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.
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.