The Happiness Hypothesis

Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom

By: Jonathan Haidt

Published: 2005.

Read: 2019 (again).


Formulating and pursuing meaningful goals in life can be difficult. We often have (overly) negative views (a negative bias can be helpful in identifying threats and cheaters) and many of our goals provide only temporary satisfaction.  

What then are good and meaningful goals worth striving for? Exploring the biology, psychology, sociology and morality of who we are, how we view the world and how we act in it, this book tries to set up a framework for setting and pursuing such goals.

The book investigates how diverse factors such as our predispositions and reward systems (biology), our personality traits, needs and desires (psychology), our culture (sociology) and our goals (morality) are linked and how balancing them helps us in the formulation and pursuit of meaningful goals.  

This investigation produces a loose formula (biological set-points + social conditions + voluntary actions) for formulating good goals, “what to do”:

  • Identify your innate strengths.
  • Align strengths with habits do develop rewarding skills.
  • Pick goals that match and challenge your skills.

Picking goals that provide immediate feedback and provide subjective significance will make any progress intrinsically and immediately rewarding.

Meaning emerges in the “how”, the way in which we pursue our goals. The overarching principles here are to seek balance and coherence between our innate predispositions, our needs and desires and the culture and community we live in.

Worth Reading:

Thoroughly enjoyed this book – one of very few that I have read twice. It is well structured, well researched, clearly reasoned and most of its ideas and suggestions are precise, practical and helpful.

There may be some sections that are not the most obvious fit within the overall structure of the book (such as the chapters on love, divinity), but they were still worth reading.

A minor quibble with the book is that it mostly discusses correlations between human nature and behavior. It’s not always clear if there is causality, and if so, in which direction it runs, which may limit the practical implications of such discussions. This is sometimes acknowledged by the author, for instance in this matter: are married people happier or do happier people marry more often? Important questions that are perhaps too difficult to untangle at this point.

Practical Takeaways:

  • Genetic lottery.
    • For many things we care about, we start out with a biological set-point (range).
  • Negative bias.
    • The mind is biased to perceive negative events.
    • It is adaptive to focus on identifying threats and cheaters.
  • The limits of (reaching) goals.
    • Pursuing goals is continuously satisfying (rewards for progress).
    • Reaching goals is temporary satisfying (adaptation to new conditions).
  • Formulate good goals (“what”).
    • Figure out what your strengths. (test)
    • Align your strengths with good habits to develop rewarding skills.
    • Pick goals that challenge and develop your skills further.
  • Pursue meaningful goals (“how”).
    • Seek coherence (across your innate strengths, personality and community).
    • Balance your goals (short- and long-term, self- and group interest).

Key Concepts:

As individuals:

  • Our minds are made up of different parts…
    • Conscious/rational/deliberate reasoned control (the “rider”).
    • Subconscious/emotional/automatic response (the “elephant”).
  • …. that cooperate in making decisions…
    • Pleasure/like/approach.
    • Pain/dislike/withdrawal.
  • … and compete for control, balancing:
    • Short term versus long terms interests.
    • Conscious control versus automatic, trained response.
  • The mind is biased towards negativity.
    • Evolutionary beneficial to focus on and recognize negative events and threats to survival (low cost of false positives).
    • This negative bias spurs immediate action, but also negatively colors subsequent information processing and thinking.
  • People have natural “negativity set-points”.
    • Balance between optimism (approach, like) and pessimism (withdrawal, dislike).
    • These set-points vary by person.
  • Corrections to these natural negativity set-points are possible.
    • You can’t change (negative) events that happen to you.
    • You can change how you think about them.
    • Interrupt negative automatic thought processes and change the content of your negative thoughts.
    • Train your automatic responses (meditation, cognitive therapy) or drugs (SSRI).

In social groups:

  • Humans are social animals..
    • Evolved to engage in repetitive interactions within limited size groups.
  • … that cooperate and compete…
    • Reciprocity evolved as the best strategy to cooperate.
    • Reciprocity requires: punish cheaters and reward good behavior.
  • … causing a bias towards seeing bad in others…
    • Evolutionary beneficial to spot cheaters and not get taken advantage of.
    • Ability to recognize faults / biases in others (but not in yourself).
  • … and good in yourself.
    • Important to be seen as good, developing reputation, status.
    • Helps to believe that you yourself think you are good.
    • Motivated reasoning: justifying your own behavior.

Pursuing and reaching goals.

  • Pursuing pleasure/prestige in zero-sum games only provides temporary satisfaction.
    • Zero-sum (compete) versus non-zero-sum (cooperate).
    • Pursue games where everybody wins by cooperating.
      • Sharing, bartering, etc.
  • Pursuing a goal brings more satisfaction than reaching a goal.
    • The brain produces dopamine as a reward for doing something that is evolutionarily beneficial
      • In animals: food, sex.
      • In humans: food, sex, status, friendship, etc.
    • Most of the dopamine produced in the journey towards a goal.
      • At each step along the way, rather than when a goal is reached.
  • Once a goal is reached, the mind adapts quickly to the changed circumstances.
    • The human mind is more sensitive to changes in conditions (new stimuli), and less sensitive to constant, absolute levels.
    • When something good or bad happens, after some period of adjustment, you typically return to your natural state of being.

Therefore: there is no benefit to having (external) goals?

  • Passive approach may work …
    • Accept uncontrollable events.
      • It is easier to change your mind than to change the world.
    • Happiness comes from within.
      • Environmental factors influence happiness very little.
    • Striving (goods / pleasure) only brings momentary happiness.
  • … but only for some and in limited conditions.
    • May work for people that have pursued many goals already and it didn’t bring them an increase in happiness.
    • May have been more relevant in more turbulent times.

Some goals are worth striving for.

  • Humans may have certain “innate” needs.
    • Need for esteem, for developing competence, engagement, for controlling the environment.
    • Need for connection: social attachments, commitment, romantic love.
  • Correspondingly, work and love are typically seen as the most relevant goals that people want to get “right”.

A framework for setting and pursuing goals.

  • S (your set-point) + C (your conditions) + V (your voluntary actions):
  • S:
    • Genetically determined (range of) predispositions.
  • C:
    • External conditions, such as race, sex, age, wealth, social attachments, community, location, etc.
  • V:
    • Temporary pleasures (in moderation).
    • Longer lasting gratifications.

Best goals combine “flow” with “meaning”.

  • Flow – the concept of enjoyed absorption :
    • A clear challenge.
    • That fully engages your attention.
    • That draws on your skills.
    • That provides immediate feedback/rewards.
  • Meaning:
    • Something that provides subjective significance.
  • Match meaning and flow:
    • When doing good matches doing well.
    • Harmony between conscious and subconscious.

Pursue change at the right time:

  • Adversity.
    • When encountering adversity, use it to re-focus
    • Change what you can and accept what you can’t change.
  • Peak experiences.
    • In nature, in communities, drugs.
    • May be an opportune time for change.
    • Bonding, open to transformation and negation of self.


  • Identify strengths of character / traits that are innate.
    • Curiosity, leadership, self-control, humor, etc.
  • Create habits to train and strengthen these subconscious traits.
    • Instead of fixing weaknesses.
    • Progress will be intrinsically rewarding.

When does meaning emerge?

  • Purpose in life = answering the question”how to do things”.
    • It’s not about the purpose of life, the “why are we here”.
    • Seek coherence.
      • Across your biological set-points, your psychological traits and the sociological culture and community you live in.
    • Balance your individual goals.
      • For instance self-interest (pleasure, prestige) and group interest (love, attachment).

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