Saturday, October 10, 2009

Book Review: The Happiness Hypothesis

When I was young, I remember singing a bright chorus by Ira F Stanphill:

Happiness is to know the Savior, Living a life within His favor, Having a change in my behavior, Happiness is the Lord.

Unfortunately, happiness is not quite that simple according to Jonathan Haidt in his book The Happiness Hypothesis: Putting Ancient Wisdom and Philosophy to the Test of Modern Science.

Although I have been a Christian all my life, I suffered for about 10 years with a major depressive illness despite my attempts to deal with it by eating better, exercising more, affirming my relationship with God, praying more, doing more Bible study, in short, trying to 'live a life within His favor, [and h]aving a change in my behavior'. Finally, after trying the three approaches to improving mood proven to have a definite effect (meditation, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, and medication) medication helped. And I am not alone. Many Christians suffer from depression. Shouldn't Christians be happy? Doesn't a faith in God improve the way we feel? Well... maybe it does. But happiness is much more than just what we believe or put faith in.

Drawing on research-based evidence, Haidt draws apart the curtains shrouding happiness and provides some extremely helpful insights into what makes people happy; how happiness works; and what aspects of human nature and life improves the prospect of experiencing happiness. As the author discusses the evidence, he evaluates ancient wisdom and philosophy to see whether these two sources of wisdom got it right. Unsurprisingly, the answer is sometimes right and wrong.

It turns out, there is a Happiness Formula:

H(appiness) = (S)etpoint + (C)onditions + (V)oluntary activities

The Setpoint is the maximum amount of happiness possible for a particular person to experience. It appears that each of us is hardwired with a maximum threshold for experiencing happiness. There is increasing evidence that genetics plays a highly influential role in the boundaries of our emotional lives.

In addition to a setpoint, the Conditions of your live within which we live — the environment, finances, weather, etc —has an effect on happiness.

Finally, the Voluntary activities we choose to engage in (or not) have an influence on levels of happiness. So happiness is a combination of all these elements.

Haidt discusses each of these elements of happiness and provides some fascinating research in support of his Happiness Hypothesis. He weaves an understanding of all of these elements of happiness in a very engaging, easy-to-read, informative style. This discussion of happiness is hopeful, practical, evidence-based, and ultimately provides the reader with an understanding that is balanced and insightful. Highly recommended.


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