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The Happiness Hypothesis: Ten Ways to Find Happiness and Meaning in Life by Jonathan Haidt

This book was filled with such potential. How could you go wrong with the promise of ten ways to find happiness and meaning in life? And it started so strong. The first two sentences of Introduction set the tone:

What should I do, how should I live, and whom should I become? Many of us ask such questions, and, modern life being what it is, we don’t have to go far to find answers. Wisdom is now so cheap and abundant that it floods over us from calendar pages, tea bags, bottle caps, and mass e-mail messages forwarded to us by well-meaning friends.

Spot on and a tad bit snarky. Perfect. So, I jumped to the end of the book and read the conclusion, wanting to bookend the fabulousness I was about to immerse myself in.

By drawing on wisdom that is balanced—ancient and new, Eastern and Western, even liberal and conservative—we can choose directions in life that will lead to satisfaction, happiness, and a sense of meaning. We can’t simply select a destination and then walk there directly.

Totally enthralled, I began reading. But in between the Introduction and the Conclusion, I’m not sure what happened. Maybe it was the promise:

By holding ancient wisdom to the test of modern psychology …

To question ancient wisdom in light of what we now know from scientific research, and to extract from it the lessons that still apply to our modern lives.

I was flummoxed at the proposition of holding ancient wisdom to the test of modern psychology. Why? It had already stood the test of time, wasn’t that enough?

But I sallied forth. I was going to persevere. It turns out the ten truths included:

  1. The Divided Self

  2. Changing Your Mind

  3. Reciprocity with a Vengeance

  4. The Faults of Others

  5. The Pursuit of Happiness

  6. Love and Attachments

  7. The Use of Adversity

  8. The Felicity of Virtue

  9. Divinity with or without God

  10. Happiness Comes from Between

Not at all the great happiness ideas I was expecting. I was beginning to think that I had totally missed the point of the entire book. Looking at Chapter 5. The Pursuit of Happiness.:

It starts off with a quote of ancient wisdom from the Stoics:

Do not seek to have events happen as you want them to, but instead want them to happen as they do happen, and your life will go well. Epictetus

The Chapter begins with a story from the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes.

Then moves into subchapters titles:

o The Progress Principle — basically feeling pleased when headed in the right direction.

o The Adaptation Principle — People’s judgments about their present state are based on whether it is better or worse than the state they have become accustomed to.

o An Early Happiness Hypothesis — Happiness comes from within, and it cannot be found by making the world conform to your desires.

o The Happiness Formula — H=S+C+V

o Finding Flow — Being in the zone of effortless movement.

o Misguided Pursuits — Conspicuous vs inconspircuios consumption.

o The Happiness Hypothesis Reconsidered — Happiness comes from within and happiness comes from without

With quips like:

“When I began writing this book, I thought that Buddha would be a strong contender for the ‘Best Psychologist for the Last Three Thousand Years’ award.”

“We just need some balance (from the East) and some specific guidance (from modern psychology) about what to strive for.”

You have got to be kidding. It felt like the author was going to great lengths to overlay ancient wisdom with modern psychology theory. The subchapters felt like individual lectures, not really flowing together, just ideas standing on their own.

I wish I could say that there were a few standout chapters in this book. I tried really hard to find them, but I came up empty-handed.

Sadly, I got very little out of reading this book. What I did enjoy were the ancient wisdom quotes that started each chapter. Quotes by St. Paul, Benjamin Franklin, Marcus Aurelius, Buddha, Confucius, Rabbi Hillel, Matthew, Epictetus, Seneca, John Donne, Meng Tzu, Nietzsche, Muhammad, Shakespeare, Upanishads, Willa Cather, Heraclitus, and William Blake.

No need to overlay this collection with anything—modern or otherwise. They stand alone just fine.

And just in case you are interested, here is how the Publisher describes this book:

Every culture hands wisdom down through generations. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others. Happiness comes from within. Can these 'truths' hold the key to a happier, more fulfilled life? In The Happiness Hypothesis, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt examines ten Great Ideas which have been championed across centuries and civilizations and asks: how can we apply these ideas to our twenty-first century lives? By holding ancient wisdom to the test of modern psychology, Haidt extracts lessons on how we can train our brains to be more optimistic, build better relationships and achieve a sense of balance. He also explores how we can overcome the obstacles to well-being that we place in our own way. In this uplifting and empowering book, Haidt draws on sources as diverse as Buddha, Benjamin Franklin and Shakespeare to show how we can find happiness and meaning in life.

Good luck—


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