Thursday, February 10, 2011

I Love Haidt

A while back I posted about a cool concept called "The Moral Equalizer", which was articulated by a University of Virginia psychology professor named Jonathan Haidt, and which had the potential to reconcile the perennial misunderstandings between liberals and conservatives. More recently I saw an ad for a book by Haidt called "The Happiness Hypothesis". I bought it without hesitation and was not disappointed. Well, not unless you count the depressing irony that the day after I finished it my girlfriend called to break up with me. Shucks. Anyway...

Haidt gathers together the most influential bits of life advice from ancient philosophy and religious texts, and discusses them in light of what modern biology, psychology, and sociology can contribute to our understanding. His book is full of juicily useful nuggets of wisdom and insight, including a final chapter about the meaning of life that actually gives a fairly satisfying answer. (No, it's not "42".) Here I'm going to mention a couple parts of the book that were memorable for me.

The Elephant and the Rider Analogy- In Haidt's first chapter, "The Divided Self", he talks about how both philosophers and scientists have realized that the mind is partitioned into very different compartments. The conscious, rational part is a relatively new addition in our evolutionary history, and it is tiny compared to the older, emotional, instinctive, subconscious parts of the mind. Hence the analogy, with a small rider who has only limited, indirect control over the large elephant.

David Attenborough shows how it's done...


The Equation- Haidt has a formula for understanding happiness: H = S + C + V. H stands for happiness. S is for "set point", your innate level of happiness, which has a strong genetic component. People born with a high set point tend to be happy by nature (Haidt says they're winners of the "genetic lottery"), while people born with a low set point tend towards depression and have to work harder to be happy. Cognitive therapy and drugs like Prozac are good equalizers for people born with low set points. C stands for the conditions of your life, like your friends, family, loves, work, where you live, whether you're rich or poor, etc. V is for voluntary activities, which include meditation, hobbies, spiritual strivings, creative outlets, etc. The C and V parts of the equation are complicated and open to interpretation.

Passionate vs. Companionate Love- Apparently psychology has confirmed what smug old-timers have always said, which is that passionate love booms quickly but fades to a modest level after a few months or years. "Companionate" love, on the other hand, starts slow but can potentially grow stronger as time goes on.

This same figure is in the book.
Photobucket

Buddhism vs. Western Materialism- Eastern philosophies say happiness is all about letting go of your worldly desires and accepting things as they are. The Western credo is pretty much the opposite; strive for your goals and seize what you desire. Haidt says the Eastern way is powerful but incomplete, because there are some worldly things, like un-stressful living conditions and good relationships, that ease the path to happiness and are therefore worth working towards.

Pleasures versus Gratifications- Pleasures are things like food, sex, comfortable sofas, television, backrubs, waterslides, etc. Getting them makes you happy, but your standards adjust to the amount you're getting, so you end up having similar happiness whether you're getting a little or a lot. Of course, the wearing-off of pleasures is minimized when the pleasures are varied and spaced out a bit, so something like a small-portioned, multi-course meal is better for happiness than a large bag of Cheetos, which will be exciting at first but mundane, if not disgusting, by the end. Gratifications are "activities that engage you fully, draw on your strengths, and allow you to lose self-consciousness". For example, windsurfing is a gratification if you're a windsurfer, making music is a gratification if you're a musician, cataloging insect collections is a gratification if you're an entomologist, etc. Compared to pleasures, gratifications lead to longer lasting improvements in happiness, so it's good to find and develop the things that are your gratifications.

The Dimension of Divinity- Even though Haidt isn't religious, he says that it's important to be able to connect to a higher level above your usual self and your mundane social world. Different religions and cultures have different ways of connecting to the sacred and holy, but it's always about developing the feeling of "elevation" to something greater.

15 comments:

Brandon said...

Intriguing post... although I really do like anything as complex as the meaning of life described with as few as three variables (especially when one is constant throughout your entire life!). The funny thing is that I totally agree. Prior to reading your post I would have said that the key is just to surround yourself with people capable of both encouraging your hobbies and activities (V) and providing some amount of companionship and love (part of C). People whom fall under only one of those categories really don't add that much quality to your life.

As a final comment on the equation, do you think that its worth it to split out W and A from V to help isolate some seasonally dependent variables. Windsurfing and outdoor Adventure.

Brandon said...

