Posted on Mon, Mar. 27, 2006

Book Review | Wisdom of ancients seems to hold up

The Happiness Hypothesis
Finding Modern Truth
in Ancient Wisdom
By Jonathan Haidt

Basic Books. 243 pp. $26

Reviewed by John Rooney

In which direction would an elephant go if you were riding on his back shouting "go right!" into his left ear? The answer is the same as the one to this question: Where does a 500-pound gorilla sleep? Anywhere he wants!

In The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt uses the elephant-and-rider tale as a metaphor for the way two often conflicting parts of the mind operate.

The elephant represents the automatic processes - including motives, emotions and passions - that have immense power to move us in a given direction. The rider stands for our rational thought processes, which make judgments about the direction we should go in our lives. To successfully bring an elephant under control takes a trainer about a dozen years of constant effort. Understanding and controlling human passions is likewise a long-term project, in which it is seldom clear whether elephant or rider is in charge.

Often, we go by our gut feelings and then concoct plausible reasons to justify our actions.

Societies throughout the ages have grappled with the problem of understanding human nature and human culture. How can people lead good lives, accomplish needed goals, get along with one another, and be happy? As his subtitle suggests, Haidt, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, draws on the ideas of philosophers, religious leaders and other seers whose wisdom has survived. In addition, he holds their ideas to another test: How do they stack up against contemporary research in psychology? He often concludes that Buddha, or Shakespeare, or Freud was only partially right, or right only under certain conditions.

For example, "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" is a noble ideal. Haidt says psychologists find that people usually "do unto others as others do unto them." This motive, called reciprocity, is a powerful one, moving people to repay kindness with kindness and cruelty with vengeance. Reciprocity governs both interpersonal relations and interactions among groups, including national, religious and ethnic groups.

Complicating our interaction with others is something called self-serving bias. As ancient wisdom says: "Why do you see the speck in your neighbor's eye and not notice the log in your own eye?" This, Haidt points out, is consistent with psychological studies of spouses, college roommates and business partners that find that each partner believes he or she is doing more than half the work of the team. This difference in perception often produces a mutual resentment that can readily escalate.

Haidt examines international conflicts from the same perspective, with each side motivated by laudable goals such as protecting against a threat, fighting an evil, or building a better society, and perceiving its opponent as greedy, venal and evil.

He also looks at our own society, where moral issues have occupied center stage in recent political campaigns. Conservatives, he notes, see traditional values threatened by unbridled freedom. They emphasize "training the elephant" by mobilizing the resources of family, church, school, government and media to foster traditional values even at the expense of freedom. Liberals fear that free speech, freedom of the press, academic freedom, and freedom of expression in the arts, are under threat from excessive control. Conservatives emphasize unity; liberals diversity.

Haidt has served up a hearty dish of conventional wisdom, accompanied by a selection of psychological science of excellent vintage. Most of us want to follow the good life as we have been taught by parents, church and school, but often have difficulty doing so. This book not only offers practical suggestions to help us succeed in these efforts, but also discusses why we should reexamine much of what we have been taught in the light of new psychological knowledge. This review has provided a small taste that I hope serves as an appetizer. My recommendation to readers: Dig in and enjoy the feast.

John Rooney is professor emeritus of psychology at La Salle University.

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