"The Happiness Hypothesis"
A wonderful book. Jonathan Haidt is a psychologist. This book grew out of his experience teaching two courses at UVa - introductory psychology and positive psychology. He found that there were several themes that jumped out from his lectures, and he sought to capture them in this book.
Some of these themes reinforce the teachings of Daniel Kahneman and Laurie Santos that I have written about before. Several of them are new to me. I found the first half of the book to be straight forward -- the second half is a bit more philosophical and required me to read it several times. I hope in my summary I have made his points easier to digest than I found them.
As I have done in the past, for my summary I have used the author's own words. In this way, I avoid putting my spin on his thoughts. While it might make for a longer summary, hopefully I can save you the time of reading the entire book!
This is a book about ten Great Ideas. Each chapter is an attempt to savor one idea that has been discovered by several of the world’s civilizations—to question it in light of what we now know from scientific research, and to extract from it the lessons that still apply to our modern lives.
[In looking over my lecture notes] I realized that several ideas kept recurring across lectures, and that often these ideas had been stated eloquently by past thinkers.
I wanted to write about a set of ideas that would fit together, build upon each other, and tell a story about how human beings can find happiness and meaning in life.
Helping people find happiness and meaning is precisely the goal of the new field of positive psychology, a field in which I have been active, so this book is in a way about the origins of positive psychology in ancient wisdom and the applications of positive psychology today. Most of the research I will cover was done by scientists who would not consider themselves positive psychologists. Nonetheless, I have drawn on ten ancient ideas and a great variety of modern research findings to tell the best story I can about the causes of human flourishing, and the obstacles to well being that we place in our own paths.
HOW OUR MINDS WORK (CHAPTERS 1 AND 2)
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Chapter 1 - The Divided Self
Human thinking depends on metaphor. We understand new or complex things in relation to things we already know. For example, it’s hard to think about life in general, but once you apply the metaphor “life is a journey,” the metaphor guides you to some conclusions: You should learn the terrain, pick a direction, find some good traveling companions, and enjoy the trip, because there may be nothing at the end of the road. It’s also hard to think about the mind, but once you pick a metaphor it will guide your thinking.
Buddha, for example, compared the mind to a wild elephant:
In days gone by this mind of mine used to stray wherever selfish desire or lust or pleasure would lead it. Today this mind does not stray and is under the harmony of control, even as a wild elephant is controlled by the trainer.
Modern theories about rational choice and information processing don’t adequately explain weakness of the will. The older metaphors about controlling animals work beautifully. The image that I came up with for myself, as I marveled at my weakness, was that I was a rider on the back of an elephant. I’m holding the reins in my hands, and by pulling one way or the other I can tell the elephant to turn, to stop, or to go. I can direct things, but only when the elephant doesn’t have desires of his own. When the elephant really wants to do something, I’m no match for him.
To understand most important ideas in psychology, you need to understand how the mind is divided into parts that sometimes conflict. We assume that there is one person in each body, but in some ways we are each more like a committee whose members have been thrown together to do a job, but who often find themselves working at cross purposes. Our minds are divided in four ways. The fourth is the most important, for it corresponds most closely to the rider and the elephant; but the first three also contribute to our experiences of temptation, weakness, and internal conflict.
First Division: Mind vs. Body
We sometimes say that the body has a mind of its own, but the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne went a step further and suggested that each part of the body has its own emotions and its own agenda.
Montaigne also noted the ways in which our facial expressions betray our secret thoughts; our hair stands on end; our hearts race; our tongues fail to speak; and our bowels and anal sphincters undergo “dilations and contractions proper to [themselves], independent of our wishes or even opposed to them.”
Our intestines are lined by a vast network of more than 100 million neurons; these handle all the computations needed to run the chemical refinery that processes and extracts nutrients from food. This gut brain is like a regional administrative center that handles stuff the head brain does not need to bother with. You might expect, then, that this gut brain takes its orders from the head brain and does as it is told. But the gut brain possesses a high degree of autonomy, and it continues to function well even if the vagus nerve, which connects the two brains together, is severed. The gut brain makes its independence known in many ways:
Second Division: Left vs. Right
The human brain has two separate hemispheres joined by a large bundle of nerves, the corpus callosum.
The corpus callosum is the largest single bundle of nerves in the entire body, so it must be doing something important. Indeed it is: It allows the two halves of the brain to communicate and coordinate their activity.
The brain divides its processing of the world into its two hemispheres—left and right.
The left hemisphere takes in information from the right half of the world (that is, it receives nerve transmissions from the right arm and leg, the right ear, and the left half of each retina, which receives light from the right half of the visual field) and sends out commands to move the limbs on the right side of the body. The right hemisphere is in this respect the left’s mirror image, taking in information from the left half of the world and controlling movement on the left side of the body. Nobody knows why the signals cross over in this way in all vertebrates; they just do. But in other respects, the two hemispheres are specialized for different tasks. The left hemisphere is specialized for language processing and analytical tasks. In visual tasks, it is better at noticing details. The right hemisphere is better at processing patterns in space, including that all-important pattern, the face.
People will readily fabricate reasons to explain their own behavior, is called “confabulation.” Confabulation is so frequent in work with split-brain patients and other people suffering brain damage that Gazzaniga refers to the language centers on the left side of the brain as the interpreter module, whose job is to give a running commentary on whatever the self is doing, even though the interpreter module has no access to the real causes or motives of the self’s behavior. For example, if the word “walk” is flashed to the right hemisphere, the patient might stand up and walk away. When asked why he is getting up, he might say, “I’m going to get a Coke.” The interpreter module is good at making up explanations, but not at knowing that it has done so.
Split-brain studies were important in psychology because they showed in such an eerie way that the mind is a confederation of modules capable of working independently and even, sometimes, at cross-purposes. Split-brain studies are important for this book because they show in such a dramatic way that one of these modules is good at inventing convincing explanations for your behavior, even when it has no knowledge of the causes of your behavior. Gazzaniga’s “interpreter module” is, essentially, the rider.
Third Division: New vs. Old
The brain started off with just three rooms, or clumps of neurons: a hindbrain (connected to the spinal column), a midbrain, and a forebrain (connected to the sensory organs at the front of the animal). Over time, as more complex bodies and behaviors evolved, the brain kept building out the front, away from the spinal column, expanding the forebrain more than any other part. The forebrain of the earliest mammals developed a new outer shell, which included the hypothalamus (specialized to coordinate basic drives and motivations), the hippocampus (specialized for memory), and the amygdala (specialized for emotional learning and responding). These structures are sometimes referred to as the limbic system (from Latin limbus, “border” or “margin”) because they wrap around the rest of the brain, forming a border.
As mammals grew in size and diversified in behavior (after the dinosaurs became extinct), the remodeling continued. In the more social mammals, particularly among primates, a new layer of neural tissue developed and spread to surround the old limbic system. This neocortex (Latin for “new covering”) is the gray matter characteristic of human brains. The front portion of the neocortex is particularly interesting, for parts of it do not appear to be dedicated to specific tasks (such as moving a finger or processing sound). Instead, it is available to make new associations and to engage in thinking, planning, and decision making—mental processes that can free an organism from responding only to an immediate situation.
This growth of the frontal cortex seems like a promising explanation for the divisions we experience in our minds. And it has taken over control, though not perfectly, from the more primitive limbic system.
Our ancestors were mere animals governed by the primitive emotions and drives of the limbic system until they received the divine gift of reason, installed in the newly expanded neocortex.
The limbic system underlies many of our basic animal instincts. Conversely, when people suffer damage to the frontal cortex, they sometimes show an increase in sexual and aggressive behavior because the frontal cortex plays an important role in suppressing or inhibiting behavioral impulses.
The frontal cortex enabled a great expansion of emotionality in humans. The lower third of the prefrontal cortex is called the orbitofrontal cortex because it is the part of the brain just above the eyes (orbit is the Latin term for the eye socket). This region of the cortex has grown especially large in humans and other primates and is one of the most consistently active areas of the brain during emotional reactions. The orbitofrontal cortex plays a central role when you size up the reward and punishment possibilities of a situation; the neurons in this part of the cortex fire wildly when there is an immediate possibility of pleasure or pain, loss or gain.
Human rationality depends critically on sophisticated emotionality. It is only because our emotional brains works so well that our reasoning can work at all. The metaphor of a rider on an elephant fits Damasio’s findings more closely: Reason and emotion must both work together to create intelligent behavior, but emotion (a major part of the elephant) does most of the work. When the neocortex came along, it made the rider possible, but it made the elephant much smarter, too.
Fourth Division: Controlled vs. Automatic
In the 1990s psychologists began to realize that there are really two processing systems at work in the mind at all times: controlled processes and automatic processes.
After its long infatuation with information processing models and computer metaphors, psychologists began to realize that there are really two processing systems at work in the mind at all times: controlled processes and automatic processes.
Most mental processes happen automatically, without the need for conscious attention or control. Most automatic processes are completely unconscious, although some of them show a part of themselves to consciousness.
Bargh contrasts automatic processes with controlled processes, the kind of thinking that takes some effort, that proceeds in steps and that always plays out on the center stage of consciousness. For example, at what time would you need to leave your house to catch a 6:26 flight to London? That’s something you have to think about consciously, first choosing a means of transport to the airport and then considering rush-hour traffic, weather, and the strictness of the shoe police at the airport. You can’t depart on a hunch. But if you drive to the airport, almost everything you do on the way will be automatic: breathing, blinking, shifting in your seat, daydreaming, keeping enough distance between you and the car in front of you, even scowling and cursing slower drivers.
Controlled processing is limited—we can think consciously about one thing at a time only—but automatic processes run in parallel and can handle many tasks at once. If the mind performs hundreds of operations each second, all but one of them must be handled automatically.
Controlled processing requires language. You can have bits and pieces of thought through images, but to plan something complex, to weigh the pros and cons of different paths, or to analyze the causes of past successes and failures, you need words. Nobody knows how long ago human beings developed language, but most estimates range from around 2 million years ago, when hominid brains became much bigger, to as recently as 40,000 years ago, the time of cave paintings and other artifacts that reveal unmistakably modern human minds. Whichever end of that range you favor, language, reasoning, and conscious planning arrived in the most recent eye-blink of evolution. They are like new software, Rider version 1.0. The language parts work well, but there are still a lot of bugs in the reasoning and planning programs. Automatic processes, on the other hand, have been through thousands of product cycles and are nearly perfect. This difference in maturity between automatic and controlled processes helps explain why we have inexpensive computers that can solve logic, math, and chess problems better than any human beings can (most of us struggle with these tasks), but none of our robots, no matter how costly, can walk through the woods as well as the average six-year-old child (our perceptual and motor systems are superb).
When language evolved, the human brain was not reengineered to hand over the reins of power to the rider (conscious verbal thinking). Things were already working pretty well, and linguistic ability spread to the extent that it helped the elephant do something important in a better way. The rider evolved to serve to the elephant. But whatever its origin, once we had it, language was a powerful tool that could be used in new ways, and evolution then selected those individuals who got the best use out of it.
