28 December 2008

The best book I read in 2008

Filed under: books, culture, happiness, psychology — David Wood @ 1:56 pm

I’ve had the pleasure to read through several dozen fine books in 2008 – here’s a partial list of reviews. (One reason this list is “partial” is because I often neglected to assign the label “books” to relevant postings.)

As the year draws to a close, I’m ready to declare one book as being the most memorable and thought-provoking that I’ve read in the entire year: “The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom” by University of Virginia Associate Professor Jonathan Haidt. It’s a tour de force in positive psychology.

The endorsement printed on the front cover is probably reason enough for anyone to read this book: “For the reader who seeks to understand happiness, my advice is: Begin with Haidt“. The endorsement is from Martin Seligman, Professor of psychology, University of Pennsylvania.

The stated purpose of the book is to consider “ten great ideas” about morality and ethics, drawn from Eastern and Western religious and philosophical traditions, and to review these ideas in the light of the latest scientific findings about the human condition. Initially, I was sceptical about how useful such an exercise might be. But the book quickly led me to set aside my scepticism. The result is greater than the sum of the ten individual reviews, since the different ideas overlap and reinforce.

Haidt declares himself to be both an atheist and a liberal, but with a lot of sympathy for what both theists and conservatives try to hold dear. In my view, he does a grand job of bridging these tough divides.

Haidt seems deeply familiar with a wide number of diverse traditional thinking systems, from both East and West. He also shows himself to be well versed in many modern (including very recent) works on psychology, sociology, and evolutionary theory. The synthesis is frequently remarkable. I found myself re-thinking lots of my own worldwide.

Here are some of the age-old themes that Haidt evaluates:

  • The mind is divided against itself – “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak”
  • Perception is more important than external substance – “Life itself is but what we deem it”
  • Humans tend to be rank hypocrites – we notice the speck in others’ eyes, without paying attention to the plank in our own
  • The golden rule of “reciprocity” lies at the heart of all morality
  • Personal fulfilment depends on giving up attachments
  • Personal happiness is best pursued by seeking to cultivate “virtues”
  • Lives need suffering and setbacks to allow people to reach higher states of development
  • Religion plays a unique role in creating cohesive cultures.

To be clear, the evaluation of these themes typically shows both their prevailing strengths and their limitations. (It was a bit of a jolt every time I read a sentence in the book that said something like “What the Buddha failed to appreciate is…“)

The ideas that I have taken away from the book include the following:

  • A vivid metaphor of the mind as being a stubborn elephant of automatic desires, with a small conscious rider sat on top of it (as illustrated in the picture on the front cover of at least some editions of the book);
  • In any battle of wills, the elephant is bound to win – but there are mechanisms through which the rider can distract and train the elephant;
  • The most reliable mechanisms for improving our mood are meditation, cognitive therapy, and Prozac;
  • There are hazards (as well as benefits) to promoting self-esteem;
  • Although each person has a “happiness set point” to which their emotional status tends to return after some time, there are measures that people can take to drive their general happiness level higher – this includes the kind of personal relations we achieve, the extent to which we can reach “flow” in our work, and the extent to which different “levels” of our lives “cohere”;
  • Alongside the universally recognised human emotions like happiness, sadness, surprise, fear, disgust and anger, that have typically been studied by psychologists, there is an important additional emotion of “elevation” that also deserves study and strengthening;
  • The usual criticisms of religion generally fail to do justice to the significant beneficial feelings of community, purity, and divinity, that participation in religious activities can nurture – this draws upon some very interesting work by David Sloan Wilson on the role of religions as enabling group selection between different human societies.

Despite providing a lot of clarity, the book leaves many questions unresolved. I see that Haidt is working on a follow-up, entitled “The Righteous Mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion“. I’m greatly looking forward to it.

Footnote: “The happiness hypothesis” has its own website, here.


  1. It’s a pleasure to read your book reviews, among all the normally expected mobile related articles. Many thanx for these, too!

    Btw have you checked http://www.librarything.com, a website dedicated to books? You’re listed there as book author, unfortunately mixed with another person(s).



    Comment by Jouni — 29 December 2008 @ 6:14 pm

  2. Many thanks David for this recommendation – since the Amazon book order arrived last week, been enjoying this one a lot!!! Eye-opening stuff.

    Comment by Tommi Vilkamo — 26 January 2009 @ 12:13 pm

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