The Happiness Hypothesis, Pt. 1

I am reading a terrific book called The Happiness Hypothesis. Jonathan Haidt, a professor at the University of Virginia, writes about timeless ideas from famous thinkers as applied to the modern pursuit of happiness. Quoting the likes of Buddha and the Greek philosopher Epictetus, Haidt ties together themes from the movement known as Positive Psychology which studies the lives of happy, successful people.

Prof. Haidt tells us that our genes, our inherited tendency toward a certain disposition or temperament, is the best predictor of happy people. While everyone has moments of greater or lesser contentment, there are some people who are simply genetically programmed to be more positive and content than others. Surely you’ve seen evidence of this, as I have. We all know people who are just plain cheerful. But since we can’t control our genes, the author goes on to talk about other aspects of happiness where what we do has somewhat more impact.

Relationships are a central factor. People who have good relationships with others tend to be happier, and those who seem happy find it easier to establish social relationships. Kind of makes sense, doesn’t it? Even in hard times, strong relationships with family and friends lift our spirits and get us through our struggles. Certainly after a particularly painful loss, such as the death of a loved one, the care and attention of our friends makes a huge difference as we pass through grief and back to our normal selves.

Possessions, on the other hand, make very little difference. “The pursuit of luxury goods is a happiness trap,” says Haidt. While those who are destitute can find greater happiness, or at least less suffering, by having a place to live, clothes to wear and enough food, consumption of things by most of the population barely registers among factors that contribute to happiness. Consider that the next time you are debating a more expensive car or a huge flat-screen TV. Once you’ve bought it, it won’t make you happier, and the higher payments might cause you to miss out on other options that will.

While consumption of goods doesn’t make you happier, having less than your neighbor might make you more unhappy. The research indicates that even a well-paying job becomes less satisfactory if you find out that someone else on roughly the same level as you is making more. These kinds of comparisons bring in matters of social pressures, status, even shame. This happiness stuff is complicated, isn’t it?

Haidt writes that religious people tend to be happier than non-religious people on average. But even here, different religions suggest completely different paths. Buddhism teaches that all attachments lead to suffering, so that happiness can only be found within, free from the external world. Orthodox Jews find their greatest happiness in the study of the Torah and other holy books. Islam indicates the complete surrender to God (Allah) through the words of the Prophet Muhammad as the pathway to happiness. It’s hard to imagine that one is right and others are wrong.

The study of happiness is fascinating. More to follow.

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