Haidt’s Happiness

An atheist and a practitioner of positive psychology, Jonathan Haidt’s “The Happiness Hypothesis” reads at times like a spiritual self-help book, and in a sense it is, but it is supported by a mass of academic and scientific references.

The Psybertron agenda has been on evolutionary psychology as a description of both epistemology (what is known) and ethics (what is good), so my interest has never really been with psychiatry or treatment of psychological abnormalities, except in so far as; (a) more than a few science writers have used brain abnormalities to enlighten us about the workings of mind; and (b) more than a few writers who’ve flown close to understanding epistemology and ethics have had painful brushes with mental illness. There but for grace, etc. In that sense my interest has always been in psychology and it has always been a positive, explanatory and active interest, but I’d not noticed the term “positive psychology” until an old school colleague of mine died earlier this year. Only in his obituaries did I discover he’d been a successful practitioner and published writer in the field. (I have a copy of Chris Mace “Heart and Soul” on order.)

The reason I mention Chris and positive psychology, is the discovery that Abraham Maslow, like Freud, is being rehabilitated into modern thinking, and the Freudian rehabilitation figures prominently in Chris’s work. Maslow’s Theory of Human Motivation and the hierarchy of human needs that arises from it were standard management theory for some years despite a backlash against mis-use of Maslow’s work – reducing complex theory to a simple diagram with few clumsy words is always open to abuse, but I always felt the underlying principles were sound, whatever his critics.

Maslow, and in particular his “Religions, Values and Peak Experiences” is one of the 10 great ideas in Haidt’s treatise on happiness. (I also have that on order.)

Group Selection is another neo-Darwinian concept being re-habilitated these days, and D S Wilson is another key source for Haidt. He also brings back theories of “virtue” and “arete” – Al MacIntyre is another source – and the concept of writing our own stories in the cultural narrative also figures highly – hence the need for cultural conservatism as well a liberal freedoms.

Amongst the new atheist evolutionary scientists, Pinker gets used positively but Dawkins and Dennett are ignored. Damasio is a positively recommended source and Haidt manages to write on the subject without invoking the infamously over-used Phineas Gage meme. Probably the main weakness in Haidt’s book is the title, and the dependence on “happiness” as the apparent measure of goodness. He elaborates formulae for happiness that bring in a wide range of factors, naturally, but we never come to another word to better capture the subject – well-being maybe, but not quality say, or arete or excellence.

Bar that one weakness The Happiness Hypothesis is a good witty read and a great synthesis of ideas – in many cases self-reinforcing for me, since he uses many sources I already use. Particularly notable are two points:

Rehabilitation of the idea of “love” as subject to be taken seriously – all it’s forms – in a book supported by academic references. How many times have I asked “What’s so funny ’bout peace, love and understanding?

Ditto, the rehabilitation of the idea of “divinity” as an axis of experience, orthogonal to the hierarchical levels of evolving knowledge and goodness. As an idea it does put some bones on that intuitive je-ne-sais-quois of experienced quality that never seems quite amenable to objective analysis, and it does it without invoking anything god-like, despite his choice of the term divine. Wonder what the new Humanists would make of this idea, and the fact that Haidt received Templeton funding ?

At one point Haidt admits that his book could have been one long recommendation for Buddhism in its entirety, but this is ultimately too passive and by the end you discover his overriding prescription is in fact balance.

Oh and how could I forget, he likes metaphor (incl George Lakoff), and his primary metaphor throughout – rather than Plato’s two horses – is an elephant with a human driver in the saddle. The big strong intuitive emotional animal, with the much smaller and much-less-powerful-than-it-thinks rational mind in “control” (also draws on Daniel Wegner).

Modern truth in ancient wisdom. Nothing new under the sun.

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