One use of language is that it partially freed humans from “stimulus control.”
Our brains, like rat brains, are wired so that food and sex give us little bursts of dopamine, the neurotransmitter that is the brain’s way of making us enjoy the activities that are good for the survival of our genes.
The controlled system allows people to think about long-term goals and thereby escape the tyranny of the here-and-now, the automatic triggering of temptation by the sight of tempting objects. People can imagine alternatives that are not visually present; they can weigh long-term health risks against present pleasures, and they can learn in conversation about which choices will bring success and prestige. Unfortunately, the behaviorists were not entirely wrong about people, either. For although the controlled system does not conform to behaviorist principles, it also has relatively little power to cause behavior. The automatic system was shaped by natural selection to trigger quick and reliable action, and it includes parts of the brain that make us feel pleasure and pain (such as the orbitofrontal cortex) and that trigger survivalelated motivations (such as the hypothalamus). The automatic system has its finger on the dopamine release button. The controlled system, in contrast, is better seen as an advisor. It’s a rider placed on the elephant’s back to help the elephant make better choices. The rider can see farther into the future, and the rider can learn valuable information by talking to other riders or by reading maps, but the rider cannot order the elephant around against its will.
The rider is an advisor or servant; not a king, president, or charioteer with a firm grip on the reins. The elephant, in contrast, is everything else. The elephant includes the gut feelings, visceral reactions, emotions, and intuitions that comprise much of the automatic system. The elephant and the rider each have their own intelligence, and when they work together well they enable the unique brilliance of human beings. But they don’t always work together well. Here are three quirks of daily life that illustrate the sometimes complex relationship between the rider and the elephant.
Failures Of Self Control
An emotionally intelligent person has a skilled rider who knows how to distract and coax the elephant without having to engage in a direct contest of wills.
It’s hard for the controlled system to beat the automatic system by willpower alone; like a tired muscle, the former soon wears down and caves in, but the latter runs automatically, effortlessly, and endlessly. Once you understand the power of stimulus control, you can use it to your advantage by changing the stimuli in your environment and avoiding undesirable ones; or, if that’s not possible, by filling your consciousness with thoughts about their less tempting aspects.
In Wegner’s studies, participants are asked to try hard not to think about something, such as a white bear, or food, or a stereotype. This is hard to do. More important, the moment one stops trying to suppress a thought, the thought comes flooding in and becomes even harder to banish. In other words, Wegner creates minor obsessions in his lab by instructing people not to obsess. Wegner explains this effect as an “ironic process” of mental control. When controlled processing tries to influence thought (“Don’t think about a white bear!”), it sets up an explicit goal. And whenever one pursues a goal, a part of the mind automatically monitors progress, so that it can order corrections or know when success has been achieved. When that goal is an action in the world (such as arriving at the airport on time), this feedback system works well. But when the goal is mental, it backfires. Automatic processes continually check: “Am I not thinking about a white bear?” As the act of monitoring for the absence of the thought introduces the thought, the person must try even harder to divert consciousness. Automatic and controlled processes end up working at cross purposes, firing each other up to ever greater exertions. But because controlled processes tire quickly, eventually the inexhaustible automatic processes run unopposed, conjuring up herds of white bears. Thus, the attempt to remove an unpleasant thought can guarantee it a place on your frequent-play list of mental ruminations.
Automatic processes generate thousands of thoughts and images every day, often through random association. The ones that get stuck are the ones that particularly shock us, the ones we try to suppress or deny. The reason we suppress them is not that we know, deep down, that they’re true (although some may be), but that they are scary or shameful. Yet once we have tried and failed to suppress them, they can become the sorts of obsessive thoughts that make us believe in Freudian notions of a dark and evil unconscious mind.
The Difficulty Of Winning An Argument
Moral judgment is like aesthetic judgment. When you see a painting, you usually know instantly and automatically whether you like it. If someone asks you to explain your judgment, you confabulate. You don’t really know why you think something is beautiful, but your interpreter module (the rider) is skilled at making up reasons. Moral arguments are much the same: Two people feel strongly about an issue, their feelings come first, and their reasons are invented on the fly, to throw at each other. When you refute a person’s argument, does she generally change her mind and agree with you? Of course not, because the argument you defeated was not the cause of her position; it was made up after the judgment was already made.
If you listen closely to moral arguments, you can sometimes hear something surprising: that it is really the elephant holding the reins, guiding the rider. It is the elephant who decides what is good or bad, beautiful or ugly. Gut feelings, intuitions, and snap judgments happen constantly and automatically (as Malcolm Gladwell described in Blink), but only the rider can string sentences together and create arguments to give to other people. In moral arguments, the rider goes beyond being just an advisor to the elephant; he becomes a lawyer, fighting in the court of public opinion to persuade others of the elephant’s point of view.
Our minds are loose confederations of parts, but we identify with and pay too much attention to one part: conscious verbal thinking.
Because we can see only one little corner of the mind’s vast operation, we are surprised when urges, wishes, and temptations emerge, seemingly from nowhere. We make pronouncements, vows, and resolutions, and then are surprised by our own powerlessness to carry them out. We sometimes fall into the view that we are fighting with our unconscious, our id, or our animal self. But really we are the whole thing. We are the rider, and we are the elephant. Both have their strengths and special skills.
Chapter 2 -- Changing Your Mind
The whole universe is change and life itself is but what you deem it. —MARCUS AURELIUS
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. —BUDDHA
The most important idea in pop psychology is contained in the two quotations above: Events in the world affect us only through our interpretations of them, so if we can control our interpretations, we can control our world.
The art of pop psychology is to develop a method (beyond lecturing and hectoring) that guides people to that realization.
Lady Philosophy helps him see that adverse fortune is more beneficial than good fortune; the latter only makes men greedy for more, but adversity makes them strong. And she draws Boethius’s imagination far up into the heavens so that he can look down on the Earth and see it as a tiny speck on which even tinier people play out their comical and ultimately insignificant ambitions. She gets him to admit that riches and fame bring anxiety and avarice, not peace and happiness. After being shown these new perspectives and having his old assumptions challenged, Boethius is finally prepared to absorb the greatest lesson of all, the lesson Buddha and Aurelius had taught centuries earlier: “Nothing is miserable unless you think it so; and on the other hand, nothing brings happiness unless you are content with it.” When he takes this lesson to heart, Boethius frees himself from his mental prison. He regains his composure, writes a book that has comforted people for centuries, and faces his death with dignity.
Epiphanies can be life-altering, but most fade in days or weeks. The rider can’t just decide to change and then order the elephant to go along with the program. Lasting change can come only by retraining the elephant, and that’s hard to do. When pop psychology programs are successful in helping people, which they sometimes are, they succeed not because of the initial moment of insight but because they find ways to alter people’s behavior over the following months. They keep people involved with the program long enough to retrain the elephant. This chapter is about why the elephant tends toward worry and pessimism in so many people, and about three tools that the rider can use to retrain it.
The most important words in the elephant’s language are “like” and “dislike,” or “approach” and “withdraw.” Even the simplest animal must make decisions at every moment: Left or right? Go or stop? Eat or don’t eat? Animals with brains complex enough to have emotions make these decisions effortlessly and automatically by having what is sometimes called a “like-o-meter” running in their heads at all times. There’s no need for a weighing of pros and cons, or for a reasoning system. Just flashes of pleasure and displeasure.
We humans have a like-o-meter too, and it’s always running. Its influence is subtle, but careful experiments show that you have a like-dislike reaction to everything you are experiencing, even if you’re not aware of the experience.
For example, suppose you are a participant in an experiment on what is known as “affective priming.” You sit in front of a computer screen and stare at a dot in the center. Every few seconds, a word is flashed over the dot. All you have to do is tap a key with your left hand if the word means something good or likable (such as garden, hope, fun), or tap a key with your right hand if the word means something bad or dislikable (death, tyranny, boredom). It seems easy, but for some reason you find yourself hesitating for a split second on some of the words. Unbeknownst to you, the computer is also flashing up another word, right on the dot, just for a few hundredths of a second before putting up the target word you’re rating.
Though these words are presented subliminally (below the level of your awareness), your intuitive system [the elephant] is so fast that it reads and reacts to them with a like-o-meter rating. If the subliminal word is fear, it would register negative on your like-o-meter, making you feel a tiny flash of displeasure; and then, a split second later, when you see the word boredom, you would more quickly say that boredom is bad. Your negative evaluation of boredom has been facilitated, or “primed,” by your tiny flash of negativity toward fear. If, however, the word following fear is garden, you would take longer to say that garden is good, because of the time it takes for your like-o-meter to shift from bad to good.
The discovery of affective priming in the 1980s opened up a world of indirect measurement in psychology. It became possible to bypass the rider and talk directly to the elephant, and what the elephant has to say is sometimes disturbing. For example, what if, instead of flashing subliminal words, we use photographs of black and white faces? Researchers have found that Americans of all ages, classes, and political affiliations react with a flash of negativity to black faces or to other images and words associated with African-American culture.10 People who report being unprejudiced against blacks show, on average, a slightly smaller automatic prejudice, but apparently the rider and the elephant each have an opinion. (You can test your own elephant at: www.projectimplicit.com.) Even many African Americans show this implicit prejudice, although others show an implicit preference for black faces and names. On balance, African Americans come out with no implicit bias either way.
The unsettling implication of Pelham’s work is that the three biggest decisions most of us make—what to do with our lives, where to live, and whom to marry—can all be influenced (even if only slightly) by something as trivial as the sound of a name. Life is indeed what we deem it, but the deeming happens quickly and unconsciously. The elephant reacts instinctively and steers the rider toward a new destination.
Clinical psychologists sometimes say that two kinds of people seek therapy: those who need tightening, and those who need loosening. But for every patient seeking help in becoming more organized, self-controlled, and responsible about her future, there is a waiting room full of people hoping to loosen up, lighten up, and worry less about the stupid things they said at yesterday’s staff meeting or about the rejection they are sure will follow tomorrow’s lunch date. For most people, the elephant sees too many things as bad and not enough as good.
Responses to threats and unpleasantness are faster, stronger, and harder to inhibit than responses to opportunities and pleasures.
This principle, called “negativity bias,” shows up all over psychology. In marital interactions, it takes at least five good or constructive actions to make up for the damage done by one critical or destructive act. In financial transactions and gambles, the pleasure of gaining a certain amount of money is smaller than the pain of losing the same amount. When preparing a meal, food is easily contaminated (by a single cockroach antenna), but difficult to purify. Over and over again, psychologists find that the human mind reacts to bad things more quickly, strongly, and persistently than to equivalent good things. We can’t just will ourselves to see everything as good because our minds are wired to find and react to threats, violations, and setbacks.
Your behavior is governed by opposing motivational systems: an approach system, which triggers positive emotions and makes you want to move toward certain things; and a withdrawal system, which triggers negative emotions and makes you want to pull back or avoid other things. Both systems are always active, monitoring the environment, and the two systems can produce opposing motives at the same time (as when you feel ambivalence), but their relative balance determines which way you move. (The “like-o-meter” is a metaphor for this balancing process and its subtle moment-by-moment fluctuations.) The balance can shift in an instant: You are drawn by curiosity to an accident scene, but then recoil in horror when you see the blood that you could not have been surprised to see. You want to talk to a stranger, but you find yourself suddenly paralyzed when you approach that person. The withdrawal system can quickly shoot up to full power, overtaking the slower (and generally weaker) approach system.
