Jonathan Haidt – How To Be Happy

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Jonathan B: Hey everyone, Jonathan Bailor back with another bonus Smarter Science of Slim podcast. Very, very excited about today’s show. I’m a little bit star-struck because our guest today is a wonderful author and a professor at the NYU Stern School of Business. He has given all sorts of TED talks, written all sorts of books, just one of which we’re going to focus on here today, and a man after my own heart, who loves to look at lifestyle issues with a philosophical bent.

So, Jon Haidt of The Righteous Mind and The Happiness Hypothesis, welcome to the show.

Jonathan H: Thank you, Jonathan. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Jonathan B: Well, Jon, just to get started, I wanted to let our listeners know that your most recent book, Righteous Mind, is out. Folks, if you want to learn more about Jon — and I highly recommend it — please do check out his website, which is Righteousmind.com.

The focus of today’s show, though, would be on a different book you wrote called The Happiness Hypothesis, because I remember — I’m a bit of a self-help junkie. I remember thinking to myself — I would read all these self-help books. I was like, “For the love of God, these are just the same book written over and over again.” Then I stumbled upon The Happiness Hypothesis, and I was like, “This is, one, it’s not marketed as a self-help book, but it certainly was helpful to me, and it is very unique.” So, could you tell us a little bit about what inspired you to write The Happiness Hypothesis and then a bit about the book.

Jonathan H: Oh sure. So, I was teaching Psych 101 at the University of Virginia, where I was for 16 years. When I was trying to get across the most important ideas in psychology to my students, I found myself quoting the ancients. I would put up something from Marcus Aurelius or Buddha. “Life itself is what you deem it,” and I found that a lot of the great ideas of psychology were expressed by the ancients in The East and The West. For a while, it looked like I might not get tenure, which meant that I would be kicked out of UVA and I’d have to go find a job somewhere else. I thought, well, if I don’t get tenure and if I have to leave academics, maybe I’ll just write up this idea as a book. I’ll collect all these psychological quotes from the ancients and organize them into chapters, and let’s see if the ancients were good psychologists.

I mean, the ancients were just terrible at biology and physics. They had no idea what they were talking about, but with psychology, you know, they were pretty perceptive about their own minds and about social relationships.

It turns out I did get tenure, but I decided to write the book anyway. So the original title for the book was Twelve Great Truths: Insights into Mind and Heart from Modern Science and Ancient Wisdom. That’s kind of a clunky title, so the publishers changed it, and they just made up The Happiness Hypothesis because they wanted to give the idea that it’s about wellbeing and it’s also ancient.

So they made up that title, and at first I thought, well, I don’t know — what is the happiness hypothesis? Is there a hypothesis about how to be happy? But by the time I finished the book, I realized that actually there are three different hypotheses, and the book ends up being kind of about them. So while I didn’t write it to tell people how to be happy, it turns out that the ancients actually have quite a lot of good advice.

I’ll just list those three very quickly. The first hypothesis is you’re happy when you get what you want. Well, most of us have been around long enough to know that when you get what you’ve been working for, it feels good, but, like, by the next day or the next week, you’re not happy anymore. You know, you feel relief, but it turns out, research shows, you’re just turning off your goal pursuit mechanism. So for all of your listeners who are pursuing goals of self-improvement — weight loss, whatever — it’s not the achieving of the goal that gives you the most pleasure. It’s actually the slow, steady progress towards it. That’s what keeps you engaged. That’s what gives you that thrill of making progress, which you don’t adapt to. As long as you’re making progress, you feel good about it. So the first hypothesis that happiness comes from getting what you want, that just failed.

The second one — this is one you find in Buddha, you find it in the Stoic philosophers in Greece and Rome — is that happiness comes from within. All the philosophers of ancient times tell us, “You can never control the world, so stop trying. You have to be accepting. You have to stop wanting things. You have to accept the world and yourself the way you are.” Well, there’s small truth to that. You’re better off trying to change yourself than trying to change the world around you. But in our modern lives, actually our world is so safe, and actually we can change a lot of things.

So it turns out that the third hypothesis is even better, and the third hypothesis, the one that I really came to only by the end of the book — I didn’t know it when I started the book — is that happiness comes from between. It doesn’t come from inside you entirely; rather, it comes from getting the right kind of relationship between yourself and other people, yourself and your work or some sort of external project, and yourself and something larger than yourself. If you get those betweens right, you’re going to be about as happy as your brain will let you be.

Jonathan B: Jonathan — excuse me, Jon, — can you give us an example of — such a common trap we find ourselves in is this idea of getting what we want or changing ourselves to meet the needs of the world. For so many of us, there are these physical components, looking a certain way. What would be an example of — if you believe that happiness lies in this end state of looking a certain way, what in that third — that seems to fit much more than that first bucket. If we were to take the spirit of that goal and try to shift it into that third bucket, that between zone, how can we do that, or could we do that?

