4 Lessons from The Happiness Hypothesis | Jonathan Haidt

The Secrets to Happiness According to Science and Ancient Wisdom

Jack Yang
5 min readMay 3, 2021
The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom


How to be happy? It is the question of eternal debate between science and religion, between ancient and modern world. Each party presents its own arguments and they often seem contradictory. In his book, Jonathan Haidt, an American social psychologist and a professor, sets out on a quest to answer this question. The Happiness Hypothesis is a practical book consisted of 10 lessons, which meant to be structured like a college-level course. Each surrounds a topic from love to work to religion. In the last lesson, Haidt unites all previous lessons and presents the final hypothesis.

Overall, I find this book insightful and resourceful. Like teaching a college psychology course, Haidt presents all his arguments and backed them up with research and quotations. Though the final hypothesis is very simple, I recommend going through each lesson to fully comprehend its meaning.

Score: 4.75/5

Who Should Read It: People who want to understand and achieve happiness


1. Happiness Cannot Be Achieved Through Pursuits of It

Like the old saying “haste makes waste,” the more one tries to chase happiness, the less likely one achieves it. Despite being a pearl of ancient wisdom, the consumerism-filled modern world tries to engrain the opposite in people’s minds. Commercials are bombarded with the subtle message that happiness can be purchased through money or fame. True, buying designer clothes and luxury cars will make you happy. But not for long. According to the adaption principle, people tend to overestimate the feelings in the future and the initial happiness returns to normal value after few months. In other words, if you think you will be happy after you buy the sneakers you always wanted, you are right. But you will return to your original level of happiness in just a few weeks or few months.

The same applies to love. There are two types of love: passionate love and companion love. Passionate love is the one often depicted in movies and shows, the kind that makes your heart pound. However, passionate love wears off after few months and is replaced by companion love, the love where your partner is your best friend and your family. Pop culture endorses passionate love over companion love because it is more exciting, but if you are in constant pursuit of the former, you will find yourself switching partners frequently and never find your true love, which is in the form of companion love.

There are two types of enjoyment: pleasure and gratification. Pleasure is filled with sensory pleasure and strong emotions, such as passionate love and consumerism, while gratification fully engaged in an activity. The former can be overindulged and fade quickly while the latter generates innate happiness. Consumerism encourages people to pursue pleasures by attaching emotions to each item. The best way to escape the never-ending cycle is to focus on gratification by purchasing experiences rather than material goods and immerse in challenging activities that are within your ability. The latter will be discussed in detail in the upcoming lesson.

2. What Doesn’t Kill You Might Make You Happier

Adversity brings happiness, only for some. Why some? Our perception of adversity is largely determined by our affective style, the tendency to be happy or depressed. Those who score high in affective style prone to feel negative emotions like sadness and fear and vice versa. Moreover, our genetic makeup plays a crucial role in shaping our affective style. In other words, our predisposition to negative events is mostly decided at birth.

Sense-making is how we interpret events and affective styles influence the process. Those who are more likely to experience happiness tend to have an optimistic view of a challenge and perceive the good things coming from it. Those who incline to negative emotions will perceive adversity as a barrier and try to avoid it at all costs.

There are several ways to use adversity to our advantage despite our genetic predisposition. In terms of affective styles, the best ways are to change how we think. In the east, meditation is used to detach oneself from situations. In the west, cognitive therapy is used to rewire our brain to change automatic negative thoughts. In terms of sense-making, the best way is through parenthood. Parents can teach children by cultivating the right attitude toward adversity and let them take on challenges in adulthood.

3. The Higher Dimension

Most people have to work to make a living during their lifetime and many see it as a chore. In his book, Haidt suggests three views on work: job (means to make money), career (means to advancement and prestige), and calling (as a part of something greater). Those who see work as a job tend to be the least happy because they are motivated by external resources and do not generate satisfaction from the work itself. Those who see work as a career tend to enjoy work more as a way of self-development and are willing to put in extra hours to secure their gains. Those who see work as a calling tend to be most satisfied with life. Therefore, a career that aligns with calling produces the most happiness since one is making career advancement while fulfilling one’s purpose and coherence is achieved.

In addition, Haidt also touches on divinity. He suggests most people live in a 2D world: a horizontal dimension of closeness or liking and a vertical one of hierarchy or status. Haidt argues divinity is the third dimension, as demonstrated by people’s feeling of elevation, often sparked by collective religious experiences and awe-inspiring sights. Elevation, different from other emotions, is a calm and pleasant feeling. It creates happiness because it connects people with something greater than themselves and motivates them to be better a person. However, in modern western society, many people feel their lives are incomplete because people are treated as individuals and divine experiences are lacking.

4. Happiness Comes From Between

I rarely place the most important lesson last except for this book. If you read the previous three lessons, congratulations, you will get the gist of this hypothesis. As shown in the previous lessons, there are many involved elements to achieve happiness, from coherence to divinity, from love to adversity. However, according to the first lesson, we cannot achieve happiness by the constant pursuit of it. Therefore, here is the hypothesis: In order to achieve happiness, you have to set the conditions right and wait. Some conditions are within such as coherence and purpose while some conditions are outside such as love and work.

Thank you for reading my summary. If you enjoy it, feel free to check out my other book reviews at https://jackyangzzh.medium.com/