One reason the withdrawal system is so quick and compelling is that it gets first crack at all incoming information. All neural impulses from the eyes and ears go first to the thalamus, a kind of central switching station in the brain. From the thalamus, neural impulses are sent out to special sensory processing areas in the cortex; and from those areas, information is relayed to the frontal cortex, where it is integrated with other higher mental processes and your ongoing stream of consciousness. If at the end of this process you become aware of a hissing snake in front of you, you could decide to run away and then order your legs to start moving. But because neural impulses move only at about thirty meters per second, this fairly long path, including decision time, could easily take a second or two. It’s easy to see why a neural shortcut would be advantageous, and the amygdala is that shortcut. The amygdala, sitting just under the thalamus, dips into the river of unprocessed information flowing through the thalamus, and it responds to patterns that in the past were associated with danger. The amygdala has a direct connection to the part of the brainstem that activates the fight-or-flight response, and if the amygdala finds a pattern that was part of a previous fear episode (such as the sound of a hiss), it orders the body to red alert.
The brain has no equivalent “green alert” system to notify you instantly of a delicious meal or a likely mate.
The elephant reacts before the rider even sees the snake on the path. Although you can tell yourself that you are not afraid of snakes, if your elephant fears them and rears up, you’ll still be thrown.
One final point about the amygdala: Not only does it reach down to the brainstem to trigger a response to danger but it reaches up to the frontal cortex to change your thinking. It shifts the entire brain over to a withdrawal orientation. There is a two-way street between emotions and conscious thoughts: Thoughts can cause emotions (as when you reflect on a foolish thing you said), but emotions can also cause thoughts, primarily by raising mental filters that bias subsequent information processing. A flash of fear makes you extra vigilant for additional threats; you look at the world through a filter that interprets ambiguous events as possible dangers. A flash of anger toward someone raises a filter through which you see everything the offending person says or does as a further insult or transgression. Feelings of sadness blind you to all pleasures and opportunities.
The Cortical Lottery
When it comes to explaining personality, it’s always true that nature and nurture work together. But it’s also true that nature plays a bigger role than most people realize.
Genes make at least some contribution to nearly every trait. Whether the trait is intelligence, extroversion, fearfulness, religiosity, political leaning, liking for jazz, or dislike of spicy foods, identical twins are more similar than fraternal twins, and they are usually almost as similar if they were separated at birth. Genes are not blueprints specifying the structure of a person; they are better thought of as recipes for producing a person over many years.
Happiness is one of the most highly heritable aspects of personality. Twin studies generally show that from 50 percent to 80 percent of all the variance among people in their average levels of happiness can be explained by differences in their genes rather than in their life experiences.
A person’s average or typical level of happiness is that person’s “affective style.” (“Affect” refers to the felt or experienced part of emotion.) Your affective style reflects the everyday balance of power between your approach system and your withdrawal system, and this balance can be read right from your forehead. It has long been known from studies of brainwaves that most people show an asymmetry: more activity either in the right frontal cortex or in the left frontal cortex. In the late 1980s, Richard Davidson discovered that these asymmetries correlated with a person’s general tendencies to experience positive and negative emotions. People showing more of a certain kind of brainwave coming through the left side of the forehead reported feeling more happiness in their daily lives and less fear, anxiety, and shame than people exhibiting higher activity on the right side. Later research showed that these cortical “lefties” are less subject to depression and recover more quickly from negative experiences.
Having lost out in the cortical lottery, they will struggle all their lives to weaken the grip of an overactive withdrawal system. Once when a friend of mine with a negative affective style was bemoaning her life situation, someone suggested that a move to a different city would suit her well. “No,” she said, “I can be unhappy anywhere.” She might as well have quoted John Milton’s paraphrase of Aurelius: “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” Three Ways To Change Your Mind
You can change your affective style — but again, you can’t do it by sheer force of will. You have to do something that will change your repertoire of available thoughts. Here are three of the best methods for doing so: meditation, cognitive therapy, and Prozac. All three are effective because they work on the elephant.
Suppose you read about a pill that you could take once a day to reduce anxiety and increase your contentment. Would you take it? Suppose further that the pill has a great variety of side effects, all of them good: increased self-esteem, empathy, and trust; it even improves memory. Suppose, finally, that the pill is all natural and costs nothing. Now would you take it?
The pill exists. It is meditation.
There are many kinds of meditation, but they all have in common a conscious attempt to focus attention in a nonanalytical way.
The goal of meditation is to change automatic thought processes, thereby taming the elephant. And the proof of taming is the breaking of attachments.
Meditation is, however, extraordinarily difficult at first, and confronting your repeated failures in the first weeks teaches the rider lessons in humility and patience.
Charles wants money and lives in a constant state of vigilance for chances to make it: He loses sleep over fines, losses, or transactions that he thinks did not get him the best possible deal. Once again, losses loom larger than gains, so even if Charles grows steadily wealthier, thoughts about money may on average give him more unhappiness than happiness.
For Buddha, attachments are like a game of roulette in which someone else spins the wheel and the game is rigged: The more you play, the more you lose. The only way to win is to step away from the table. And the only way to step away, to make yourself not react to the ups and downs of life, is to meditate and tame the mind. Although you give up the pleasures of winning, you also give up the larger pains of losing.
The discovery is that meditation tames and calms the elephant. Meditation done every day for several months can help you reduce substantially the frequency of fearful, negative, and grasping thoughts, thereby improving your affective style. As Buddha said: “When a man knows the solitude of silence, and feels the joy of quietness, he is then free from fear and sin.”
Meditation is a characteristically Eastern solution to the problems of life. Even before Buddha, the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu had said that the road to wisdom runs through calm inaction, desireless waiting. Western approaches to problems more typically involve pulling out a tool box and trying to fix what’s broken. The toolbox was thoroughly modernized in the 1960s by Aaron Beck.
Beck, a psychiatrist at the University of Pennsylvania, had been trained in the Freudian approach in which “the child is father to the man.” Whatever ails you is caused by events in your childhood, and the only way to change yourself now is to dig through repressed memories, come up with a diagnosis, and work through your unresolved conflicts. For depressed patients, however, Beck found little evidence in the scientific literature or in his own clinical practice that this approach was working. The more space he gave them to run through their self-critical thoughts and memories of injustice, the worse they felt. But in the late 1960s, when Beck broke with standard practice and, questioned the legitimacy of his patients’ irrational and self-critical thoughts, the patients often seemed to feel better.
Beck took a chance. He mapped out the distorted thought processes characteristic of depressed people and trained his patients to catch and challenge these thoughts. Beck was scorned by his Freudian colleagues, who thought he was treating the symptoms of depression with Band-Aids while letting the disease rage underneath, but his courage and persistence paid off. He created cognitive therapy, one of the most effective treatments available for depression, anxiety, and many other problems.
As I suggested in the last chapter, we often use reasoning not to find the truth but to invent arguments to support our deep and intuitive beliefs (residing in the elephant). Depressed people are convinced in their hearts of three related beliefs, known as Beck’s “cognitive triad” of depression. These are: “I’m no good,” “My world is bleak,” and “My future is hopeless.” A depressed person’s mind is filled with automatic thoughts supporting these dysfunctional beliefs, particularly when things goes wrong. The thought distortions were so similar across patients that Beck gave them names.
Depressed people are convinced in their hearts of three related beliefs, known as Beck’s “cognitive triad” of depression. These are: “I’m no good,” “My world is bleak,” and “My future is hopeless.” A depressed person’s mind is filled with automatic thoughts supporting these dysfunctional beliefs, particularly when things goes wrong. The thought distortions were so similar across patients that Beck gave them names. Consider the depressed father whose daughter falls down and bangs her head while he is watching her. He instantly flagellates himself with these thoughts: “I’m a terrible father” (this is called “personalization,” or seeing the event as a referendum on the self rather than as a minor medical issue); “Why do I always do such terrible things to my children?” (“overgeneralization” combined with dichotomous “always/never” thinking); “Now she’s going to have brain damage” (“magnification”); “Everyone will hate me” (“arbitrary inference,” or jumping to a conclusion without evidence).
Depressed people are caught in a feedback loop in which distorted thoughts cause negative feelings, which then distort thinking further. Beck’s discovery is that you can break the cycle by changing the thoughts. A big part of cognitive therapy is training clients to catch their thoughts, write them down, name the distortions, and then find alternative and more accurate ways of thinking. Cognitive therapy works because it teaches the rider how to train the elephant rather than how to defeat it directly in an argument. On the first day of therapy, the rider doesn’t realize that the elephant is controlling him, that the elephant’s fears are driving his conscious thoughts. Over time, the client learns to use a set of tools; these include challenging automatic thoughts and engaging in simple tasks, such as going out to buy a newspaper rather than staying in bed all day ruminating. These tasks are often assigned as homework, to be done daily. (The elephant learns best from daily practice; a weekly meeting with a therapist is not enough.) With each reframing, and with each simple task accomplished, the client receives a little reward, a little flash of relief or pleasure. And each flash of pleasure is like a peanut given to an elephant as reinforcement for a new behavior.
Unlike Freud, Beck tested his theories in controlled experiments. People who underwent cognitive therapy for depression got measurably better; they got better faster than people who were put on a waiting list for therapy; and, at least in some studies, they got better faster than those who received other therapies. When cognitive therapy is done very well it is as effective as drugs such as Prozac for the treatment of depression, and its enormous advantage over Prozac is that when cognitive therapy stops, the benefits usually continue because the elephant has been retrained. Prozac, in contrast, works only for as long as you take it.
Prozac is controversial for at least two reasons. First, it is a shortcut. In most studies, Prozac turns out to be just about as effective as cognitive therapy—sometimes a little more, sometimes a little less—but it’s so much easier than therapy. No daily homework or difficult new skills; no weekly therapy appointment. If you believe in the Protestant work ethic and the maxim “No pain, no gain,” then you might be disturbed by Prozac. Second, Prozac does more than just relieve symptoms; it sometimes changes personality. It’s easy for those who did well in the cortical lottery to preach about the importance of hard work and the unnaturalness of chemical shortcuts. But for those who, through no fault of their own, ended up on the negative half of the affective style spectrum, Prozac is a way to compensate for the unfairness of the cortical lottery. Furthermore, it’s easy for those who believe that the body is a temple to say that cosmetic psychopharmacology is a kind of sacrilege. Something is indeed lost when psychiatrists no longer listen to their patients as people, but rather as a car mechanic would listen to an engine, looking only for clues about which knob to adjust next. But if the hippocampal theory of Prozac is correct, many people really do need a mechanical adjustment. It’s as though they had been driving for years with the emergency brake halfway engaged, and it might be worth a five-week experiment to see what happens to their lives when the brake is released. Framed in this way, Prozac for the “worried well” is no longer just cosmetic. It is more like giving contact lenses to a person with poor but functional eyesight who has learned ways of coping with her limitations. Far from being a betrayal of that person’s “true self,” contact lenses can be a reasonable shortcut to proper functioning.
