprocity is actually ingrained in us as a species and helps us co-exist though it’s much easy to reciprocate with our kin than with someone we are not related to. One of the most important lessons I learned was that even though we feel we are right in a conflict, it is sometimes best to shut up our “inner lawyer”, find some way that you did something wrong, and apologize for it. As someone who hates conflict and walks away from relationships rather than trying to repair the relationship, this affected me profoundly. I have done this with relatives but have not been able to do with others but will try it in the future.

One last note, I went to the Cardiologist today to find out the results of the stress test I took last week and the brief electrocardiogram she did before and after the stress test.  She said that my heart did well under the stress test but my heart is skipping a beat sometimes, so at some point soon I need to wear a holter monitor and do a full electrocardiogram just to be on the safe side. I’ve decided to put it off until this summer when I’m not working and she felt that would be OK. She also said that she feels the chest pain, which is worse when lying down and responds to prednisone, is a result of some sort of inflammation around my heart, perhaps a mild case of pericarditis. If this is a “mild case”, I’d hate to experience a moderate or severe case, but I guess, for now, what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger. 😉




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