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A search for meaning

Naturevolume 441pages2930 (2006) | Download Citation


The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom

Basic Books: 2005. 320 pp. £34.95, £15.50. To be published in Britain in August by William Heinemann.

There is a striking similarity between the advice of the ancients on how to live, and the thoughts of modern psychologists on how to have a healthy mind. The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius' dictum that life “is but what you deem it” resonates with modern research on the importance of thinking styles in coping with stress and adversity; and the Buddha's teachings on non-attachment seem to prefigure the ideas of modern cognitive therapies. The ancients, it seems, were good psychologists and understood, in an observational and intuitive way, how the mind works.

What does it all mean? Monty Python's The Meaning of Life may not have been far from the truth. Credit: RONALD GRANT ARCHIVE

Jonathan Haidt takes this insight seriously in his new book The Happiness Hypothesis. The subtitle is a much better description of the fare on offer than the main title, as he takes the conclusions of classical philosophers and thinkers on ten enduringly important themes and considers their conclusions alongside the findings of modern psychology. The ten subject areas are: the idea that the mind is made up of several often-conflicting drives or mechanisms; the idea that how we think about the world is more important than how the world actually is; the importance of reciprocity in social life; the biases that blind us to our own shortcomings but not to shortcomings in others; the paradoxical nature of pursuing happiness; the importance of love; the strengthening power of adversity; the importance of virtue, in its broadest sense; the power of spirituality; and finally, the importance of coherence in life. Haidt draws principally from Greek and Roman philosophy, from Indian and Chinese traditions, as well as a peppering of other sources. He has also read widely across various schools of modern psychology, including social psychology, the evolution of behaviour, and the emotions, an area to which he has made distinguished contributions.

This is a delightful book. I enjoyed Haidt's exploration of ancient texts, but was much more impressed by the breadth of his grasp of modern behavioural science. He does have occasional blind spots: for example, evaluating the Buddha's advice on non-attachment as if it were an empirical hypothesis seems to trivialize it, and his review of cultural group selection does not consider the alternatives. Despite this, Haidt's writing embraces spiritual and mystical viewpoints while retaining scientific and rational coherence. This is by some margin the most intellectually substantial book to arise from the ‘positive psychology’ movement, which is often characterized by having too much ‘positive’ and not enough ‘psychology’. Haidt is thoughtful and judicious, and is always concerned to relate his points back to the evidence.

What is the big idea to arise from this book? In a sense, there isn't one. Haidt quotes from the Monty Python film The Meaning of Life, in which the answer is given as: “Try to be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try to live in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.” This spoof formulation nonetheless contains an important point: there is, in fact, no single meaning to life. However, life has a definite form, a set of recurring emotions, interactions and experiences, and even if there is no ultimate solution to the dilemmas they pose, there are ways of understanding them better and navigating them with greater wisdom and purpose. And, as Haidt has shown, the ancient sages and modern psychologists often agree on these.

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  1. the Department of Psychology, Brain and Behaviour, University of Newcastle, Newcastle, NE1 4HH, UK

    • Daniel Nettle


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