Peter Jansen's Reviews > The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom

The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt
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's review
Dec 05, 2009

it was amazing
Read in December, 2009

I would have liked to give this 4.5 stars but seeing I don't have that option in goodreads and because it was great I'm giving it 5 stars.

Why was it so good:
*It really made me think
*It was superbly written and really interesting
*It's a really important topic

This is not a self-help book. I don't have a particular aversion to self-help books and I have read quite a few of them. In fact I think they are much maligned form of literature which has a noble goal. However, the The Happiness Hypothesis is a review of research and a thesis on what makes people happy.

What makes us happy? What does the latest research on psychology, sociology and the brain say about what makes us happy? What have various cultures and religions said about happiness through the ages? This is what the book sets out to answer. This is Haidt field and he has a theory on what makes us happy which he builds up throughout the book and cities various studies to support.

Have you ever stood next to a cliff or a drop and heard a little voice that says jump. You know you will never do it but this thought flashes through your mind and you think why did I think that? Well before you say it’s just me it’s a real phenomenon. Haidt refers to it as the Imp of the Perverse after an Edgar Allan Poe story which was studied by a social psychologist called Dan Wegner and he called it the “ironic process” (

This is just one of the titbits contained in a superb book. It seems to me to be well researched (although I don’t read much academic research on non-fiction), logical, thorough and compelling. Haidt manages to make a serious and thorough survey of research griping and enjoyable. I would go so far as to say it’s one of the most interesting non-fiction books I’ve ever read. In a way his style reminds me a bit of Bill Brysons book “A Short History of Nearly Everything” he makes the research interesting by talking about the story and the people behind it. Best of all he writes with passion.

Haidt surveys everything from love to what material things are worth striving for. Don’t be put off by the mention of ancient wisdom any hippy leanings of Haidt’s are supported by sound logic  (mind you I have a soft spot for the hippy leanings). I love his bit of the myth of pure evil.

The only part I didn’t like was the section on divinity. Now I am a mostly-atheist-sometimes-agnostic, in the sense I think perhaps there is some sort of first mover force (but certainly with no human like characteristics). I am a big admirer of Dawkins. Haidt is also an atheist but he has tried to be really balanced when looking at religion and it shows. You can almost feel him pushing away his prejudice and that is admirable.

So he is certainly not peddling religion and the way he tries to look at it objectively is admirable. He looks at studies of religious people and how they are often found to have higher levels of happiness than equivalent non-religious people – something he puts largely down to the social aspects of religion.

When he talks about divinity he is talking about the wider concept of believing in something greater than oneself and spirituality too. He says this is possible without religion. I’m not doing just to his arguments but this was one part of the book I didn't find as compelling as the rest of it. Like I say I admire his objectivity and I think even if we think most of its bollocks we should try and learn from the good parts of religion and spirituality. It’s just that the chapter on divinity didn’t feel as compelling to me as the rest of the book.

Overall I am going to read it again. It made me think and I think there is some really really valuable stuff in there. Superbly written, powerful, insightful and fascinating you must read this book! We should all be thinking about the ideas in there.

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