Review: The Happiness Hypothesis

Putting Ancient Wisdom and Philosophy to the Test of Modern Science

Jonathan Haidt (2006)

The Happiness Hypothesis is an attempt to fuse insights from psychology with theories from philosophy and religion’s long histories of enquiry into the components of ‘the good life’. While the book settles for the unsurprising and rather bland conclusion that treading a path between extremes is likely to be best for most people most of the time, it does, especially in the earlier chapters, manage to live up to the promise of holding philosophy’s feet to the empirical fire.

The key psychological points the book makes concern set points, free will, and sources of meaning. The key philosophical ideas are stoicism, deontology, utilitarianism, and virtue ethics, while the discussion of religious ideas is mostly couched in terms of a dimension of sacredness.

In keeping with several ancient dichotomies between instinct and rationality, urges and self-control, etc., Haidt introduces ‘the rider and the elephant’, the model of the self which lies at the heart of the book and which is broadly supported in psychology. The ‘elephant’ represents instincts/urges/habits/emotional responses/unconscious thought, etc. and is similar to Kahneman’s notion of System One processes. The elephant is essentially responsible for most decisions, especially ones which are made without ever attaining the status of ‘decision’. The ‘rider’ is the conscious part, the bit of you you think of as you, and as the analogy is supposed to suggest, its control over the elephant is incomplete at best. Haidt leaves it as a rather open question quite how much the rider can steer the elephant and how much it has to settle for coming up with explanations why the direction they ended up taking was just where they were hoping to go all along…

The second major piece of bad news for those hoping to come out of The Happiness Hypothesis with a recipe for the hypothesised happiness is the notion of set points. Affective neuroscience and psychology have demonstrated that each person has an idiosyncratic basic level of optimism and happiness, and that this is only perturbed briefly by life events, pharmacological intervention, etc.1 This psychological insight is somewhat less secure than others - it’s easy to think that because something happens in the brain, or because the effects of some interventions are short-lived, that this means the underlying mechanism must be immutable. The brain is continually changing in response to itself and its environment, and it reflects experience as much as it does genetics, meaning there is a lot more to do to claim that set points cannot be shifted than pointing to homeostatic regulation of administered neurotransmitters or adaptation to life events.

The promise of the book starts to emerge when, building on the two previous ideas that you’re not especially in control of what you do, and you’re not going to be able to improve things a whole lot for yourself even if you become an expert elephant-wrangler, it introduces stoicism and relates the stoic (and Buddhist) philosophy of controlling responses to uncontrolled events to the basis of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. A healthy dose of endurance for things you cannot control, and curation of considered responses to them, is justly applauded, but Haidt follows with a well-aimed criticism of stoicism’s lauding of detachment as a way of minimising vulnerability. Avoiding forming connections with others is an exquisitely logical way of avoiding being upset when they are no longer a part of our lives, but it ignores the vital point that connections with others are an important, almost certainly necessary, part of what brings meaning and happiness to our lives in the first place.

Haidt’s evidence for the importance of connections with others comes mostly from attachment theory, a characterisation of close human relationships which posits a few identifiable attachment ‘styles’ - collections of behaviours brought on by particular contexts such as novel situations, parting, and reunification. Attachment is thought to be established in caregiver-child bonding and form a model for significant relationships in later life. The philosophical treatment of love is notable for its brevity: the key point is that romantic love makes people behave in ways philosophers viewed as irrational and bestial, and was for that reason largely cautioned against and ignored.

Eventually, Haidt uses the importance of connectedness to others (both interpersonal relationships and embeddedness in society) to argue that a happy and an ethical life are inextricably entwined. This concept is captured by the notion of ‘virtue’ - of leading a life which is not only of benefit to others and morally praiseworthy, but also satisfying and enjoyable. To lend psychological backing to this notion, Haidt presents experimental philosophy evidence suggesting that people have broadly2 similar notions of virtue across cultures, and psychological evidence that happiness and pro-social behaviour are linked (happy people are more helpful to others, and helping others makes people more happy).

Haidt is most well known at the moment for research into the association between disgust and social and political dispositions, and the background for this research is presented in a chapter on divinity. Haidt argues that the sacred is a dimension in human social organisation, alongside hierarchy (social rank/prestige) and closeness (emotional connectedness). The argument is not wholly compelling, especially given the ubiquity of the other two dimensions in human societies, but it is interesting and does demonstrate quite clearly that distinctions between the sacred and profane can be hugely important to a culture. For me, the most interesting notion in the book was the suggestion that crying when witnessing exemplary generosity, justice, etc. (as at the end of every decent children’s movie ever) was due to seeing something rising in this dimension of sacredness.3 Again, not wholly persuasive, but interesting.

Ultimately, Haidt comes to rest on the psychology of meaning: people get a sense of meaning from feeling engaged with the world - feeling like they can affect it and be affected by it. This is true of activities (work and hobbies) and of relationships (family, friends, and society). Thankfully, positive engagement with those aspects of life is both beneficial for others and rewarding for oneself. It is, in a word, ‘virtuous’. Insofar as philosophies have managed to capture or be compatible with the notion of interactive, positive engagement with the world, Haidt is prepared to grant them the psychology seal of approval. There is legitimate room to debate what constitutes positive engagement given different groups’ goals and perspectives, meaning ‘virtue’ is not an unambiguous beacon, but it is at least a useful framework for understanding the relationship between behaviour and happiness.


  1. While affective neuroscience and psychology are valuable, this particular insight needed input from neither of them: we could (and indeed do) measure people’s happiness and the efficacy of interventions without neuroimaging, measuring neurotransmitter activity or hormone levels, or even robust psychological measurements of affect. 

  2. The persuasiveness of the thesis is somewhat dependent upon how much work ‘broadly’ is allowed to do here… 

  3. The disgust which accompanies degradation, unpleasantly but expertly portrayed in Requiem for a Dream, would be an example of a response to movements in the opposite dimension.