What do you think?
Rate this book
297 pages, Paperback
First published December 1, 2006
In the review below, you will see the metaphor of the elephant and the rider, where the rider is the rational mind trying to rein in the emotional elephant. For Haidt, Pinker, and a broader class of the TED talk cognoscenti, they are to the masses as the rider is to the elephant. For example, in his later work Haidt serves as judge and jury of what injustices are worthy of protest. He then insists that protestors presume that institutions and people are operating in good faith (and therefore not to be criticized), while presuming, I kid you not, that these protestors are criticizing his friends at academic institutions because they have mental health issues due to poor parenting. Through it all, he appears wholly unaware that every opinion on popular culture he holds aligns entirely with the narrow economic and social interests and connections he holds, and the magnitude of every problem he considers is directly related to the extent to which it affects him and his colleagues.
In a way, his example is a helpful post-script to this book. If writing such a book on how your brain operates is not enough to free you from the biases and self-serving instincts within, reading it certainly isn't enough either. You may agree or disagree with his views on "cancel culture", but it's hard to maintain that Haidt is the humble bringer of ancient wisdom to find modern truth.
When pitching Jonathan Haidt's "Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom" to friends, I often find myself explaining away the title -- no, it's not another self-help book and yes, it's about more than just plastering a silly smile on your face. With that said, the title is appropriate; Haidt is chiefly concerned with what's responsible for making humans happy.
The title fails, however, to convey the breadth and depth of Haidt's search, which touches on philosophy, psychology, economics, evolution, and cognitive science, and skips effortlessly across the centuries, from the Stoics' philosophical minimalism to Ben Franklin's pragmatism to Robert Cialdini's work on Influence.
Haidt documents the evolution of the human mind, producing an overarching narrative that explains everything from the use of gossip and prozac to mental tendencies that steer men away from their stated values and towards self-destruction.
Along with Kluge, this book has profoundly shaped the way I view my brain. Before Haidt, I was aware that our brains appeared to systematically work against our best interest, and that these tendencies manifested in more general cognitive biases. Haidt, however, takes you behind the curtain, and provides a look at what exactly is going on in your brain and the evolutionary logic behind it. This book provided a more systematic take on cognition than the discrete observational work I had previously encountered.
My interest in correcting my cognitive failings largely emanates from my concern with my ability to grasp the truth. Haidt rightly adds that it's profoundly important to happiness in general. Cognitive therapy has allowed many to escape depression by directly attacking distortions in thought. These depressive distortions are direct relatives to those that scare up trouble in all of our lives, and Haidt provides an excellent primer on how to exorcise your cognitive demons through a few different means, thereby improving the way you think and possibly making you happier.