My research indicates that a small set of innate moral intuitions guide and constrain the world’s many moralities, and one of these intuitions is that the body is a temple housing a soul within.45 Even people who do not consciously believe in God or the soul are offended by or feel uncomfortable about someone who treats her body like a playground, its sole purpose to provide pleasure. A shy woman who gets a nose job, breast augmentation, twelve body piercings, and a prescription for elective Prozac would be as shocking to many people as a minister who remodels his church to look like an Ottoman harem.
It’s easy for those who did well in the cortical lottery to preach about the importance of hard work and the unnaturalness of chemical shortcuts. But for those who, through no fault of their own, ended up on the negative half of the affective style spectrum, Prozac is a way to compensate for the unfairness of the cortical lottery. Furthermore, it’s easy for those who believe that the body is a temple to say that cosmetic psychopharmacology is a kind of sacrilege. Something is indeed lost when psychiatrists no longer listen to their patients as people, but rather as a car mechanic would listen to an engine, looking only for clues about which knob to adjust next. But if the hippocampal theory of Prozac is correct, many people really do need a mechanical adjustment. It’s as though they had been driving for years with the emergency brake halfway engaged, and it might be worth a five-week experiment to see what happens to their lives when the brake is released. Framed in this way, Prozac for the “worried well” is no longer just cosmetic. It is more like giving contact lenses to a person with poor but functional eyesight who has learned ways of coping with her limitations.
Conclusion Of Chapter 2
Life is what we deem it, and our lives are the creations of our minds. But these claims are not helpful until augmented by a theory of the divided self (such as the rider and the elephant) and an understanding of negativity bias and affective style. Once you know why change is so hard, you can drop the brute force method and take a more psychologically sophisticated approach to self-improvement. Buddha got it exactly right: You need a method for taming the elephant, for changing your mind gradually. Meditation, cognitive therapy, and Prozac are three effective means of doing so. Because each will be effective for some people and not for others, I believe that all three should be readily available and widely publicized. Life itself is but what you deem it, and you can—through meditation, cognitive therapy, and Prozac—redeem yourself.
OUR SOCIAL LIVES (CHAPTERS 3 AND 4)
The second step in the story is to give an account of our social lives — not a complete account, just two truths, widely known but not sufficiently appreciated. One is the Golden Rule. Reciprocity is the most important tool for getting along with people, and I’ll show you how you can use it to solve problems in your own life and avoid being exploited by those who use reciprocity against you. However, reciprocity is more than just a tool. It is also a clue about who we humans are and what we need, a clue that will be important for understanding the end of the larger story.
The second truth in this part of the story is that we are all, by nature, hypocrites, and this is why it is so hard for us to follow the Golden Rule faithfully. Recent psychological research has uncovered the mental mechanisms that make us so good at seeing the slightest speck in our neighbor’s eye, and so bad at seeing the log in our own. If you know what your mind is up to, and why you so easily see the world through a distorting lens of good and evil, you can take steps to reduce your self-righteousness. You can thereby reduce the frequency of conflicts with others who are equally convinced of their righteousness.
Chapter 3 -- Reciprocity With A Vengeance
Zigong asked: “Is there any single word that could guide one’s entire life?” The master said: “Should it not be reciprocity? What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others.” —ANALECTS OF CONFUCIUS
That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow; this, in a few words, is the entire Torah; all the rest is but an elaboration of this one, central point. —RABBI HILLEL, 1ST CENT. BCE
When the sages pick a single word or principle to elevate above all others, the winner is almost always either “love” or “reciprocity.” Chapter 6 will cover love; this chapter is about reciprocity. Both are, ultimately, about the same thing: the bonds that tie us to one another.
We see the world through the lens of reciprocity. Reciprocity is a deep instinct; it is the basic currency of social life.
In this chapter I’ll explain how we came to adopt reciprocity as our social currency, and how you can spend it wisely.
Animals that live in large peaceful societies seem to violate the laws of evolution (such as competition and survival of the fittest), but only until you learn a bit more about evolution. Ultrasociality—living in large cooperative societies in which hundreds or thousands of individuals reap the benefits of an extensive division of labor—evolved independently at least four times in the animal kingdom: among hymenoptera (ants, bees, and wasps); termites; naked mole rats; and humans. In each case, a feature possessing potentially cooperation-enhancing properties already existed. For all the nonhuman ultrasocial species, that feature was the genetics of kin altruism. It’s obvious that animals will risk their lives for the safety of their own children: The only way to “win” at the game of evolution is to leave surviving copies of your genes. Yet not just your children carry copies of your genes. Your siblings are just as closely related to you (50 percent shared genes) as your children; your nephews and nieces share a quarter of your genes, and your cousins one eighth.
Because nearly all animals that live in cooperative groups live in groups of close relatives, most altruism in the animal kingdom reflects the simple axiom that shared genes equals shared interests. Here’s where the ancestors of bees, termites, and mole rats took the common mechanism of kin altruism, which makes many species sociable, and parlayed it into the foundation of their uncommon ultrasociality: They are all siblings.
The human mind finds kinship deeply appealing, and kin altruism surely underlies the cultural ubiquity of nepotism. But even in the mafia, kin altruism can take you only so far. At some point you have to work with people who are at best distant relations, and to do so you’d better have another trick up your sleeve.
People have a mindless, automatic reciprocity reflex.
Cialdini sees human reciprocity as a similar ethological reflex: a person receives a favor from an acquaintance and wants to repay the favor. The person will even repay an empty favor from a stranger.
The person is responding to the meaning of a situation with a motivation that can be satisfied by a variety of bodily movements executed days later. So what is really built into the person is a strategy: Play tit for tat. Do to others what they do unto you. Specifically, the tit-for-tat strategy is to be nice on the first round of interaction; but after that, do to your partner whatever your partner did to you on the previous round.10 Tit for tat takes us way beyond kin altruism. It opens the possibility of forming cooperative relationships with strangers.
Most interactions among animals (other than close kin) are zero-sum games: One animal’s gain is the other’s loss. But life is full of situations in which cooperation would expand the pie to be shared if only a way could be found to cooperate without being exploited. Animals that hunt are particularly vulnerable to the variability of success: They may find far more food than they can eat in one day, and then find no food at all for three weeks. Animals that can trade their surplus on a day of plenty for a loan on a day of need are much more likely to survive the vagaries of chance. Vampire bats, for example, will regurgitate blood from a successful night of bloodsucking into the mouth of an unsuccessful and genetically unrelated peer. Such behavior seems to violate the spirit of Darwinian competition, except that the bats keep track of who has helped them in the past, and in return they share primarily with those bats. Bats play tit for tat, and so do other social animals, particularly those that live in relatively small, stable groups where individuals can recognize each other as individuals.
But if the response to noncooperation is just noncooperation on the next round, then tit for tat can unite groups of only a few hundred. In a large enough group, a cheating vampire bat can beg a meal from a different successful bat each night and, when they come to him pleading for a return favor, just wrap his wings around his head and pretend to be asleep. What are they going to do to him? Well, if these were people rather than bats, we know what they’d do: They’d beat the hell out of him.
Vengeance and gratitude are moral sentiments that amplify and enforce tit for tat. Vengeful and grateful feelings appear to have evolved precisely because they are such useful tools for helping individuals create cooperative relationships, thereby reaping the gains from non-zero-sum games. A species equipped with vengeance and gratitude responses can support larger and more cooperative social groups because the payoff to cheaters is reduced by the costs they bear in making enemies. Conversely, the benefits of generosity are increased because one gains friends.
Tit for tat appears to be built into human nature as a set of moral emotions that make us want to return favor for favor, insult for insult, tooth for tooth, and eye for eye. Gratitude and vengefulness are big steps on the road that led to human ultrasociality, and it’s important to realize that they are two sides of one coin.
People’s ultimate response—accept or reject—could be predicted by looking at the state of their brains moments before they pressed a button to make a choice. Those subjects who showed more activation in the insula than in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex generally went on to reject the unfair offer; those with the reverse pattern generally accepted it. (It’s no wonder that marketers, political consultants, and the CIA are so interested in neural imaging and “neuromarketing.”)
The Importance of Gossip
Gossip is another key piece in the puzzle of how humans became ultrasocial. It might also be the reason we have such large heads.
Our brain accounts for 2 percent of our body weight but consumes 20 percent of our energy. Human brains grow so large that human beings must be born prematurely18 (at least, compared to other mammals, who are born when their brains are more or less ready to control their bodies), and even then they can barely make it through the birth canal. Once out of the womb, these giant brains attached to helpless baby bodies require somebody to carry them around for a year or two. The tripling of human brain size from the time of our last common ancestor with chimpanzees to today imposed tremendous costs on parents, so there must have been a very good reason to do it.
The only theory that explains why animals in general have particular brain sizes is the one that maps brain size onto social group size. Robin Dunbar has demonstrated that within a given group of vertebrate species—primates, carnivores, ungulates, birds, reptiles, or fish—the logarithm of the brain size is almost perfectly proportional to the logarithm of the social group size. In other words, all over the animal kingdom, brains grow to manage larger and larger groups. Social animals are smart animals.
Language allows small groups of people to bond quickly and to learn from each other about the bonds of others. Dunbar notes that people do in fact use language primarily to talk about other people—to find out who is doing what to whom, who is coupling with whom, who is fighting with whom. And Dunbar points out that in our ultrasocial species, success is largely a matter of playing the social game well. It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. In short, Dunbar proposes that language evolved because it enabled gossip. Individuals who could share social information, using any primitive means of communication, had an advantage over those who could not. And once people began gossiping, there was a runaway competition to master the arts of social manipulation, relationship aggression, and reputation management, all of which require yet more brain power.
Gossip creates a non-zero-sum game because it costs us nothing to give each other information, yet we both benefit by receiving information.
Gossip is overwhelmingly critical, and it is primarily about the moral and social violations of others. (For college students, this meant a lot of talk about the sexuality, cleanliness, and drinking habits of their friends and roommates.) People do occasionally tell stories about the good deeds of others, but such stories are only one tenth as common as stories about transgressions. When people pass along high-quality (“juicy”) gossip, they feel more powerful, they have a better shared sense of what is right and what’s wrong, and they feel more closely connected to their gossip partners.
Gossip is underappreciated. In a world with no gossip, people would not get away with murder but they would get away with a trail of rude, selfish, and antisocial acts, often oblivious to their own violations. Gossip extends our moral-emotional toolkit. In a gossipy world, we don’t just feel vengeance and gratitude toward those who hurt or help us; we feel pale but still instructive flashes of contempt and anger toward people whom we might not even know. We feel vicarious shame and embarrassment when we hear about people whose schemes, lusts, and private failings are exposed. Gossip is a policeman and a teacher. Without it, there would be chaos and ignorance.22 Many species reciprocate, but only humans gossip, and much of what we gossip about is the value of other people as partners for reciprocal relationships.
