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.

At least you have your health….

I’ve been ill lately, and it was like my life had fallen apart. I couldn’t get things done, I felt bad about myself, I wasn’t getting anywhere in life. It wasn’t a serious illness, just one of those nasty infections in the head and the chest. Coughing, sleeplessness, blocked-up head…. I’m sure you’re familiar with the story. It seems like it has been going on for months, but I think the worst is over now, and I’m feeling like I can get on top of things again.

Have I been happy? I’d have to say no, I’ve been fairly unhappy. Health – 5-6 out of 10; Happiness – 3-4 out of 10. I’ve been rereading Harry Potter instead of writing blogs and being productive, and as much as I’ve enjoyed Harry Potter it’s not making me as happy as I am when I’m achieving goals and doing constructive stuff. No blog, no business-building, not much of anything really. And things that I really dislike doing are not being done, like housework; and looking at the carpet that needs vacuuming and the kitchen floor that needs scrubbing makes me less happy than I am when I look at it after it has been cleaned (no matter who does the actual cleaning!).

And I’ve been relying a bit on that old fallback stress-reducer – retail therapy! It’s a while since I’ve fallen for this, making myself feel better by acquiring stuff on eBay or in the local shopping mall, and I’m sure it’s related to being ill, since I didn’t have these cravings earlier in the year. I’ve been craving chocolate as well, another sure sign of unhappiness. The story of how I had previously managed to reduce my chocolate cravings are another story…

Now that I’m feeling better, I’ve been getting some work done, which makes me feel better about myself, and I’ve been getting out and about and seeing other people. No longer locked in my house seeing nobody but my husband, I am a social creature again, and I’m sure that this is making me happier as well.

So I’m convinced, as if I needed to be, that bad health means less happiness. Not only do I feel physically terrible but I can’t do the things that make me happy – working on something I enjoy; seeing other people; being useful and all that; and even the chocolate and the shopping doesn’t really help except in a short-term, superficial way. Today I did something I enjoy that I haven’t done for months – I repotted some neglected plants – and I feel so pleased with myself that I’ve come inside to write a blog about happiness, something I haven’t done for weeks. So as my health has improved my happiness has increased as I’ve been able to do things that make me happy.

Does it work the other way around? Can happiness make you healthier? Apparently, yes; if you are happy you will live up to 9 years longer, according to my current favourite TV program The Happiness Formula on BBC World. I’ll be looking into that one more thoroughly in a future blog.

The Happiness Formula

BBC World’s The Happiness Formula

[I’m writing this as I watch the program on cable TV].

Measuring activity in the brain by oxygen levels when shown a happy or sad picture shows that happiness can be detected directly in the brain ….. or is it pleasure? Is pleasure and happiness the same thing? And does it last? Or is happiness something deeper and more lasting than mere pleasure?

Can you just ask people to rate their own happiness and get a valid result? Professor Ed Diener, psychologist and researcher into happiness, thinks we can. He finds that the happiest people in the world are the Swiss, and those in Belarus are the least happy. Happy countries are richer and democratic, but their happiness is not so much greater than poor, non-democratic ones.

[Why democratic, I wonder? Do we prefer to have some perception of control over our lives that democracy theoretically gives us? This is a question for another time, I think].

Measuring happiness in this way predicts outcomes in peoples’ lives. Are they more likely to commit suicide if they are less happy? Surprisingly, yes! Can someone who scores less on the happiness scale keep his hand in iced water for as long as someone who scored higher? The answer turns out to be no! So are happy people more persistent, more resilient, more likely to succeed in life? Perhaps extrapolating from iced water experiments are pushing the whole thing too far, but it is easy to see how it could work.

Another study, of nuns interviewed a few years ago, found that those who sounded happier in interviews lived longer than the less happy ones, up to 9 years longer. This is not something to be sneezed at! And another one, of performance during memory exercises, showed that people who are pampered a bit more are able to remember objects better.

Professor Layard, an economist, has come to the conclusion that money doesn’t make us happy. Striving to make more money doesn’t make us happier, and perhaps it makes us less happy when we are constantly comparing ourselves to others. Bhutanese polititians measure Gross Domestic Happiness rather than Gross Domestic Product, and make decisions according to whether people will be happier rather than richer. Plastic bags have been banned (not a bad idea). Bhutan is not as rich as it might have been, but the people are happier.

What do we need for lasting happiness? Not endless consumption, but volunteering is what gives our lives meaning, and meaning is necessary for real, lasting, happiness. Happy people volunteer, and volunteers are happier. They also are more likely to get married, stay married, become leaders and help others at work, and have better health, says Ed Diener.

A survey asking whether governments should aim to make us richer or happier, the overwhelming majority went for happiness.

[What would you choose? Will you wait for the government to do something, or will you do it yourself?]

Stay tuned for the next episode in this excellent series on BBC World.