Today we’ll be looking at The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt—finding modern truth in ancient wisdom. The subtitle does a good job of explaining what the author is trying to do. He uses current understanding of social closeness, status, and divinity to understand what results in a happy life. He also draws connections to ancient proverbs and teachings that, in a way, have been teaching the same stuff for years.
It’s really interesting to me that, as humans, we always think we’re terribly novel. Every teenager rebels against his parents. Most parents revert to behavior that their parents used on them. We think we’re so smart, but we generally just follow the programming of our parents, schools, friends, and media. Now, I’m not trying to be a terrible pessimist, but my point is that, for all our advancements, it seems like people were just as smart when they were sitting around pontificating and drinking wine all day as they are today.
Our advancement in technology is amazing, and we need to use it as a tool for what we want to achieve in life and what will make us happy, but we have to remember that we are still primitive beings. Our brains still belong to cavemen with simple caveman needs, and having the fastest car, biggest flatscreen, or newest virtual reality device isn’t really what’s going to make us happy. But maybe this book can…
If you couldn’t guess by the title of the book, we’re going to get a little deep here, starting with this quote from Mr. Haidt: “Morality binds people into groups. It gives us tribalism, it gives us genocide, war, and politics. But it also gives us heroism, altruism, and sainthood.”He’s getting at the social nature of humans, and how we naturally seek out others like us. Furthermore, he’s getting at the duality of human nature—good and evil. Even further, I think he’s getting at the concept of human potential, and how self-awareness can allow us to accomplish anything as a species.
I want to talk about three golden nuggets from this book: First, he says that reciprocity is our social currency. This basically means that, if we’re nice to other people, other people will be nice to us, and that’s how 7 billion people can get along at least some of the time. Second, he says that if we can control our interpretations of events in our lives, then we can control our happiness and our world. And third, no you’re not reading that wrong, I’ll tell you the meaning of life, or at least how he describes it.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet… What is reciprocity? If you’ve done the lesson on Poor Charlie’s Almanack, then you know reciprocity is one of the cognitive biases or psychological tendencies that all humans have. At its most simple level, it just means “you scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours.”
When was the first time you remember hearing about The Golden Rule? I remember learning it in kindergarten, from my parents, and all over the place. Talk about programming, right? Well this is one that we need to push even harder! The Golden Rule promotes cooperation by giving us empathy for others, and it can help us understand how we should behave in potentially complex social situations. Remember, principles over rules. Even if I’m meeting someone for the first time in a strange place, I can follow this—well it should be called The Golden Principle I guess—and I’ll be fine.
A great angle to look at reciprocity from is the movie The Godfather. There is a scene where someone comes to The Godfather asking him to kill some people who beat his daughter. The Godfather basically says that he won’t do it, because this so-called friend has ignored him for years because of his reputation. When the man kisses his ring and calls him Godfather, he gets what he wants.
The whole purpose behind the name “Godfather” is intended to create the ties of family where there isn’t always blood relation. Because of the very nature of evolution, we are driven to promulgate our genes. In theory, this means that we will do more to protect our children than we would a complete stranger, and that’s not terribly hard to understand.
The author takes this a step further and talks about what he calls He defines it as “living in large cooperative societies in which hundreds or thousands of individuals reap the benefits of an extensive division of labor.” Humans can be hard to understand for numerous reasons, but take a look at ants. All ants in a colony are siblings, because they come from a single queen. Therefore, selfishness would negatively impact the continuation of the individuals genes, because so much can be accomplished by the colony working as a whole.
This allows class segregation, such as soldiers, workers, and foragers, and everyone plays his role in the society. Does this sound familiar? Well, like I said, humans may be a little more complex. It seems that we have a higher level of self-awareness, consciousness, free will—whatever you want to call it. Or maybe it’s actually lower; it just depends on your perspective. But time will tell if it’s an evolutionary benefit or not. I’ll let you think on that…
I hope that thought is deep enough to lead you into this concept: Haidt says that if you can control your interpretations of events in your life, then you can control your world. Don’t think of this as hokey. Some people are born into poverty and violence and end up leading fulfilling, successful, happy lives. Some people seemingly are given the world on a silver platter and end up dying young from an overdose. Why does this happen?
He argues that it has everything to do with how we interpret both the good and bad that happens in our life. The most basic example that I reinforce with myself is how different people deal with failure. Some people allow it to paralyze them from ever trying a hand at their dreams again. And I want to be the kind of person who sees it as an opportunity to learn, grow, and be even better in the future.
Ok, I bet you stuck around for this one… What is the meaning of life? I think everyone tries to answer this throughout their life, and so maybe that’s part of the answer, but Mr. Haidt took a much more specific approach. He divided human life into three dimensions and says that we have to address each one. Let’s look at each dimension, and I’ll give my two cents:
The first is other people. We like or love some people and not others, and it’s usually easy to understand why. But what will make different people happy? For me, I’m much happier with a small number of close friends, and my family than with many acquaintances. Some people are the opposite though, and I still understand and enjoy knowing and learning from many people.
The second dimension is status, and this relates mostly to modern-day work. Again, it’s pretty easy to know where we stand in a corporation. The organizational chart is the literal hierarchy of the company. Some people want to be on the top of it, and some are happier focusing on their craft and taking direction. I’ve always wanted to create my own vision and direction, and I didn’t mind if this meant being part of a smaller organization.
The final dimension he refers to is divinity or sacredness. He’s an atheist, so this doesn’t necessarily have to do with God, but he says the human mind simply does perceive it. We consider nobility, honor, and morality. We try to do what we think is right and good. And we want to believe that there is something more than our animal nature.
So, what is the meaning of life? He says that it’s our relationships with others, our work, and something larger than ourselves. If we get these relationships right, a sense of purpose and meaning will emerge. I put all this in a thought bubble, because, remember, it’s how we interpret the events—and relationships—in our lives that determine that purpose.
For myself, I found a way to bring all three dimensions together. With my knowledge business, I can develop relationships with other like-minded people, I can be my own boss and work on something that I feel is important, and I can be part of a community much larger than myself—a community of people who want more impact, freedom, and fun in their lives.
Ok everyone. Check this book out, and complete the exercise. In the search for the meaning of life, how can you improve your relationships with 1) other people, 2) your work, and 3) something larger than yourself?
Answer that, get to work doing it, and I’ll see you all next time.