Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt

I blogged on this once before, but since only a couple of people read it at that time I decided to update and post again.  It is one of my favorite books relative to both ancient wisdom and what science is finding about the way our brains are organized.

The subtitle of the book is "Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom" and the author is Jonathan Haidt. I LOVED the recommendation from the father of the Positive Psychology Movement (Martin Seligman) who stated; "For the reader who seeks to understand happiness, my advice is: Begin with Haidt." ;-) (it actually isn't pronounced "hate", it is pronounced "height" ... but still funny)

I love the metaphor that he uses and the picture on the cover, a shadowy view of a rider on a swimming elephant. Haidt had gone for a trail ride in the mountains as a youth, and has the horse neared a particularly steep cliff, he panicked that he didn't have the horse under control and didn't know what to do. For a brief few seconds he debated jumping off as he realized what he thought was his peril. Of course, the old trail horse had done this trail thousands of times and had no interest in going off the cliff. She calmly negotiated the turn and life went on.

The analogy is to show the the relationship between our consciousness (rider), a fairly recent add to our wetware package (in the evolutionist view), and the vast majority of our mental apparatus honed by millions of years of successful selection. Our chances of controlling "the elephant" (subconscious) by force are zero. Our only hope is to learn how to lovingly train the elephant to operate more as a team with our consciousness. The theme of the book is how this has been relatively understood for millennia and there is much wisdom on how to do this which can now be validated and improved upon by modern science.

Shakespeare said: "There is nothing either good or bad but, but thinking makes it so". Buddha said: "Our life is a creation of the mind". Unfortunately, science shows us that we are biased to think the wrong things. We tend to focus on threats that aren't there and useless worry. Three techniques are proposed for dealing with this problem: Meditation, Cognitive Therapy, and "Prozac" (SSRIs Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitor drugs). All of these work to varying degrees and all can work together. The objective is for the conscious mind and the "elephant" to learn to work as a team rather than fighting -- all three methods help calm a nervous or morose "elephant" (subconscious).

There is a chapter on reciprocity, which is basically "the golden rule". It turns out it really does seem to be written on our souls, and there is no better way to get people to do something for you than to do something for them (or in the case of politics, promise to force OTHER people do something nice for them!). One of the big problems with human society is that of the "free rider" -- someone that doesn't follow reciprocity. Sanctions, gossip, and possibly a lot of our brain size is involved in operating as a cooperative group, but minimizing "free riders" -- at least it WAS that way up until Bernie Sanders! ;-)

I liked the explanation of "naive realism". "Each of us thinks we see the world as it really is. We further believe that the facts as we see them are there for all to see, therefore others should agree with us." We see everyone else as impacted by ideology and self interest -- but WE are unbiased!  As I try to point out, this is INESCAPABLE -- the best we can do is be aware of it and do our best to understand the arguments our "opponents" use. If you are in the dominant ideology position, it is MUCH harder to see the "other side", since it tends to be simply discounted as it is less popular, and in modern times we have been drilled to believe that "the most votes is right! At least until they elect "the wrong guy", like Reagan -- then the masses are "manipulated", "poorly educated", etc. Our founders of course chose to form a REPUBLIC not a "democracy" because they agree -- the mass can be wrong!

Late in the book there is a chapter that discusses how we are "wired for religion". Since Haidt is an atheist,  and a pure evolutionist,  the reason we are that way must be "group selection". It turns out that religion and it's shared rules are an excellent way to make much larger groups of people operate more optimally. Even better when it is backed up by perceived supernatural sanction.

I chuckle a bit here -- sadly, that a brilliant pure evolutionist sees pretty clearly that large groups of people that believe in a supernatural God that has provided them with rules that they all must follow even when nobody's looking, and has eternal significance is BETTER, as in "more adaptive". So the universe "randomly" works out so that the most adaptive course of action happens to be belief in God -- so "smart people" should fight that naturally occurring adaptive concept! Perhaps they ought to give up sex as well? (it is also natural and adaptive)

Twist your head over to environmentalism and the LAST thing that ought to be done is "fighting nature"! If it is "natural", the assumption of the left (and science) is that "going against nature" is EVIL! The only consistency in situational ethics is that it is inconsistent.

While Haidt clearly doesn't say it, that means that that Christianity USED to have an "adaptive advantage", which we managed to kill in the west -- really a double advantage, since kids were a blessing and having large families was a good thing. Now Islam has that advantage -- and hmmm, it is on the rise! Doesn't seem that one would need to be a particularly brilliant evolutionist to explain that one!

In any case, the book is EXCELLENT! It is one of my top recommendations for understanding human nature.

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