Book Review: The Happiness Hypothesis – Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom

Book Cover of The Happiness Hypothesis

The Happiness Hypothesis
by Jonathan Haidt

Choosing This Book

Following my resurgence after a self-imposed 15-month lockdown, I experienced an internal need to improve my life. I wouldn’t say I was unhappy, but I knew I could be better. And for a while, I had finished my studies and started working while postponing the question of what am I meant to do with my life? In a world of pandemic and uncertainties, it did not feel immediate. However, it is now time to dig deep and if possible, find an answer.

I’ve been always inclined to intellectual discussion, and although social interaction could provide that, an internal dialogue is something I engage in more willingly. Books are an optimal source of fuel for such dialogue. I sought some books on positive psychology, particularly to change my outlook on life, and The Happiness Hypothesis ended up seeming a perfect fit for what I wanted.

The Happiness Hypothesis

The full title of the book is The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, and is authored by Jonathan Haidt, a social and positive psychologist. Published in 2006, the book refers to Ten Great Ideas, with ancient wisdom taking from several sources, such as from Buddha or biblical passages. As the title suggests, the premise is to tackle common ancient wisdom, provide modern scientific proof and apply these to our current lives.

Does the book hold its promise? In all honesty, for something released in 2006, I would still say not completely. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great read. But perhaps, I was expecting the science and truths to not be primarily based on the early 1950-1970 psychology that most of us have already learnt about in schools or pretty much common videos online. It lacks the freshness, except for titbits of the author’s own experiences. This made the book, at times, boring.

However, it was not a let down. It was still an insightful book, and although most of the chapters did feel unnecessarily longer than they should’ve been, they do bridge the gap between ancient wisdom and modern life. Undeniably, science and early psychology may be too focused on hard truths, which is disassociated from actual life. The author manages to brige these two well enough.

Ultrasocial Humans

Perhaps one of my main mistakes looking into positive psychology and self-improvement is to assume it all relates to the self. The book does, in the beginning, tackle concepts like the negativity bias or the problem of evil. The more I delved into the book, the more insight how we belong in a society and how most of our feelings are in relation to others. There is a constant analysis of the play in the spectrum of humans as completely selfish to completely altruistic. Despite us not being as altruistic in the sense that ants or bees are in their colonies, we are far more group-oriented than a lot of us individualists like to think.

And this is not to say that our meaning in life or our happiness derives from helping others – far from it. However, there is a positive feeling, at least personally, when I do something that I enjoy but also feels productive. For instance, writing these book reviews or publishing poems – I enjoy the writing myself and in many ways, it is selfish. But if one person reads these and enjoys what I write, or takes some value, than I am also contributing to society in some form, which enhances my experience. Coincidentally, in my last post The Transformative Experience of an Open Mic, I spoke how I do not live in a social vacuum, and that attending an open mic perhaps felt incredible, to share my poems with others. Perhaps I can attribute the book to have pushed me into not being afraid of such social interactions.

So, What is Happiness?

I think, as you might expect, there is no straight answer to happiness. I am in a temporary happy state as I write this and I don’t have an urge to look for much change in my life. In the hedonic sense, which is based on neurological pleasure, a clear answer is to indulge in food and sex, and perhaps despite not being actual happiness, it is also important to not feel ashamed and not denying myself such pleasures.

The second lesson, which I do need to apply, is to focus more on love and productivity. I have been alienated from the rest of the world, and the sense of productivity I get from publishing content (whether writing or gaming livestream/videos) is fulfilling. By nature, these activities occur in a community, and perhaps the connection with others is what is the source of me feeling good. In the future, I look forward to engage more directly in the community, particularly with workshops and more open mics.

Final Review

Although not the most exciting read and nowhere near fresh as expected, the book still manages to provide insight that I have found motivating. Compared to when I started reading the book, I am already in a much better place (okay, it is not solely based on the book, but it did contribute). On that aspect, I would still recommend this read, although I would expect that there other books out there in the same field that might do this job better.


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