Erika RS's Reviews > The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom

The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt
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's review
Jun 01, 12

Read in May, 2011 — I own a copy

This book is squarely in the genre of experimental psychology digested for a popular audience. As such, it is full of commentary on experiments, many of which are familiar to readers of this genre (yes, he mentions the marshmallows).

That said, this is a particularly good example of this genre. Unlike many authors in this genre, Haidt is both author and researcher. This seems to have had some positive effects. He makes clear the difference between the well-agreed upon results of the research and his own extensions of those interpretations. Even when talking about his own work, the distinction is there, although less so. He also gives the impression of having thought more deeply about his subject matter than non-researching authors.

As the title implies, this book is about happiness, and it is about evaluating ancient wisdom from the viewpoint of modern science. Happiness, not surprisingly, covers everything from relationships and stuff to work to morality and religion. I think the breadth of Haidt's explorations is part of what I like.

But what really makes the ideas in this book stick is Haidt's juxtaposition of ancient wisdom and modern findings. After realizing that he could use quotations from various sources of ancient wisdom to help his students remember ideas in his psychology classes, Haidt decided to find the common pieces of ancient wisdom and then evaluate them against the experimental results. The resulting pieces of wisdom come from many sources: the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, the Koran, the Dhammapada, the Tao Te Ching, Aristotle and other Greek thinkers, Shakespeare, Benjamin Franklin, and more.

Many of these pieces of wisdom hold up well under modern knowledge. Many others, however, are at odds with how people actually work. The evaluation is interesting. And independent of the validity of the ideas is the way that this book makes clear how almost all of the really big ideas about happiness and human nature are common across many cultures, religions, and times.

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