The Happiness Hypothesis: Summary & Review

the happiness hypothesis book cover

The Happiness Hypothesis mixes solid psychology research with philosophy and religious wisdom to provide a beautiful overview on what’s the meaning of life, what is happiness and how to better achieve it.


About the Author: Jonathan Haidt is a social psychologist and professor at NYU.
He first started out studying philosophy but didn’t find the answers he looked for because, he says, modern philosophy lacks a good understanding of psychology and human nature. After he moved into psychology 

#1. Our Brain Is Not United and Coherent

Jonathan Haidt says that the mind is divided into several different compartments.

We often make decisions unconsciously and in a split of a second. Then only later we pick a rationally-sounding explanation for our unconscious decisions.

Patients with split-brain show that different parts of our brain can also go against each other as they try to and overpower each other (also read Incognito for more information).

#2. Our Brain Has Two Systems: Fast & Slow

The author divides the brain into two main parts:

  1. The limbic system in charge of basic instincts
  2. The neocortex for rational thinking

It’s a bit reminiscent of Kahneman’s two systems but the author calls the limbic brain “elephant” and the neocortex “driver”.

#3. Nature Plays a Bigger Role Than Most People Realize

Jonathan Haidt seems to be more on the “nature” spectrum of the “nature VS nurture” continuum. 

I’m more in the middle but like Steven Pinker brilliantly noted in “The Blank Slate” we do need to regain some terrain within our cultural glorification of nurture.

Haidt takes the example of two identical twins who had never met until they were 40.
They both had the same nervous tics and they were both afraid of blood and heights.

My Note:
Albeit of course I agree that genes play a huge role, the author seems to take it too far with this example, also listing the same year they met their husband and the miscarriage they both had.

When it comes to happiness, between 50% and 80% of happiness levels are genetic.

#4. Attachment Styles Determine Our Relationships

The author says that much of our happiness is determined by our social ties, our friendships and our relationships.

And our relationships in turns are heavily influenced by our attachment styles, which the author believes to be mostly hereditary (take here an attachment style quiz).

#5. How to Change Yourself

There are three ways to change yourself:

  1. Meditation
  2. Cognitive Therapy
  3. Prozac (ie.: medication)

The author actually tried Prozac, and contrary to a few other authors who recommend being careful with it, he makes the point that it works very well.

The goal of meditation, he says is to control and tame the affective styles of your elephant.

#6. Reciprocity, Fairness & Greed

The author discusses ultimatum games, fairness, and reciprocity.

People seek fairness and reject offers they feel are unfair even when that means they will lose out themselves.
Haidt also explains that these experiments proved to psychologists that economic theories of rational players were all wrong (read “Misbehaving” to learn more about behavioral economics). 

Reciprocal Manipulation 

The author takes a leaf out of Wright’s “The Moral Animal” and says we evolved a huge brain to help us play the social game which includes manipulation, dirty negotiation tactics, and gossip.

Our reciprocal system also allows for manipulation though when people give us something to get something back.
The author mentions Cialdini and recommends you see it for what it is: manipulation and drop any feelings of obligation.

Gossiping also allowed for cooperation because it helps spread the word about Machiavellian and selfish players who game the system.

However, Machiallive might still have a point and it might be the case that people favor the appearance of morality over actual morality.
Daniel Batson’s experiment showed that behind closed doors even people who rated themselves as highly moral “found a way” to award themselves the best result even after the coin flip turned out negative for them.

The only intervention that enforced moral standards was reminding people of the importance of morals and then placing a big mirror in front of them.

Also read:

Manipulation: Techniques, Strategies, & Ethics

We Believe Our Own Manipulation

On average, people really believe in their own mental manipulations. We really believe we’re better, more ethical and “fair”.

Indeed we are fairly accurate in our perceptions of others. It’s the perception of our selves that is inaccurate.

The “Family Manipulation”

Haidt introduces the topic of reciprocity with The Godfather.