Gossip and reputation make sure that what goes around comes around—a person who is cruel will find that others are cruel back to him, and a person who is kind will find that other others are kind in return. Gossip paired with reciprocity allow karma to work here on earth, not in the next life. As long as everyone plays tit-for-tat augmented by gratitude, vengeance, and gossip, the whole system should work beautifully.
If you get something for nothing, part of you may be pleased, but part of you (part of the elephant—automatic processes) moves your hand to your wallet to give something back.
In financial bargaining, too, people who stake out an extreme first position and then move toward the middle end up doing better than those who state a more reasonable first position and then hold fast. And the extreme offer followed by concession doesn’t just get you a better price, it gets you a happier partner (or victim): She is more likely to honor the agreement because she feels that she had more influence on the outcome. The very process of give and take creates a feeling of partnership, even in the person being taken. So the next time a salesman gives you a free gift or consultation, or makes a concession of any sort, duck. Don’t let him press your reciprocity button. The best way out, Cialdini advises, is to fight reciprocity with reciprocity. If you can reappraise the salesman’s move for what it is—an effort to exploit you—you’ll feel entitled to exploit him right back. Accept the gift or concession with a feeling of victory—you are exploiting an exploiter—not mindless obligation.
Relationships are exquisitely sensitive to balance in their early stages, and a great way to ruin things is either to give too much (you seem perhaps a bit desperate) or too little (you seem cold and rejecting). Rather, relationships grow best by balanced give and take, especially of gifts, favors, attention, and self-disclosure. The first three are somewhat obvious, but people often don’t realize the degree to which the disclosure of personal information is a gambit in the dating game. When someone tells you about past romantic relationships, there is conversational pressure for you to do the same. If this disclosure card is played too early, you might feel ambivalence—your reciprocity reflex makes you prepare your own matching disclosure, but some other part of you resists sharing intimate details with a near-stranger. But when it’s played at the right time, the past-relationships-mutual-disclosure conversation can be a memorable turning point on the road to love.
Reciprocity is an all-purpose relationship tonic. Used properly, it strengthens, lengthens, and rejuvenates social ties. It works so well in part because the elephant is a natural mimic.
Mimicry is a kind of social glue, a way of saying “We are one.” The unifying pleasures of mimicry are particularly clear in synchronized activities, such as line dances, group cheers, and some religious rituals, in which people try to do the same thing at the same time. A theme of the rest of this book is that humans are partially hive creatures, like bees, yet in the modern world we spend nearly all our time outside of the hive. Reciprocity, like love, reconnects us with others.
Chapter 4: The Faults Of Others
Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? . . . You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. —MATTHEW 7:3-5
It is easy to see the faults of others, but difficult to see one’s own faults. One shows the faults of others like chaff winnowed in the wind, but one conceals one’s own faults as a cunning gambler conceals his dice. —BUDDHA
Scandal is great entertainment because it allows people to feel contempt, a moral emotion that gives feelings of moral superiority while asking nothing in return. With contempt you don’t need to right the wrong (as with anger) or flee the scene (as with fear or disgust). And best of all, contempt is made to share. Stories about the moral failings of others are among the most common kinds of gossip,3 they are a staple of talk radio, and they offer a ready way for people to show that they share a common moral orientation. Tell an acquaintance a cynical story that ends with both of you smirking and shaking your heads and voila, you’ve got a bond.
One of the most universal pieces of advice from across cultures and eras is that we are all hypocrites, and in our condemnation of others’ hypocrisy we only compound our own. Social psychologists have recently isolated the mechanisms that make us blind to the logs in our own eyes. The moral implications of these findings are disturbing; indeed, they challenge our greatest moral certainties. But the implications can be liberating, too, freeing you from destructive moralism and divisive self-righteousness.
The Importance of Appearance
In real life you don’t react to what someone did; you react only to what you think she did, and the gap between action and perception is bridged by the art of impression management. If life itself is but what you deem it, then why not focus your efforts on persuading others to believe that you are a virtuous and trustworthy cooperator? Thus Niccolo Machiavelli, whose name has become synonymous with the cunning and amoral use of power, wrote five hundred years ago that “the great majority of mankind are satisfied with appearances, as though they were realities, and are often more influenced by the things that seem than by those that are.” The Machiavellian version of tit for tat, for example, is to do all you can to cultivate the reputation of a trustworthy yet vigilant partner, whatever the reality may be.
People who think they are particularly moral are in fact more likely to “do the right thing” and flip the coin, but when the coin flip comes out against them, they find a way to ignore it and follow their own self-interest. Batson called this tendency to value the appearance of morality over the reality “moral hypocrisy.”
It is easy to spot a cheater when our eyes are looking outward, but hard when looking inward. Folk wisdom from around the world concurs: "Though you see the seven defects of others, we do not see our own ten defects." (Japanese proverb). "A he-goat doesn’t realize that he smells. " (Nigerian proverb)
What’s not so obvious is that, in nearly all these studies, people don’t think they are doing anything wrong. It’s the same in real life. From the person who cuts you off on the highway all the way to the Nazis who ran the concentration camps, most people think they are good people and that their actions are motivated by good reasons. Machiavellian tit for tat requires devotion to appearances, including protestations of one’s virtue even when one chooses vice. And such protestations are most effective when the person making them really believes them.
As Robert Wright put it in his masterful book The Moral Animal, “Human beings are a species splendid in their array of moral equipment, tragic in their propensity to misuse it, and pathetic in their constitutional ignorance of the misuse.” If Wright is correct about our “constitutional ignorance” of our hypocrisy, then the sages’ admonition to stop smirking may be no more effective than telling a depressed person to snap out of it. You can’t change your mental filters by willpower alone; you have to engage in activities such as meditation or cognitive therapy that train the elephant. But at least a depressed person will usually admit she’s depressed. Curing hypocrisy is much harder because part of the problem is that we don’t believe there’s a problem. We are well-armed for battle in a Machiavellian world of reputation manipulation, and one of our most important weapons is the delusion that we are non-combatants. How do we get away with it?
Finding your Inner Lawyer
In my studies of moral judgment, I have found that people are skilled at finding reasons to support their gut feelings: The rider acts like a lawyer whom the elephant has hired to represent it in the court of public opinion.
One of the reasons people are often contemptuous of lawyers is that they fight for a client’s interests, not for the truth. To be a good lawyer, it often helps to be a good liar. Although many lawyers won’t tell a direct lie, most will do what they can to hide inconvenient facts while weaving a plausible alternative story for the judge and jury, a story that they sometimes know is not true. Our inner lawyer works in the same way, but, somehow, we actually believe the stories he makes up.
Studies of everyday reasoning show that the elephant is not an inquisitive client. When people are given difficult questions to think about—for example, whether the minimum wage should be raised—they generally lean one way or the other right away, and then put a call in to reasoning to see whether support for that position is forthcoming.
Most people gave no real evidence for their positions, and most made no effort to look for evidence opposing their initial positions. David Perkins, a Harvard psychologist who has devoted his career to improving reasoning, found the same thing. He says that thinking generally uses the “makessense” stopping rule. We take a position, look for evidence that supports it, and if we find some evidence—enough so that our position “makes sense”—we stop thinking. But at least in a low-pressure situation such as this, if someone else brings up reasons and evidence on the other side, people can be induced to change their minds; they just don’t make an effort to do such thinking for themselves.
Studies of “motivated reasoning” show that people who are motivated to reach a particular conclusion are even worse reasoners than those in Kuhn’s and Perkins’s studies, but the mechanism is basically the same: a one-sided search for supporting evidence only.
People who are told that they have performed poorly on a test of social intelligence think extra hard to find reasons to discount the test; people who are asked to read a study showing that one of their habits—such as drinking coffee—is unhealthy think extra hard to find flaws in the study, flaws that people who don’t drink coffee don’t notice. Over and over again, studies show that people set out on a cognitive mission to bring back reasons to support their preferred belief or action. And because we are usually successful in this mission, we end up with the illusion of objectivity. We really believe that our position is rationally and objectively justified.
How to Win at the Social Life Game
I don’t want to blame everything on the lawyer. The lawyer is, after all, the rider—your conscious, reasoning self; and he is taking orders from the elephant—your automatic and unconscious self. The two are in cahoots to win at the game of life by playing Machiavellian tit for tat, and both are in denial about it.
To win at this game you must present your best possible self to others. You must appear virtuous, whether or not you are, and you must gain the benefits of cooperation whether or not you deserve them. But everyone else is playing the same game, so you must also play defense—you must be wary of others’ self-presentations, and of their efforts to claim more for themselves than they deserve. Social life is therefore always a game of social comparison. We must compare ourselves to other people, and our actions to their actions, and we must somehow spin those comparisons in our favor. The consistent finding of psychological research is that we are fairly accurate in our perceptions of others. It’s our self-perceptions that are distorted because we look at ourselves in a rose-colored mirror.
In Garrison Keillor’s mythical town of Lake Wobegon, all the women are strong, all the men good looking, and all the children above average. But if the Wobegonians were real people, they would go further: Most of them would believe they were stronger, better looking, or smarter than the average Wobegonian.
We judge others by their behavior, but we think we have special information about ourselves—we know what we are “really like” inside, so we can easily find ways to explain away our selfish acts and cling to the illusion that we are better than others.
Ambiguity abets the illusion. For many traits, such as leadership, there are so many ways to define it that one is free to pick the criterion that will most flatter oneself. If I’m confident, I can define leadership as confidence. If I think I’m high on people skills, I can define leadership as the ability to understand and influence people. When comparing ourselves to others, the general process is this: Frame the question (unconsciously, automatically) so that the trait in question is related to a self-perceived strength, then go out and look for evidence that you have the strength. Once you find a piece of evidence, once you have a “makes-sense” story, you are done. You can stop thinking, and revel in your self-esteem. It’s no wonder, then, that in a study of 1 million American high school students, 70 percent thought they were above average on leadership ability, but only 2 percent thought they were below average. Everyone can find some skill that might be construed as related to leadership, and then find some piece of evidence that one has that skill. But when there is little room for ambiguity—how tall are you? how good are you at juggling?—people tend to be much more modest.
If the only effect of these rampant esteem-inflating biases was to make people feel good about themselves, they would not be a problem. In fact, evidence shows that people who hold pervasive positive illusions about themselves, their abilities, and their future prospects are mentally healthier, happier, and better liked than people who lack such illusions. But such biases can make people feel that they deserve more than they do, thereby setting the stage for endless disputes with other people who feel equally over-entitled.
As with other kinds of social comparison, ambiguity allows us to set up the comparison in ways that favor ourselves, and then to seek evidence that shows we are excellent co-operators. Studies of such “unconscious overclaiming” show that when husbands and wives estimate the percentage of housework each does, their estimates total more than 120 percent. When MBA students in a work group make estimates of their contributions to the team, the estimates total 139 percent. Whenever people form cooperative groups, which are usually of mutual benefit, self-serving biases threaten to fill group members with mutual resentment.
