The Happiness Hypothesis
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Beyond the book
How to Use the Book When Teaching

The Happiness Hypothesis is an excellent supplemental text for Introductory Psychology or Social Psychology courses. I'm not just making that up to sell books; the book really did grow out of my Psych 101 class at the University of Virginia. Here is my syllabus from Psych 101, to show how I assign chapters. The book also makes an excellent main text for courses on Positive Psychology or Human Development. Here is the syllabus from my "Flourishing" class, along with the list of activities and "pre-thinking" questions for each week.  Here is the handout and text for the semester-long self-improvement project, which is the best assignment I've created in my teaching career. Here is a quiz for chapter 1, made up by Rhett Diessner. If you are a professor and would like to get the full document of Diessner's quizzes for all 11 chapters, please email him. And here are some on-line flashcards that students can use to test themselves on the concepts presented in chapters 5 and 6.

More generally....

When you are lecturing on:   You might assign:
The brain, psychophysiology, or consciousness




Ch. 1 (The Divided Self). Uses the "rider and elephant" metaphor to show how a few facts about brain structure shape so much of our experience, particularly weakness of will and the experience of being divided against yourself. Makes an excellent bridge between brain science and Freud, showing what we now know about the unconscious.
Developmental psychology







Ch. 6 (Love). Gives some biographical background on Bowlby and Harlow, and shows how they came to overturn the dogmas of their day and create attachment theory. Shows how the attachment system develops into the foundation of adult romantic love, and challenges some myths that undergraduates often hold about "true" love.

Ch. 7 (Adversity). Considers the "adversity hypothesis", that adversity and suffering are necessary for optimal human development. Reviews research suggesting that the hypothesis is probably true, but within limits; adversity sometimes causes PTSD. Draws heavily on McAdams research on "life stories" and Pennebaker's work on the benefits of writing.

Clinical/abnormal psychology












Ch. 2: (Changing your mind): Covers the causes of individual differences in mood and proneness to depression and anxiety, along with three powerful treatments: Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, meditation, and SSRIs. Shows the ancient roots of cognitive therapy in Stoic and Buddhist ideas.

Ch. 7 (Adversity): Begins with a discussion of PTSD, and then considers recent research on Post Traumatic Growth. This chapter works well with Chapter 2 to show the importance of sense-making, and of one's own attributions and personality in determining how one responds to setbacks and traumas. Shows what pessimists can do to gain the growth that optimists typically reap from adversity.

Interpersonal relations, conflicts






Ch. 3 (Reciprocity) and ch. 4 (Hypocrisy). These two chapters cover the social psychology of reciprocity and moral righteousness which poisons so many relationships. Chapter 3 reviews Cialdini's work on how people use reciprocity against us, and on how gossip serves social and moral functions. Chapter 4 covers research on self-serving biases and motivated social cognition, showing why so easily fall into "manichaeism" -- seeing the world as a battle between good and evil. The chapters give concrete advice -- from modern psychology and from Buddhist teachings -- about how to overcome these pervasive problems and improve your relationships.










Ch. 5 (Pursuit of happiness), ch. 8 (Virtue), and ch. 10 (Meaning of life). These three chapters work together to challenge standard modern Western ideas about what leads to happiness, and to propose an older and deeper idea: that “the good life” comes from between. Covers all the usual stuff about adaptation and the hedonic treadmill in chapter 5, plus research on when money does and does not buy happiness. Chapter 8 then shows how we moderns misunderstand morality (focusing on altruism toward strangers); the ancients, in contrast, focused on the virtues as cultivated excellences of character. The chapter then shows why morality, properly conceived, is necessary for the "good life." Chapter 10 draws the entire book together to leave readers with the image of human beings not as lone individuals but as ultra-social creatures who can only find happiness in conditions of engagement with other people, with work, and with something larger than themselves. (These chapters go way beyond the standard fare offered in the many current book on happiness).
Psychology of Religion







Ch. 9 (Divinity): Most college students are questioning or changing the religious beliefs they brought from home, and this chapter seems to be of great help to them. The chapter presents my own research on the emotions of awe, moral elevation, and moral disgust. It then makes the case that "divinity" is an aspect of normal social cognition: Whether or not God exists, it is a psychological fact that we human beings perceive divinity, purity, and sacredness in the world. The chapter describes research on spiritual transformations, and it explains why religion plays such a strong role in the "culture wars." The chapter is designed to help religious and secular people understand each other, and get beyond their normal manichaean moralism.







Ch. 6 (Love). If there's any topic that makes college students put down their i-pods and pay attention to you, it's a lecture or discussion about love. The chapter begins with a discussion of attachment theory, and of evolutionary factors that made human sexuality and human families so unique. It then guides readers through the differences between companionate and passionate love, and gives advice for enjoying love without getting tricked into a bad marriage by cupid. The chapter ends with one of the most important ideas in the book: Durkheim's claim that social bonds that tie us down and reduce our freedom are good for us -- a provocative idea for most college students, but one that is essential for understanding the meaning of life in Chapter 10.
Psychology of morality







The book is actually about morality just as much as it is about happiness. (Big surprise, the ancients were right: you have to understand morality to undertand happiness). If you are teaching a course or even just a lecture on morality, you might find these chapters most useful:

Ch. 3 (Reciprocity) and Ch. 4 (Hypocrisy); see above (interpersonal relations)

Ch. 8 (Virtue) This chapter narrates the history of thinking about morality, and shows where Western philosophers and psychologists got off track, focusing on the conscious reasoning of individuals. The chapter shows how recent work on the emotional basis of morality fits with the rider/elephant metaphor to offer a new approach to thinking about morality and moral education.

Ch. 9 (Divinity) See above (psych of religion)












Ch. 2 (Changing your mind), Covers the causes of individual differences in mood and proneness to depression and anxiety. Explains how some people won the "cortical lottery." Avoids genetic reductionism to show how there can be a highly heritable setpoint for average happiness level, yet at the same time experienced happiness can be pushed up or down by many factors under a person's control.

Ch. 7 (Adversity) and Ch. 10 (Meaning). These two chapters introduce MacAdams and Emmons ideas about levels of personality, and goal striving. They then show how people’s personalities can become more or less integrated depending on whether they achieve “cross-level coherence”.


The chapters in the book do build on each other so there is an advantage to assigning them in order. But as long as you assign chapter 1 first (it introduces the metaphor of the rider and the elephant), and as long as you assign chapter 10 near the end (it offers an explanation of “the meaning of life” that draws from most of the other chapters), you can assign the other chapters out of order.