Modern happiness using ancient wisdom

This title is a play on the word of the subtitle of a book on happiness called The Happiness Hypothesis, Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, by social psychologist Jonathon Haidt. I can’t recommend this book highly enough to anyone who is seriously interested in what happiness is and where it comes from. I’ve been reading it, and it seems to me that the best way to understand and process it is to write about it – after all, we learn by thinking about things afterwards; by reflection.

So here, for your enjoyment and edification, is my potted summary of Chapter 1. You really must read it for yourself to understand it properly, and then think about what it says. I’m just writing this to help me understand it, and it in no way represents an accurate summary of the book. Any errors are mine.

The human mind is split. We are divided in ourselves. Even though we intend to do something, like go to the gym, and we tell people we are going to go, we don’t. We are controlled by something other than our conscious will. One way to look at this is to imagine an elephant being controlled by a rider. The rider is smarter but the elephant is big and doesn’t always do what it is told by the rider.

This division can be seen in four different ways:

1. Mind and Body – our bodies behave independently of our minds. Our skin sweats, our stomachs rumble, our sexual organs seem to have “minds of their own”. No matter how determined we are that these things won’t happen to embarrass us, they do.

2. Left and Right Brain – the two hemispheres of our brains are responsible for different functions and can act independently of each other. This has been shown in studies of people with damages parts of the brain, and where the connection between the two hemispheres has been cut for medical reasons. The left hand may suppress, or work against, what the right hand is doing. People make up stories to explain what has happened, or what they have done, that do not reflect the facts. This is called “confabulating” and can be seen everywhere, not just in the brain-damaged.

3. New Brain and Old Brain – the “old brain” is the more primitive parts of the brain that we share with the “lower” animals, such as the hypothalamus, the hippocampus and the amygdala, which control basic drives, memory, and emotional learning and responding, respectively. The “new brain” is the neocortex – the grey matter that mammals, particularly primates, have that performs more complex thinking and decision-making. So the neocortex is perhaps what makes us rational and releases us from the mercy of our basic drives and emotions.

Part of the neocortex, however, the orbitofrontal cortex, is responsible for emotional reaction when we are making judgements or decisions. If it is removed then people are LESS able to make decisions, which shows that emotions do not get in the way of decision-making, but rather emotions make decision-making possible by letting us know how we feel about the options. We make the many everyday decisions without conscious thought, and this is not possible without our emotions. So emotion and reason are not as divided as we think.

4. Controlled and Automatic Mind – the older, more primitive parts of the brain have been functioning for millions of years in an automatic way to keep the animal, the primate, and then the human alive and reproducing. The newer, rational, thinking parts have not had as much time to evolve and perfect the way they function. Which part do you think, then, will take over when things get tough? When a lightning-fast decision is needed? When we are under stress? Which parts are working when we don’t do what we know, rationally, we should do?

The elephant. “Gut feelings, intuitions, and snap judgements happen constantly and automatically” (p.21-22). When we’re asked to explain our reasons our rational mind doesn’t always know so it will make something up – confabulation again. Just because the rational mind decides to do something doesn’t mean that, when the time comes, it will be in charge of making the decision to do it. We’ll turn off the alarm and go back to sleep because more sleep sounds better to the elephant than getting out of bed to go to the gym.

So we have “two minds”. Really, though, they are both us, so it helps us to know how they work and why they behave the way they do.

Jonathon Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis, Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. New York: Basic Books, 2006.

By the way, the ancient wisdom came from quotes from Plato, Ovid and others about competing parts of the mind, which I haven’t quoted.