Naive Realism (I'm Right, You're Biased)
Vast societal resources are expended on litigation, labor strikes, divorce disputes, and violence after failed peace talks because the same self-serving biases are at work fomenting hypocritical indignation. In these high-pressure situations, the lawyers (real and metaphorical) are working round the clock to spin and distort the case in their clients’ favor.
People really are open to information that will predict the behavior of others, but they refuse to adjust their self-assessments.
When subjects read the essay about self-serving biases and were then asked to write an essay about weaknesses in their own case, their previous righteousness was shaken. Subjects in this study were just as fair-minded as those who learned their identities at the last minute. But before you get too optimistic about this technique for reducing hypocrisy, you should realize that Loewenstein was asking subjects to find weaknesses in their cases—in the positions they were arguing for—not in their characters. When you try to persuade people to look at their own personal picture, they put up a much bigger fight.
Emily Pronin at Princeton and Lee Ross at Stanford trace this resistance to a phenomenon they call “naive realism”: Each of us thinks we see the world directly, as it really is. We further believe that the facts as we see them are there for all to see, therefore others should agree with us. If they don’t agree, it follows either that they have not yet been exposed to the relevant facts or else that they are blinded by their interests and ideologies.
It just seems plain as day, to the naive realist, that everyone is influenced by ideology and self-interest. Except for me. I see things as they are.
If I could nominate one candidate for “biggest obstacle to world peace and social harmony,” it would be naive realism because it is so easily ratcheted up from the individual to the group level: My group is right because we see things as they are. Those who disagree are obviously biased by their religion, their ideology, or their self-interest. Naive realism gives us a world full of good and evil, and this brings us to the most disturbing implication of the sages’ advice about hypocrisy: Good and evil do not exist outside of our beliefs about them.
The problem of evil has bedeviled many religions since their birth. If God is all good and all powerful, either he allows evil to flourish (which means he is not all good), or else he struggles against evil (which means he is not all powerful).
“Our life is the creation of our mind,” as Buddha said, and our minds evolved to play Machiavellian tit for tat. We all commit selfish and shortsighted acts, but our inner lawyer ensures that we do not blame ourselves or our allies for them. We are thus convinced of our own virtue, but quick to see bias, greed, and duplicity in others. We are often correct about others’ motives, but as any conflict escalates we begin to exaggerate grossly, to weave a story in which pure virtue (our side) is in a battle with pure vice (theirs).
The Myth Of Pure Evil
In Evil: Inside Human Cruelty and Aggression, Baumeister examined evil from the perspective of both victim and perpetrator. When taking the perpetrator’s perspective, he found that people who do things we see as evil, from spousal abuse all the way to genocide, rarely think they are doing anything wrong. They almost always see themselves as responding to attacks and provocations in ways that are justified. They often think that they themselves are victims.
Almost everywhere Baumeister looked in the research literature, he found that victims often shared some of the blame. Most murders result from an escalating cycle of provocation and retaliation; often, the corpse could just as easily have been the murderer. In half of all domestic disputes, both sides used violence.
People usually have reasons for committing violence, and those reasons usually involve retaliation for a perceived injustice, or self-defense. This does not mean that both sides are equally to blame: Perpetrators often grossly overreact and misinterpret (using self-serving biases). But Baumeister’s point is that we have a deep need to understand violence and cruelty through what he calls “the myth of pure evil.” Of this myth’s many parts, the most important are that evildoers are pure in their evil motives (they have no motives for their actions beyond sadism and greed); victims are pure in their victimhood (they did nothing to bring about their victimization); and evil comes from outside and is associated with a group or force that attacks our group.
The myth of pure evil is the ultimate self-serving bias, the ultimate form of naive realism. And it is the ultimate cause of most long-running cycles of violence because both sides use it to lock themselves into a Manichaean struggle (a struggle between Good and Evil).
In another unsettling conclusion, Baumeister found that violence and cruelty have four main causes. The first two are obvious attributes of evil: greed/ambition (violence for direct personal gain, as in robbery) and sadism (pleasure in hurting people). But greed/ambition explains only a small portion of violence, and sadism explains almost none. Outside of children’s cartoons and horror films, people almost never hurt others for the sheer joy of hurting someone. The two biggest causes of evil are two that we think are good, and that we try to encourage in our children: high self-esteem and moral idealism. Having high self-esteem doesn’t directly cause violence, but when someone’s high esteem is unrealistic or narcissistic, it is easily threatened by reality; in reaction to those threats, people—particularly young men—often lash out violently.
Threatened self-esteem accounts for a large portion of violence at the individual level, but to really get a mass atrocity going you need idealism—the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end. The major atrocities of the twentieth century were carried out largely either by men who thought they were creating a utopia or else by men who believed they were defending their homeland or tribe from attack. Idealism easily becomes dangerous because it brings with it, almost inevitably, the belief that the ends justify the means.
When people have strong moral feelings about a controversial issue—when they have a “moral mandate”—they care much less about procedural fairness in court cases. They want the “good guys” freed by any means, and the “bad guys” convicted by any means.
Finding The Great Way
The anthropologist Clifford Geertz wrote that “man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun.” That is, the world we live in is not really one made of rocks, trees, and physical objects; it is a world of insults, opportunities, status symbols, betrayals, saints, and sinners. All of these are human creations which, though real in their own way, are not real in the way that rocks and trees are real. These human creations are like fairies in J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan: They exist only if you believe in them. They are the Matrix (from the movie of that name); they are a consensual hallucination.
The inner lawyer, the rose-colored mirror, naive realism, and the myth of pure evil—these mechanisms all conspire to weave for us a web of significance upon which angels and demons fight it out. Our ever-judging minds then give us constant flashes of approval and disapproval, along with the certainty that we are on the side of the angels. From this vantage point it all seems so silly, all this moralism, righteousness, and hypocrisy. It’s beyond silly; it is tragic, for it suggests that human beings will never achieve a state of lasting peace and harmony.
So what can you do about it? The first step is to see it as a game and stop taking it so seriously. The great lesson that comes out of ancient India is that life as we experience it is a game called “samsara.” It is a game in which each person plays out his “dharma,” his role or part in a giant play. In the game of samsara, good things happen to you, and you are happy. Then bad things happen, and you are sad or angry. And so it goes, until you die. Then you are reborn back into it, and it repeats. The message of the Bhagavad Gita (a central text of Hinduism) is that you can’t quit the game entirely; you have a role to play in the functioning of the universe, and you must play that role. But you should do it in the right way, without being attached to the “fruits” or outcomes of your action. Buddha went a step further. He, too, counseled indifference to the ups and downs of life, but he urged that we quit the game entirely. Buddhism is a set of practices for escaping samsara and the endless cycle of rebirth.
Judgmentalism is indeed a disease of the mind: it leads to anger, torment, and conflict. But it is also the mind’s normal condition—the elephant is always evaluating, always saying “Like it” or “Don’t like it.” So how can you change your automatic reactions? You know by now that you can’t simply resolve to stop judging others or to stop being a hypocrite. But, as Buddha taught, the rider can gradually learn to tame the elephant, and meditation is one way to do so. Meditation has been shown to make people calmer, less reactive to the ups and downs and petty provocations of life. Meditation is the Eastern way of training yourself to take things philosophically.
Cognitive therapy works, too. In Feeling Good, a popular guide to cognitive therapy, David Burns has written a chapter on cognitive therapy for anger. He advises using many of the same techniques that Aaron Beck used for depression: Write down your thoughts, learn to recognize the distortions in your thoughts, and then think of a more appropriate thought. Burns focuses on the should statements we carry around—ideas about how the world should work, and about how people should treat us. Violations of these should statements are the major causes of anger and resentment. Burns also advises empathy: In a conflict, look at the world from your opponent’s point of view, and you’ll see that she is not entirely crazy.
A better place to start is, as Jesus advised, with yourself and the log in your own eye. (Batson and Loewenstein both found that debiasing occurred only when subjects were forced to look at themselves.) And you will see the log only if you set out on a deliberate and effortful quest to look for it.
When you first catch sight of a fault in yourself, you’ll likely hear frantic arguments from your inner lawyer excusing you and blaming others, but try not to listen. You are on a mission to find at least one thing that you did wrong. When you extract a splinter it hurts, briefly, but then you feel relief, even pleasure. When you find a fault in yourself it will hurt, briefly, but if you keep going and acknowledge the fault, you are likely to be rewarded with a flash of pleasure that is mixed, oddly, with a hint of pride. It is the pleasure of taking responsibility for your own behavior. It is the feeling of honor.
Finding fault with yourself is also the key to overcoming the hypocrisy and
judgmentalism that damage so many valuable relationships.
The human mind may have been shaped by evolutionary processes to play Machiavellian tit for tat, and it seems to come equipped with cognitive processes that predispose us to hypocrisy, self-righteousness, and moralistic conflict. But sometimes, by knowing the mind’s structure and strategies, we can step out of the ancient game of social manipulation and enter into a game of our choosing. By seeing the log in your own eye you can become less biased, less moralistic, and therefore less inclined toward argument and conflict. You can begin to follow the perfect way, the path to happiness that leads through acceptance, which is the subject of the next chapter.
WHERE DOES HAPPINESS COME FROM? (CHAPTERS 5 AND 6)
At this point in the story, we’re ready to ask: Where does happiness come from? There are several different “happiness hypotheses.” One is that happiness comes from getting what you want, but we all know (and research confirms) that such happiness is short-lived. A more promising hypothesis is that happiness comes from within and cannot be obtained by making the world conform to your desires. This idea was widespread in the ancient world: Buddha in India and the Stoic philosophers in ancient Greece and Rome all counseled people to break their emotional attachments to people and events, which are always unpredictable and uncontrollable, and to cultivate instead an attitude of acceptance. This ancient idea deserves respect, and it is certainly true that changing your mind is usually a more effective response to frustration than is changing the world. However, I will present evidence that this second version of the happiness hypothesis is wrong. Recent research shows that there are some things worth striving for; there are external conditions of life that can make you lastingly happier. One of these conditions is relatedness—the bonds we form, and need to form, with others. I’ll present research showing where love comes from, why passionate love always cools, and what kind of love is “true” love. I’ll suggest that the happiness hypothesis offered by Buddha and the Stoics should be amended: Happiness comes from within, and happiness comes from without. We need the guidance of both ancient wisdom and modern science to get the balance right.
Chapter 5: The Pursuit of Happiness
Do not seek to have events happen as you want them to, but instead want them to happen as they do happen, and your life will go well. —EPICTETUS
If money or power could buy happiness, then the author of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes should have been overjoyed.
But in what may be one of the earliest reports of a midlife crisis, the author finds it all pointless: Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun. (ECCLESIASTES 2:11)
The author tells us about many other avenues he pursued—hard work, learning, wine—but nothing brought satisfaction; nothing could banish the feeling that his life had no more intrinsic worth or purpose than that of an animal.
From the perspective of Buddha and the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, the author’s problem is obvious: his pursuit of happiness.
