Do I Recommend this book? DEFINITELY!
Read it if you want to learn the science and art of happiness as a way of BEING. As repeated many times over in many self-help and psychology material, happiness is determined by thoughts. The book is very vast, therefore impossible to touch all its enlightening points. I have condensed this review with information and concepts that are the most applicable to daily thought work. To summarize this concept greatly, Haidt quotes the following:
“What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: our life is the creation of our mind.” – Buddha
The Elephant and the Rider Metaphor
This metaphor describes the human mind as two divided part of the elephant being our primitive, unconscious mind. Our logical, conscious mind is the rider who attempts to control this animal-like impulses. This metaphor beautifully summarizes our internal struggle of why we know we SHOULD or SHOULDN’T do something, but our resulting actions are different. This is why we have trouble saying “no” to unhealthy foods, why it’s so hard to avoid hitting the snooze button in the morning, and why we skip out going to the gym. How much we are able to train the animal side of our mind, which wants comfort, safety, and immediate gratification, is what truly creates the results. In this metaphor, our life is the path, the journey. How the elephant (the automatic subconscious) and our logical mind learns to navigate and cooperate will highly determine the outcome of our lives.
What Haidt also heavily emphasizes is that happiness is strongly determined by our biology. Surprisingly, in twin studies, biology makes up a great indicator of how people cope with difficult situations. We are all born with “affective styles,” which refer to the felt or experienced part of emotion. Our affective style is determined by which side of the brain in our frontal cortex is more active. Those of us with more activity on the left side experience more happiness, less fear and anxiety, and shame. When the cortical “lefties” experience depression, they are able to recover more quickly. Everyone has different “affective styles.” Affective style is highly genetic, but there are three things that can change the mind: meditation, cognitive therapy, and prozac.
Meditation, Cognitive Therapy, and Prozac
Meditation is described as a pill that can be taken once a day to reduce anxiety and increase contentment. I myself experience this daily. The best part of mediation is that it is highly effective, and it costs nothing. The goal of meditation is to change automatic thought processes that run wild. Our minds are never observed until we sit still in meditation and look into our minds. This is the process of taming the elephant, the unconscious mind that continues its course whether we are awake or sleeping. In Buddhism, taming the elephant is by breaking the attachments by recognizing that everything is an illusion.
Cognitive therapy is highly effective in healing depression and anxiety by observing critical and negative thought patterns. Aaron Beck is the leading father of cognitive therapy. He trained his patients to catch and challenge these thoughts, which proved to be incredibly effective. According to Beck, depressed people have three types of beliefs: “I’m no good,” “my world is bleak,” and “my future is hopeless.” Cognitive therapy further observes thoughts as a main propertrator of unhappiness. Haidt writes, “Having frequent automatic negative thoughts about the self, the world, and future, and if these thoughts contribute to chronic feelings of anxiety or despair, then you might find a good fit with cognitive behavioural therapy.”
Prozac is often introduced when we think of depression as a biomedical issue. When Haidt uses the word “prozac,” he includes Paxil, Zoloft, Celexa, Lexapro, and others that are related. Prozac gest into the gaps between the neurons called synapses that uses serotonin as the neurotransmitter. Once in the synanpses, Prozac inhibit the reuptake, resulting in a brain with more serotonin in certain synapses. Prozac takes 4-6 weeks to start benefitting the patient, even though the biological effect is immediate upon taking it.
H (happiness) = S (biological set point) + C (conditions of your life) + V (voluntary activities)
The level of happiness we experience is determined by our biological set point, which we are born with, previously described as “affective level,” or the happiness gene. Of course, circumstances do matter, and there are two other factors that add to the level of happiness: Condition (ie. circumstances), and V (voluntary activities). The C is internal and external conditions. Haidt uses the examples of ongoing sudden noises, commuting, and lacking control (such as in noise and traffic), shame, as well as our relationship with other people, make up the C (condition) that attribute to our happiness level. The V (voluntary activity) include physical activities, meditation, practicing mindfulness, and engaging social activities that contribute to happiness. In Haidt’s definition, happiness is a formula. The level of happiness is the level of the biological set point, plus our life circumstances, and what voluntary activity we do to increase our happiness level.
Other Contributors to Happiness
People who experience flow often, which is described as “the state of total immersion in a task that is challenging yet closely matched to one’s abilities. It is what some people sometimes call “being in the zone.” Flow can happen during a group acivity, as well as during solitary activity. There is enough challenge, and we get immediate feedback on how we are doing by experiencing micro successes along the way. In flow, “the elphant and the rider are in perfect harmony.”
Love and Attachment
Understanding our attachment style (secure, avoidant, or resistant) is majorly related to how we were mothered. Our romantic love patterns are a repetition of the attachment we formed as babies. Love is a huge contributor of happiness. Haidt goes into depths decribing resilience developed in children, and how it contributes to happiness. Love conquers fear, and as babies, we learn to conquer our fear by retreating to the safety of our parent (typically, mother). This is the first of many experiences of love versus fear. The way to conquer fear and venture out into the unknown, take risks, is to have a sense of security. In experiments, baby monkeys and baby humans all exhibited similar behavior of needing to attach to the mother, or a mother figure, as a part of survival instict. Love and attachment to the parent and our tribe (family, society, etc) is what keeps us safe, and love is what contributes our resilience from difficulties of life.
If you’re interested in self-development and making your life better, there are so much enlightening factors in this book that you’ll take away and completely transform the way you look at your life. Of course, if you have been studying self-development for a while, many of these concepts will seem obvious. However, reading the research and the studies will further strengthen the knowledge and application of happiness habits, as only repetition and practice can retrain our elephant.