Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Happiness Hypothesis, Johnathan Haidt

The Happiness Hypothesis
Johnathan Haidt

This is a tough book to review. Early on Haidt had me hooked. I felt like he was heading in the right direction and that things were making sense. Then it got derailed. I suspect that was my fault, though. I choked on what I view as his overly generous and accepting position towards religion.

The first half or more of the book seems to be well supported in terms of research. If there's a problem there it's in Haidt's use of excerpts from various ancient sources - mostly religious - without a lot of context and background. That, for me, is something of a no-no, as quotations need to come with context if they are to be taken seriously. The Bible is a violent book when viewed as a whole, and extracting a few peace loving lines out of it doesn't change that, nor does it put those lines in the proper context.

But I got past that because it looked like Haidt was saying something like "Ancient source X says this semi-mystical thing Y. Modern research shows that Y is correct in the following way." (Sometimes Y was incorrect, by the way.) Given that presentation I let things slide.

Then, however, I got to the latter portion of the book and things just started to grate on my nerves. Haidt winds up making the claim that we are ultra social, somewhat hive minded organisms. Like bees in some ways. Now, I recognize that there are some interesting evolutionary drives, and maybe, in some ways, a few aspects of human behavior are similar to those of bees or ants, but we aren't all the way to a hive organism as I see it, and while I'm sure he wouldn't say we were either, he thinks the bits that are similar are a lot more important than I do, or than he justifies as far as I could tell.

And as he gets closer to these more speculative leaps the number of end notes and referenced studies goes down, just as the number of anecdotal reports goes up. (Note: I could be wrong about this. I'm documenting my response to this book, not writing a detailed study in which I count end notes, cited papers, and so on. Still, I think my conclusions are probably sound.)

In addition, Haidt - despite claiming to be an atheist himself - glosses over a bunch of problems with religion. Maybe they just aren't relevant to his conclusions, but I found the act bothersome.

I give him credit for trying to synthesize something of this scope, and there are useful bits in here. For example, he makes a good case that the question "What is the meaning of life?" is pointless. "How can I live a life full of meaning?" is a much better question, and he gives some help in here if you're stuck on that issue. Not a lot of detailed help, mind you - meditate, make use of cognitive therapy, or take Prozac is the gist - but enough to maybe get you talking to someone who can move you along one of those paths. If you decide you need to.

Overall I guess this book was OK. Not stellar, not life changing, at least for me, but OK. Maybe that's because I am (I think) a relatively well balanced person who is pretty happy most of the time. If you are perpetually unhappy you might find something more useful or meaningful here than I did.