Sorry to hear about your ex-girlfriend. Long distance relationships suck, I lost a lot of valuable bachelorhood to a long distance relationship that didn't work out in the end.

On a partially related side note, if you're ever thinking you might need a place to stay in South FL. We've got a few extra rooms 15 minutes from the Stuart causeway and Oceanside park. You are always welcome, just make sure to call at least 15 minutes before you show up!

Brandon said...

I've sort of commandeered your comments section and I'm a little bit proud of that... alright I'll shut up now.

James Douglass said...

Brandon- Thanks for the awesome comments, dude! I'll be marooned in Florida from late Feb 25 to early Mar 1 so maybe I'll take you up on your housing offer and we can windsurf and philosophize some more. Shoot me an email. :)

BLCS said...

Damn.

The real question is, how many litres does that elephant displace, and how many sq. meters of sail would be needed for him to plane in light-moderate wind conditions???

James Douglass said...

BLCS- The average Asian Elephant displaces 4000 kg, and therefore needs a 383 square meter sail to plane in 14 knots.

BLCS said...

Hmm, that I would like to see.

Would make uphauling pretty tough though.

Matthew said...

When I was reading about the Happiness formula, I couldn't help but completely understand it. So, in quantitative genetics we use a similar formula to partition the phenotype (i.e., phenotypic variance) into their independent parts instead of H. We call G the heritable genetic control over the phenotype (or additive genetic variation) and that would be S. Then you have the N non-genetic fixed effects to account for, such as year you were born, sex, etc. that are similar to the C conditions of your life. Finally, any effects due to your environment get partitioned into the E component which is similar to V and the hobbies and culture you surround yourself with. So, P=G + N + E is what I use specifically to determine the G component.

I guess what I'm getting at is, if this were to be a testeable theory then one could use the same methods in quantitative genetics to estimate the amount of genetic contribution to happiness!

James Douglass said...

Matthew- Yeah, man! I think psychologists actually are using it as a testable theory. The book has numbered references like a Science, Nature, or PNAS article, so you could find out more about the actual science behind the formula if you wanted to. Maybe there are some loose ends there that you could tie up and get a sweet paper out of!

Johnny Douglass said...

Sounds like a good book to give me for my birthday.

James Douglass said...

Dad- Duly noted. :)

Ivan said...

Hi James,

just visited my Kids in New Hampshire ( Wicked Cold) last week from Singapore, stopped in Thailand on the way back , to vist my Girlfriend. Hoprfully the distance between us will have a different outcome from yours.

My new theory about conservative and Liberals: I beleive that folks do not start off with a blank slate , and list the pros and cons in the process of deciding what side of an issue to fall on. I beleive it is the other way around, based on insecurities, prejudices, values they determine there position, AND then they pick what ever low hanging fruit to justify this position. Hence the reason why older folks( I am one) tend to gravitate toward the conservative side. That is why one can absolutely never change a persons view from conservative to Liberal or vice versa, they would have to change their own values! ( Impossible) .
At Bangkok airport Sunday, one of those over 70 U.S. retirees tried to tell me the problem with America is that it was becoming to socialized?? This guy was collecting SOCIAL SECURITY for god's sake! get a grip. The benefit of living in Asia, is that generally i do not get exposed to the constant stream of political venom, or at least it is much easier to throttle it back.
Thanks and thanks for your Blog as well.

Ivan

James Douglass said...

Hey Ivan- Thanks for the good comment. I agree with what you're saying. We think our views and opinions come from unbiased weighing the evidence, but really we're going with our gut feelings and then picking the evidence that best supports those feelings. (Haidt actually talks about that in the book.) I do think people can sometimes change their views on politics and morality, but rarely in response to overt persuasion.

Ivan said...

I Agree totally James,

But not to many of those folks around, most go with the gut. I only see a few of more enlightened ones, like ourselves that can put there biases aside, LOL .

On another note, I have been trying ( emphasis on trying) to learn windsurfing, however in Singapore it takes a level of commitment that I have not reached yet, essentially hanging out at the beach all day waiting for a storm. I did have a little bit ore luck in Thailand but need more time, anyway thanks for the Blog, gives a wide range of topics.

Johnny Douglass said...

I think Ivan's on to something there. It does seem that most people adopt a certain ideological paradigm early on and pick the low hanging fruit that seems to fit with it. Maybe that's why both sides seem to put so much energy into scaring the hell out of the small group of swing voters.