Buddhism and Stoicism teach that striving for external goods, or to make the world conform to your wishes, is always a striving after wind. Happiness can only be found within, by breaking attachments to external things and cultivating an attitude of acceptance. (Stoics and Buddhists can have relationships, jobs, and possessions, but, to avoid becoming upset upon losing them, they must not be emotionally attached to them.) This idea is of course an extension of Marcus Aurelius’ quote: life itself is but what you deem it, and your mental state determines how you deem things.
But recent research in psychology suggests that Buddha and Epictetus may have taken things too far. Some things are worth striving for, and happiness comes in part from outside of yourself, if you know where to look.
The Progress Principle
The pleasure of getting what you want is often fleeting. You dream about getting a promotion, being accepted into a prestigious school, or finishing a big project. You work every waking hour, perhaps imagining how happy you’d be if you could just achieve that goal. Then you succeed, and if you’re lucky you get an hour, maybe a day, of euphoria, particularly if your success was unexpected and there was a moment in which it was revealed (. . . the envelope, please). More typically, however, you don’t get any euphoria. When success seems increasingly probable and some final event confirms what you already had begun to expect, the feeling is more one of relief—the pleasure of closure and release. In such circumstances, my first thought is seldom “Hooray! Fantastic!”; it is “Okay, what do I have to do now?”
My underjoyed response to success turns out to be normal. And from an evolutionary point of view, it’s even sensible. Animals get a rush of dopamine, the pleasure neurotransmitter, whenever they do something that advances their evolutionary interests and moves them ahead in the game of life. Food and sex give pleasure, and that pleasure serves as a reinforcer (in behaviorist terms) that motivates later efforts to find food and sex. For humans, however, the game is more complex. People win at the game of life by achieving high status and a good reputation, cultivating friendships, finding the best mate(s), accumulating resources, and rearing their children to be successful at the same game. People have many goals and therefore many sources of pleasure. So you’d think we would receive an enormous and long-lasting shot of dopamine whenever we succeed at an important goal. But here’s the trick with reinforcement: It works best when it comes seconds—not minutes or hours—after the behavior. Just try training your dog to fetch by giving him a big steak ten minutes after each successful retrieval. It can’t be done.
The elephant works the same way: It feels pleasure whenever it takes a step in the right direction. The elephant learns whenever pleasure (or pain) follows immediately after behavior, but it has trouble connecting success on Friday with actions it took on Monday. Richard Davidson, the psychologist who brought us affective style and the approach circuits of the front left cortex, writes about two types of positive affect. The first he calls “pre-goal attainment positive affect,” which is the pleasurable feeling you get as you make progress toward a goal. The second is called “post-goal attainment positive affect,” which Davidson says arises once you have achieved something you want. You experience this latter feeling as contentment, as a short-lived feeling of release when the left prefrontal cortex reduces its activity after a goal has been achieved. In other words, when it comes to goal pursuit, it really is the journey that counts, not the destination. Set for yourself any goal you want. Most of the pleasure will be had along the way, with every step that takes you closer. The final moment of success is often no more thrilling than the relief of taking off a heavy backpack at the end of a long hike.
We can call this “the progress principle”: Pleasure comes more from making progress toward goals than from achieving them.
Shakespeare captured it perfectly: “Things won are done; joy’s soul lies in the doing.”
The Adaptation Principle
If I gave you ten seconds to name the very best and very worst things that could ever happen to you, you might well come up with these: winning a 20-million-dollar lottery jackpot and becoming paralyzed from the neck down.
Of course, it’s better to win the lottery than to break your neck, but not by as much as you’d think. Because whatever happens, you’re likely to adapt to it, but you don’t realize up front that you will. We are bad at “affective forecasting,” that is, predicting how we’ll feel in the future. We grossly overestimate the intensity and the duration of our emotional reactions. Within a year, lottery winners and paraplegics have both (on average) returned most of the way to their baseline levels of happiness.
The human mind is extraordinarily sensitive to changes in conditions, but not so sensitive to absolute levels. The winner’s pleasure comes from rising in wealth, not from standing still at a high level, and after a few months the new comforts have become the new baseline of daily life. The winner takes them for granted and has no way to rise any further.
This is the adaptation principle at work: People’s judgments about their present state are based on whether it is better or worse than the state to which they have become accustomed. Adaptation is, in part, just a property of neurons: Nerve cells respond vigorously to new stimuli, but gradually they “habituate,” firing less to stimuli that they have become used to. It is change that contains vital information, not steady states.
Human beings, however, take adaptation to cognitive extremes. We don’t just habituate, we recalibrate. We create for ourselves a world of targets, and each time we hit one we replace it with another. After a string of successes we aim higher; after a massive setback, such as a broken neck, we aim lower. Instead of following Buddhist and Stoic advice to surrender attachments and let events happen, we surround ourselves with goals, hopes, and expectations, and then feel pleasure and pain in relation to our progress.
When we combine the adaptation principle with the discovery that people’s average level of happiness is highly heritable, we come to a startling possibility: In the long run, it doesn’t much matter what happens to you. Good fortune or bad, you will always return to your happiness setpoint—your brain’s default level of happiness—which was determined largely by your genes.
If this idea is correct, then we are all stuck on what has been called the “hedonic treadmill.” On an exercise treadmill you can increase the speed all you want, but you stay in the same place. In life, you can work as hard as you want, and accumulate all the riches, fruit trees, and concubines you want, but you can’t get ahead. Because you can’t change your “natural and usual state of tranquility,” the riches you accumulate will just raise your expectations and leave you no better off than you were before. Yet, not realizing the futility of our efforts, we continue to strive, all the while doing things that help us win at the game of life. Always wanting more than we have, we run and run and run, like hamsters on a wheel.
An Early Happiness Hypothesis
Buddha, Epictetus, and many other sages saw the futility of the rat race and urged people to quit. They proposed a particular happiness hypothesis: Happiness comes from within, and it cannot be found by making the world conform to your desires.
Buddhism teaches that attachment leads inevitably to suffering and offers tools for breaking attachments. The Stoic philosophers of Ancient Greece, such as Epictetus, taught their followers to focus only on what they could fully control, which meant primarily their own thoughts and reactions. All other events—the gifts and curses of fortune—were externals, and the true Stoic was unaffected by externals.
Both doctrines have such enduring appeal precisely because they offer guidance on how to find peace and happiness while participating in a treacherous and ever-changing social world. Both doctrines are based on an empirical claim, a happiness hypothesis that asserts that striving to obtain goods and goals in the external world cannot bring you more than momentary happiness. You must work on your internal world. If the hypothesis is true, it has profound implications for how we should live our lives, raise our children, and spend our money. But is it true? It all depends on what kind of externals we are talking about.
The second biggest finding in happiness research, after the strong influence of genes upon a person’s average level of happiness, is that most environmental and demographic factors influence happiness very little.
A good marriage is one of the life-factors most strongly and consistently associated with happiness. Part of this apparent benefit comes from “reverse correlation”: Happiness causes marriage. Happy people marry sooner and stay married longer than people with a lower happiness setpoint, both because they are more appealing as dating partners and because they are easier to live with as spouses. But much of the apparent benefit is a real and lasting benefit of dependable companionship, which is a basic need; we never fully adapt either to it or to its absence.
Religious people are happier, on average, than nonreligious people. This effect arises from the social ties that come with participation in a religious community, as well as from feeling connected to something beyond the self.
What some people think they have going for them is a string of objective advantages in power, status, freedom, health, and sunshine—all of which are subject to the adaptation principle.
White Americans are freed from many of the hassles and indignities that affect black Americans, yet, on average, they are only very slightly happier. Men have more freedom and power than women, yet they are not on average any happier. The young have so much more to look forward to than the elderly, yet ratings of life satisfaction actually rise slightly with age, up to age sixty-five, and, in some studies, well beyond. People are often surprised to hear that the old are happier than the young because the old have so many more health problems, yet people adapt to most chronic health problems. People who live in cold climates expect people who live in California to be happier, but they are wrong. People believe that attractive people are happier than unattractive people, but they, too, are wrong.
The most widely reported conclusion, from surveys done by psychologist Ed Diener, is that within any given country, at the lowest end of the income scale money does buy happiness: People who worry every day about paying for food and shelter report significantly less well-being than those who don’t. But once you are freed from basic needs and have entered the middle class, the relationship between wealth and happiness becomes smaller. The rich are happier on average than the middle class, but only by a little, and part of this relationship is reverse correlation: Happy people grow rich faster because, as in the marriage market, they are more appealing to others (such as bosses), and also because their frequent positive emotions help them to commit to projects, to work hard, and to invest in their futures. Wealth itself has only a small direct effect on happiness because it so effectively speeds up the hedonic treadmill.
These findings would have pleased Buddha and Epictetus—if, that is, they found pleasure in such external events as being proved right. As in their day, people today devote themselves to the pursuit of goals that won’t make them happier, in the process neglecting the sort of inner growth and spiritual development that could bring lasting satisfaction. One of the most consistent lessons the ancient sages teach is to let go, stop striving, and choose a new path. Turn inwards, or toward God, but for God’s sake stop trying to make the world conform to your will.
The Happiness Formula
In the 1990s, the two big findings of happiness research (strong relation to genes, weak relation to environment) hit the psychological community hard, because they applied not just to happiness but to most aspects of personality.
As psychologists wrestled with these ideas, however, and as biologists worked out the first sketch of the human genome, a more sophisticated understanding of nature and nurture began to emerge. Yes, genes explain far more about us than anyone had realized, but the genes themselves often turn out to be sensitive to environmental conditions. And yes, each person has a characteristic level of happiness, but it now looks as though it’s not so much a set point as a potential range or probability distribution. Whether you operate on the high or the low side of your potential range is determined by many factors that Buddha and Epictetus would have considered externals.
Three psychologists, Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ken Sheldon, and David Schkade, reviewed the available evidence and realized that there are two fundamentally different kinds of externals: the conditions of your life and the voluntary activities that you undertake.
Conditions include facts about your life that you can’t change (race, sex, age, disability) as well as things that you can (wealth, marital status, where you live). Conditions are constant over time, at least during a period in your life, and so they are the sorts of things that you are likely to adapt to.
Voluntary activities, on the other hand, are the things that you choose to do, such as meditation, exercise, learning a new skill, or taking a vacation. Because such activities must be chosen, and because most of them take effort and attention, they can’t just disappear from your awareness the way conditions can. Voluntary activities, therefore, offer much greater promise for increasing happiness while avoiding adaptation effects.
One of the most important ideas in positive psychology is what Seligman calls the “happiness formula:”
H = S + C + V
The level of happiness that you actually experience (H) is determined by your biological set point (S) plus the conditions of your life (C) plus the voluntary activities (V) you do. It turns out that there really are some external conditions (C) that matter. There are some changes you can make in your life that are not fully subject to the adaptation principle, and that might make you lastingly happier. It may be worth striving to achieve them.
Noise. Research shows that people who must adapt to new and chronic sources of noise (such as when a new highway is built) never fully adapt, and even studies that find some adaptation still find evidence of impairment on cognitive tasks. Noise, especially noise that is variable or intermittent, interferes with concentration and increases stress. It’s worth striving to remove sources of noise in your life.