He says that mafia calls itself “the family” to strengthen the bond among the affiliates. And “the godfather” itself is an attempt at forging a kinship that doesn’t really exist.
This is a technique also used in business by companies and CEOs, read more in “corporate manipulations“.

Read more on dark psychology here:

Dark Psychology: 7 Ways to Manipulate People

#7. The Adaptation Principle

The adaptation principle says that human adapt to almost anything which happens to them.
Both in the positive (hedonic treadmill) and in the negative. 

An incredible study took people who won the lottery and people who became paralyzed. And as time went by (one year) they both returned around their baseline level of happiness.

But it’s important to notice that no all activities and circumstances obey the adaptation principle and you might want to focus on them to maximize your happiness (more below). 

#8. The Happiness Formula

This is the actual happiness formula:

Happiness = S + C + V

  • Set points (basically your biology)
  • Conditions of your life
  • Voluntary activities

Some conditions in your life do not obey the adaptation principle and tey will make you perennially sadder or happier.

Avoid the following:

  • Chronic noise in your environment
  • Long commute (you adapt to the bigger place out of town but not to the commute)
  • Situations where you lack control (ie.: stuck in traffic)
  • Shame: if you feel ashamed for something, fix it or find a way to get over it

Get more of the following:

  • Good relationships
  • Social circle (even introverts will be happier, os if you’re one strive to become ambivert)
  • Flow (read more here on how to reach flow)
  • Become a satisficer (research products less and be more content with 1st option, also read “The Paradox of Choice“)
  • Constraints (social constraints can help provide structure and meaning)
  • Work on your strengths, not weaknesses (also read “Strengthfinder 2.0“)
  • Do engage in volunteer work (even more helpful for socially isolated people)

Some traumas or hardships can also make us happier in the long run. Just make sure you talk about it.

the happiness hypothesis book cover

Wisdom Nuggets

Here are more wisdom of nuggets:

  • We’re all natural hypocrites

We are programmed to see the slightest speck in our neighbor’s eyes and not to see the log in our own.

  • Plastic surgery can improve happiness

Albeit many scoff at plastic surgery as an uneeded and superficial remedy, the author says that people who go through with it often end up being happier in the long run.

He says it’s because of shame and people who fix some major flaw they were ashamed of feel like a burden has been lifted (read “Daring Greatly” for more on shame).

  • Religious people are happier

Before you run in the arms of Richard Dawkins after “The God Delusion” or into the skeptics Bible “The Believing Brain“, do keep in mind that religious people tend to be happier.

  • People are more like plants than computers

We often compare people to computers and we think of psychotherapy as a repair shop.
The author instead prefers a plant metaphor, also because most of the times people will get better by themselves. Just like when you give water to a withering plant.


I loved “The Happiness Hypothesis”, and these are some minor flaws I found:

  • Some debunked psychology

Haidt wrote in 2015, so he must have known about the replication crisis in psychology.
Yet, he presents several studies which have been debunked or harshly criticized without giving a single mention of the criticism (ie.: The Marshmallow Test, priming).

You can read more in this article on pop-psychology myths.

  • Elephant and rider terminology

maybe Haidt wanted to address “normal” laypeople who don’t research or study their stuff, but even if that were the case… I still don’t like the terminology.

It’s condescending to think your readers are so stupid that they don’t deserve more precise  

  • Jumps to conclusions on psychopathy

Haidt shares the story of a friend of his whose wife had run away with another man and brought her two children along.

He tells his friend he’s a psychopath and he’ll soon get tired of her. 
But of course, any serious psychiatrist knows you can’t make diagnoses from far away.

  • Lacks a coherent narrative?

Albeit at all time interesting, it felt that at times it went too off a tangent and it seemed to lack a strong, coherent narrative. 
For example, group selection and attachment styles felt too out of place for a  book which is supposedly about happiness and positive psychology.


I would give “The Happiness Hypothesis” 5 stars for much of the content.

It’s just the incoherent nature of the whole book and some pop-psychology myths which took out some sparkle from an otherwise excellent book.

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or get the book on Amazon

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