Jonathan H: Let’s see. That’s a good question. Two really important things about happiness are that it’s relative in two different ways. That is, happiness — well, we notice changes in state. We don’t notice absolute levels. So if you’re making progress, if you’re getting stronger or thinner or faster or healthier, we notice those changes.

The other thing is that it’s relative to everyone else. So we’re always comparing ourselves to others, and of course, in this fitness- and beauty-obsessed society, we have a big, big problem in that we used to live in small-scale societies where the average person was of average attractiveness. You look around, and chances are you’re not the least attractive person anywhere. But what happened when we got mass media and magazines is that now, we’re bombarded by images of beautiful, beautiful people, and so the average person is in about the bottom five or ten percent of the images of people that they see. We are kind of trapped by the changing nature of mass media and commercialism into thinking that we are below par, we’re below standard.

So, one thing that you can do is — well, try to change your reference set. Stop looking at glossy magazines that have lots of beautiful people in them. Stop hanging out with people who are always talking about thinness, or showing off, or impressing others. Pay a lot of attention to your reference group and who you hang out with. Birds of a feather may flock together, but for our species, birds that flock together kind of take on each other’s feathers and neuroses and values.

Jonathan B: I love that. The birds that fly together take on each other’s neuroses. That doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Jonathan H: Yeah, I’ve to make that rhyme a little better, I suppose.

Jonathan B: Well, that’s brilliant. I love the idea of taking this smarter approach to our inputs and changing our frame of reference to begin with. It’s just brilliant. Folks, I don’t mean to be a shill here for Jon’s work, but it personally has affected me so deeply. I would say that Jon’s work, and especially the book, The Happiness Hypothesis — put down that glossy magazine that makes you feel like you’re inadequate in some way, despite the fact that the model’s job is to look that way, and they’re all taking drugs and they’re all 30 years younger than you. Pick up a copy of The Happiness Hypothesis, because it will get you into that third bucket. What are some other ways we can get into that third bucket, Jon?

Jonathan H: So, humans are always seeking meaning, and it used to be that we were really deeply embedded in religious communities and into families. With modern life, what we’ve had is the thinning out of all those other forms of identity and the rise of the self. In fact, one of my students Celon Casebere (??), just did a study looking on Google Books at how words change in frequency. Words about virtues and morality have decreased in usage over the last 200 years, and words about the self, and the self’s projects, and fame and celebrity [inaudible 09:59].

So, if you’re not really part of something larger, if you’re not pursuing other noble goals, just your mind is going to take on petty goals. We’re always comparing ourselves to others. To the extent that you throw yourself into other projects, ideally in the company of people that you respect, then the more petty, superficial goals will fade into the background. If you get more involved in your religious community, odds are you’ll have a whole company, a whole group of people that actually do care a lot about self-improvement, but it’s especially moral self-improvement, not so much refining aspects of your physical appearance.

People in religious communities — they live longer, and they’re happier. It’s not because they’re thinner, although for all I know they are. Actually, I don’t know that; I shouldn’t say that.

You almost have to look at yourself as though you were caring for a small child. Your brain is in some ways — well, you know, it’s brilliant at some things, but it’s kind of dumb at others. You have to kind of think about where you want to put your brain, just as you’d think about where do you want to put your child? Your child’s going to soak up values from all around him.

Anyway, if you get yourself involved in larger projects, in important projects, in the company of people that you respect, you’re going to be much happier and much less self-conscious.

Jonathan B: Jon, there are so many parallels here I see with other areas of our lives, because we talked about — the first thing we talked about was a bit like — they’re both, they’re somewhat similar in the sense of curating what we put into our mind, much like we curate what we put into our body from a nutrition perspective. In some ways, we actually, on this show, always talk about eat so much — we call it SANE, healthy food — that you’re too full for the bad stuff. What I heard you just say is a slightly new version (??) of that, which is fill your life with so many noble, virtuous pursuits that you just don’t have time to be neurotic. There’s literally — you just crowd it out of your life.

Jonathan: That’s right; there you go. Here’s chapter two of my book — the title of it is Changing Your Mind. It’s on three different techniques for changing your thoughts. It opens — all the chapters open with a quote from the ancients, typically one from The East, one from The West. Here’s Marcus Aurelius: “The whole universe is change, and life itself is but what you deem it,” what you think it is. Here’s the same idea from Buddha: “What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow. Our life is the creation of our mind.”

So, I think that’s exactly what you were just saying. The ancients were very wise to the fact that the things that we think about, the things that get into our mind, they don’t just change what we know. They change what we see. They change what we see in the world, what we think is valuable, what we think is funny or disgusting. All of that comes from what we think, and what we think comes largely from our culture, from other people, from the people we surround ourselves with and the TV shows we watch.