Commuting. Many people choose to move farther away from their jobs in search of a larger house. But although people quickly adapt to having more space, they don’t fully adapt to the longer commute, particularly if it involves driving in heavy traffic. Even after years of commuting, those whose commutes are traffic-filled still arrive at work with higher levels of stress hormones. (Driving under ideal conditions is, however, often enjoyable and relaxing.) It’s worth striving to improve your commute.
Lack of control. One of the active ingredients of noise and traffic, the aspect that helps them get under your skin, is that you can’t control them. Changing an institution’s environment to increase the sense of control among its workers, students, patients, or other users was one of the most effective possible ways to increase their sense of engagement, energy, and happiness.
Shame. Overall, attractive people are not happier than unattractive ones. Yet, surprisingly, some improvements in a person’s appearance do lead to lasting increases in happiness. People who undergo plastic surgery report (on average) high levels of satisfaction with the process, and they even report increases in the quality of their lives and decreases in psychiatric symptoms (such as depression and anxiety) in the years after the operation.
Relationships. The condition that is usually said to trump all others in importance is the strength and number of a person’s relationships. Good relationships make people happy, and happy people enjoy more and better relationships than unhappy people.
There are many other ways in which you can increase your happiness by getting the conditions of your life right, particularly in relationships, work, and the degree of control you have over stressors. So in the happiness formula, C is real and some externals matter. Some things are worth striving for, and positive psychology can help identify them.
Not all action, however, will work. Chasing after wealth and prestige, for example, will usually backfire. People who report the greatest interest in attaining money, fame, or beauty are consistently found to be less happy, and even less healthy, than those who pursue less materialistic goals. So what is the right kind of activity? What is V in the happiness formula?
The tool that helped psychologists answer that question is the “experience sampling method,” invented by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “cheeks sent me high”), the Hungarian-born cofounder of positive psychology.
Csikszentmihalyi’s big discovery is that there is a state many people value even more than chocolate after sex. It is the state of total immersion in a task that is challenging yet closely matched to one’s abilities. It is what people sometimes call “being in the zone.” Csikszentmihalyi called it “flow” because it often feels like effortless movement: Flow happens, and you go with it.
The keys to flow: There’s a clear challenge that fully engages your attention; you have the skills to meet the challenge; and you get immediate feedback about how you are doing at each step (the progress principle). You get flash after flash of positive feeling with each turn negotiated, each high note correctly sung, or each brushstroke that falls into the right place. In the flow experience, elephant and rider are in perfect harmony. The elephant (automatic processes) is doing most of the work, running smoothly through the forest, while the rider (conscious thought) is completely absorbed in looking out for problems and opportunities, helping wherever he can.
Drawing on Csikszentmihalyi’s work, Seligman proposes a fundamental distinction between pleasures and gratifications.
Pleasures are “delights that have clear sensory and strong emotional components,” such as may be derived from food, sex, backrubs, and cool breezes.
Gratifications are activities that engage you fully, draw on your strengths, and allow you to lose self-consciousness. Gratifications can lead to flow.
Seligman proposes that V (voluntary activities) is largely a matter of arranging your day and your environment to increase both pleasures and gratifications. Pleasures must be spaced to maintain their potency. Here’s where the rider has an important role to play: Because the elephant has a tendency to overindulge, the rider needs to encourage it to get up and move on to another activity.
Pleasures should be both savored and varied.
One reason for the widespread philosophical wariness of sensual pleasure is that it gives no lasting benefit. Pleasure feels good in the moment, but sensual memories fade quickly, and the person is no wiser or stronger afterwards.
But gratifications are different. Gratifications ask more of us; they challenge us and make us extend ourselves. Gratifications often come from accomplishing something, learning something, or improving something. When we enter a state of flow, hard work becomes effortless. We want to keep exerting ourselves, honing our skills, using our strengths. Seligman suggests that the key to finding your own gratifications is to know your own strengths.
People experienced longer-lasting improvements in mood from the kindness and gratitude activities than from those in which they indulged themselves.
So V (voluntary activity) is real, and it’s not just about detachment. You can increase your happiness if you use your strengths, particularly in the service of strengthening connections—helping friends, expressing gratitude to benefactors.
Choose your own gratifying activities, do them regularly (but not to the point of tedium), and raise your overall level of happiness.
Evolution seems to have made us “strategically irrational” at times for our own good; for example, a person who gets angry when cheated, and who will pursue vengeance regardless of the cost, earns a reputation that discourages would-be cheaters. A person who pursued vengeance only when the benefits outweighed the costs could be cheated with impunity in many situations.
In his more recent book, Luxury Fever, Frank used the same approach to understand another kind of irrationality: the vigor with which people pursue many goals that work against their own happiness. Frank wants to know why people are so devoted to spending money on luxuries and other goods, to which they adapt completely, rather than on things that would make them lastingly happier. People would be happier, and in the long run wealthier, if they bought basic, functional appliances, automobiles, and wristwatches, and invested the money they saved for future consumption.
Frank concludes that those who think money can’t buy happiness just don’t know where to shop. Some purchases are much less subject to the adaptation principle. Frank wants to know why people are so devoted to spending money on luxuries and other goods, to which they adapt completely, rather than on things that would make them lastingly happier.
Frank’s explanation is simple: Conspicuous and inconspicuous consumption follow different psychological rules. Conspicuous consumption refers to things that are visible to others and that are taken as markers of a person’s relative success. Conspicuous consumption is a zero-sum game: Each person’s move up devalues the possessions of others.
Inconspicuous consumption, on the other hand, refers to goods and activities that are valued for themselves, that are usually consumed more privately, and that are not bought for the purpose of achieving status. Because Americans, at least, gain no prestige from taking the longest vacations or having the shortest commutes, these inconspicuous consumables are not subject to an arms race.
Those who described buying an experience (such as a ski trip, a concert, or a great meal) were happier when thinking about their purchase, and thought that their money was better spent, than those who described buying a material object (such as clothing, jewelry, or electronics).
Most activities that cost more than a hundred dollars are things we do with other people, but expensive material possessions are often purchased in part to impress other people. Activities connect us to others; objects often separate us.
Stop trying to keep up with the Joneses. Stop wasting your money on conspicuous consumption. As a first step, work less, earn less, accumulate less, and “consume” more family time, vacations, and other enjoyable activities.
Unfortunately, letting go of one thing and choosing another is difficult if the elephant wraps his trunk around the “precious thing” and refuses to let go. The elephant was shaped by natural selection to win at the game of life, and part of its strategy is to impress others, gain their admiration, and rise in relative rank. The elephant cares about prestige, not happiness,59 and it looks eternally to others to figure out what is prestigious. The elephant will pursue its evolutionary goals even when greater happiness can be found elsewhere. If everyone is chasing the same limited amount of prestige, then all are stuck in a zero-sum game, an eternal arms race, a world in which rising wealth does not bring rising happiness. The pursuit of luxury goods is a happiness trap; it is a dead end that people race toward in the mistaken belief that it will make them happy. Modern life has many other traps.
When people are actually given a larger array of choices—for example, an assortment of thirty (rather than six) gourmet chocolates from which to choose—they are less likely to make a choice; and if they do, they are less satisfied with it.60 The more choices there are, the more you expect to find a perfect fit; yet, at the same time, the larger the array, the less likely it becomes that you picked the best item. You leave the store less confident in your choice, more likely to feel regret, and more likely to think about the options you didn’t choose. If you can avoid making a choice, you are more likely to do so. The psychologist Barry Schwartz calls this the “paradox of choice”:61 We value choice and put ourselves in situations of choice, even though choice often undercuts our happiness. But Schwartz and his colleagues62 find that the paradox mostly applies to people they call “maximizers”—those who habitually try to evaluate all the options, seek out more information, and make the best choice (or “maximize their utility,” as economists would say). Other people—“satisficers”—are more laid back about choice. They evaluate an array of options until they find one that is good enough, and then they stop looking. Satisficers are not hurt by a surfeit of options. Maximizers end up making slightly better decisions than satisficers, on average (all that worry and information-gathering does help), but they are less happy with their decisions, and they are more inclined to depression and anxiety.
Maximizers engage in more social comparison, and are therefore more easily drawn into conspicuous consumption. Paradoxically, maximizers get less pleasure per dollar they spend. Modern life is full of traps.
Some of these traps are set by marketers and advertisers who know just what the elephant wants—and it isn’t happiness.
The Happiness Hypothesis Reconsidered
When I began writing this book, I thought that Buddha would be a strong contender for the “Best Psychologist of the Last Three Thousand Years” award. To me, his diagnosis of the futility of striving felt so right, his promise of tranquility so alluring. But in doing research for the book, I began to think that Buddhism might be based on an overreaction, perhaps even an error.
After his enlightenment, Buddha (the “awakened one”) preached that life is suffering, and that the only way to escape this suffering is by breaking the attachments that bind us to pleasure, achievement, reputation, and life.
Another reason for Buddha’s emphasis on detachment may have been the turbulent times he lived in: Kings and city-states were making war, and people’s lives and fortunes could be burned up overnight. When life is unpredictable and dangerous (as it was for the Stoic philosophers, living under capricious Roman emperors), it might be foolish to seek happiness by controlling one’s external world. But now it is not. People living in wealthy democracies can set long-term goals and expect to meet them.
Although all of us will get unwanted surprises along the way, we’ll adapt and cope with nearly all of them, and many of us will believe we are better off for having suffered. So to cut off all attachments, to shun the pleasures of sensuality and triumph in an effort to escape the pains of loss and defeat—this now strikes me as an inappropriate response to the inevitable presence of some suffering in every life.
Many Western thinkers have looked at the same afflictions as Buddha—sickness, aging, and mortality—and come to a very different conclusion from his: Through passionate attachments to people, goals, and pleasures, life must be lived to the fullest. I once heard a talk by the philosopher Robert Solomon, who directly challenged the philosophy of nonattachment as an affront to human nature. The life of cerebral reflection and emotional indifference (apatheia) advocated by many Greek and Roman philosophers and that of calm nonstriving advocated by Buddha are lives designed to avoid passion, and a life without passion is not a human life. Yes, attachments bring pain, but they also bring our greatest joys, and there is value in the very variation that the philosophers are trying to avoid.
Buddha, Lao Tzu, and other sages of the East discovered a path to peace and tranquility, the path of letting go. They told us how to follow the path using meditation and stillness. Millions of people in the West have followed, and although few, if any, have reached Nirvana, many have found some degree of peace, happiness, and spiritual growth. So I do not mean to question the value or relevance of Buddhism in the modern world, or the importance of working on yourself in an effort to find happiness. Rather, I would like to suggest that the happiness hypothesis be extended—for now—into a yin-yang formulation: Happiness comes from within, and happiness comes from without.
To live both the yin and the yang, we need guidance. Buddha is history’s most perceptive guide to the first half; he is a constant but gentle reminder of the yin of internal work. But I believe that the Western ideal of action, striving, and passionate attachment is not as misguided as Buddhism suggests. We just need some balance (from the East) and some specific guidance (from modern psychology) about what to strive for.