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Book Review
"The Happiness Hypothesis": Don't worry, be ... content

By Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett
Special to The Seattle Times

"The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom — Why the Meaningful Life is Closer Than You Think"
by Jonathan Haidt
Basic Books, 297 pp., $26

Pursuit of happiness may be an American right, but any thoughtful person realizes that being too positive is just plain short-sighted. Oh, sure, that glass may turn out to be half full, but then what? Do we know for sure where that water came from?

So, let's just say that the notion of plunging into a nearly-300-page book about happiness didn't have much appeal in this quarter. Then a winter storm left me couch-bound without enough reading materials, and "The Happiness Hypothesis" by Jonathan Haidt came into play. Surprise! This University of Virginia psychology professor has written a disarming, original book, reassuring to those more conversant with worriment than merriment.

Haidt shows the perennial worrier the evolutionary roots of her superstition that being too happy puts one at risk of being squashed by the Big Cosmic Foot. Dodging natural predators and perils over the ages has had a logical outcome: "Over and over again, psychologists find that the human mind reacts to bad things more quickly, strongly, and persistently than to equivalent good things."

This book will likely end up shelved in bookstore self-help sections, but it is a history-philosophy-meditation hybrid that does not really belong there. Haidt unabashedly aligns himself with the more melancholy crowd and is smart and serious without pomposity. It's hard not to like a guy honest enough to report that taking the anti-depressant Paxil made him a sunnier fellow but also caused him to constantly forget people's names, making it a no-go for an ambitious young prof climbing the tenure ladder.

Haidt examines the larger question of how best to treat those human conditions that might be seen as the chief enemies of happiness. He concisely outlines behavioral therapies — useful info for anyone pondering such help — and challenges an increasingly common view that Prozac and its many anti-depressant siblings are over-prescribed.

He believes that such drugs can "compensate for the unfairness of the cortical lottery," and he compares this class of medications to contact lenses for the visually impaired. Yet Haidt adds an important caveat, pointing out that "something is indeed lost when psychiatrists no longer listen to their patients as people, but rather as a car mechanic would listen to an engine, looking only for clues about which knob to adjust next."

"The Happiness Hypothesis" uses a handy metaphor throughout, that of an elephant and rider, drawn from the author's notion that the mind is divided into parts that can come into conflict. "Like a rider on the back of an elephant, the conscious, reasoning part of the mind has only limited control of what the elephant does." By understanding the bias that most people have toward "seeing threats and engaging in useless worry," it is possible to help the rider and beast work more as a team, and actually increase happiness, Haidt maintains.

Haidt draws on a satisfying range of medical and behavioral studies, peppered with portable bits of ancient wisdom, from the Greeks to Hebrew scriptures to the New Testament to Buddha. He also periodically offers comfort to those frustrated by their inability to emulate their heroes: "Of course, Buddha would adapt fully to noise, traffic, lack of control and bodily deficiencies, but it has always been difficult, even in ancient India, for real people to become like Buddha."

Some of the best passages in the book are the ones pushing for the toughest self-improvements.

Haidt uses some decidedly old-fashioned words: Virtue. Ethics. Morality. These qualities and principles are crucial to the author's view of developing happiness.

He uses Benjamin Franklin in one colorful example — the scientist, civic and intellectual leader who "lived to eighty-four and enjoyed the ride" had a secret weapon in his virtue, says Haidt. "Not the sort of uptight, pleasure-hating Puritanism that some people now associate with the word," but the state of living in which one realizes his natural strengths and does the demanding work of building on them as a means to a happier life.

The section titled "Love and Work" is arguably the best. Haidt captures something that is very difficult to articulate well. Experts who study how we work know that workers can approach their responsibilities as a job (done only for the money), a career or a calling. Haidt reminds us that it is a mistake to assume that blue-collar workers have the jobs, managers have careers and only the likes of clergy and scientists have callings.

He quotes sources as diverse as Marcus Aurelius, Kahlil Gibran and Freud in building a case to his conclusion: "Work at its best, then, is about connection, engagement and commitment," and all of that is within the control of the worker, he observes. "Love and work are crucial for human happiness, because when done well, they draw us out of ourselves and into connection with people and projects beyond ourselves."

Even while keeping watch for the Big Cosmic Foot, it would seem that pondering and living this well-argued philosophy might just make a person feel, if not happy, then something very, very close to it.

Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett is a writer who is happy to be living in Portland.