Book Reviews

Book Review: The Happiness Hypothesis, by Jonathan Haidt

I know what you’re thinking – the last thing the world needs is yet another self-help book telling you to be nice to people, love yourself and ask the universe for stuff. And generally, I’d agree.

But The Happiness Hypothesis is different. Haidt is a psychology professor and researcher at the University of Virginia, and his book his a well-written, fairly dense synthesis of the latest research on happiness expressed in laymen’s terms. Haidt organizes his discussion around ten pieces of “ancient wisdom” – one might be forgiven for suspecting that his publisher forced him to put it this way – but the result is a broad exploration of things that studies have consistently shown contribute to human happiness, along with a certain amount of speculation on the evolutionary advantages of certain behaviors and inbuilt reactions.

Some of the results seem fairly obvious: happy people are nicer than unhappy ones, helping others brings lasting satifaction, solid relationships matter. Others, however, are surprising and not always pleasant. Gossip and revenge aren’t all bad. Neither is Prozac. Freedom of choice is not necessarily a good thing. Spiritual elevation and feelings of universal love do not lead to altruism. We are, in short, a conflicted but often predictable bundle of hard-wiring and social training, and if we truly want to be happy, good people we need to take our natural limitation and virtues into account.

If you are prepared for an intellectually and emotionally challenging read, are interested in the psychology of emotion, reason and faith, and are open to exploring the ground-breaking work of the positive psychology movement, then this book is a very worthwhile read.

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