The central metaphor of the book is that the mind is divided into parts like a rider on an elephant. The rider is the conscious, reasoning parts. It’s the parts you’re really aware of, but that’s just a small portion of what your mind is doing. The other 99 percent of your mind is unconscious, automatic. It’s not unconscious as Sigmund Freud says where it’s just full of ugly, dark, sexual and aggressive thoughts. Those are down there too, but for the most part, unconscious means to just — your mind is doing what it does, totally outside of your awareness. That’s the way it has to be. All animals are able to accomplish amazing things without having to think consciously. We’re the same way.

The whole idea of — once you see yourself as a small rider perched atop a large elephant — the elephant’s pretty smart — but you should become a little more patient with yourself, forgiving of yourself, and you can see your job of self-improvement as being like an animal trainer. If you’re working with an elephant, you don’t just beat it into submission, or you don’t just tell it what to do. You have to work with it, slowly. Elephants are very, very trainable, but it takes time. It takes gentleness. It takes small rewards.

So once you look at it that way, you have a whole new perspective on why it’s so hard to change yourself and especially why it’s so hard to change other people. Everybody’s had the experience of passing New Year’s resolutions, and you don’t live up to them. Well, you know, now try passing one for your son or your daughter or somebody at work. I hereby resolve that you will be more respectful, or, You will do your homework on time. Yeah, good luck with that. But if you think about it as more of a gradual process of training, and you use small rewards delivered quickly, you can make a lot more progress.

Jonathan B: Jon, I have to tell you I am so happy that — I just submitted my manuscript for my next book — the final version to my publisher — because I have written so many notes frantically down while you were just talking. Because there is literally so much parallel we talk about here, that the idea that you can almost beat your mind into submission, or just, like, change in an instant. No, there’s this deeper system that’s almost thinking on its own. You can certainly influence that system, but if you do not respect that system and try to change the system itself, it is going to be incredibly difficult to make change.

That’s what we talk about, even from a metabolic perspective of just, for example, you talk about beating the elephant. Like, just starving yourself is not changing the system; that’s just minimizing the inputs into the system. For our mind, it sounds like we need to do similar things. We have to focus on the quality of the inputs we’re putting into that system because those inputs have a profound, otherwise maybe imperceptible, effect on the elephant or the thing that’s really in control when we’re not just completely focused on what we’re doing. Often times, that’s the vast majority of the day, let’s be honest, right?

Jonathan H: That’s right. So, in chapter two of the book, I talk about three techniques for training the elephant, for changing it. The first is meditation, which is the Eastern idea of how to create change. It’s gradual, but it really works. Research shows that it really improves your mood. It improves your mental focus.

The second technique is called cognitive therapy. Many of your listeners will have heard of that, but that’s a technique where you learn to identify your warped thoughts, the times when you jump ahead and you jump to conclusions about what people will think about you, and all this sort of crazy stuff that we all do in our heads. Actually, my favorite line about that comes from The Simpsons, where Homer Simpson says, “Shut up, brain, or I’ll stab you with a q-tip.” So, there are other ways to shut up your brain. Cognitive therapy is a more effective way than sticking a toothpick into your ear to quiet those nagging thoughts.

Then the third technique, the third way that really changes the elephant is Prozac or the other SSRI drugs. Not that I’m recommending those widely, but for people who are chronically low, who are chronically negative, they ruminate a lot, they have difficulty controlling their thoughts, a one-month or two-month experiment with those drugs sometimes can show them a very different way of being.

That’s not right for most people, but I’m just saying if you find that mental hygiene is a problem for you — in other words, your thoughts, you just can’t — your thoughts bother you. You’re always ruminating or being self-critical, there are at least three techniques you can use that are proven to be very effective: meditation, cognitive therapy and SSRIs, such as Prozac. Listeners, actually, if you go to Happinesshypothesis.com — that’s the site for the last book — that also has a number of very specific suggestions for things you can do to be happier.

Jonathan B: Listeners, we have to be respectful of Jon’s time, because literally, I’m calling him here as a fan as well as the host of this show, so I could talk with him for hours. But please do check out Happinesshypothesis.com. Check out Jon’s other site, Righteousmind.com. If you can only afford one book, I have to recommend Happiness Hypothesis because I love it so much, but ideally, grab all his books. Please, in the spirit of quality and quality of inputs that we always talk about in terms of food — high-quality food and high-quality exercise — Jon shared with us some amazing insights about the quality we put into our mind and the quality that we put into our spirit.

Again, I literally cannot give a higher recommendation for quality input of Jon’s Book, Happiness Hypothesis. Please grab it. Jon, thank you so much for your work, both personally and for sharing it with our listeners. I deeply appreciate it.

Jonathan H: My pleasure, Jon. May you all make progress towards your goals.

Jonathan B: Thank you so much, Jon. It’s been a pleasure chatting with you, and listeners, I hope you’ve enjoyed today’s show as much as I have. Remember, this week and every week after, eat smarter, exercise smarter — heck, think smarter, based on Jon’s recommendations — and live better. Talk with you soon.