Sunday, November 3, 2013

Why Attaining Happiness is So Elusive, Part 4

This is the fourth article of the series reviewing The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom by Jonathan Haidt. I want to share with you my take on two notions that we do not normally associate with happiness. The first notion is adversity or stress and the second is virtue or being a good person. I have been very fortunate in my life, but I have also faced many setbacks, to say the least, in my more than 60 years. Furthermore, as a Christian, I try to live a virtuous life. So I was very curious about what insights and recommendations Haidt had to offer here regarding happiness.

Let us look back briefly at what I talked about in the third article. I described four thought-provoking concepts: the Progress principle, the Adaptation principle, the Happiness formula, and the term "finding flow." I also examined the differences between pleasure and gratification, do and have, and passionate love and companion love. I saw each of these concepts and differences reflected in my own life in one way or another.

What fascinates me in the work of Haidt is that he is constantly contrasting ideas. For me this quality of seeing subtle and different meanings is the hallmark of a knowledgeable and reflective person. This quality of seeing shades of meanings is something that I greatly admire in my colleague, Dr. Fred Horowitz at He is constantly making what he calls "distinctions," which allows him to see what others do not see. Take for example astronomers. When he looks at the sky at night, what he sees and what astronomers see are vastly different. Astronomers have many more distinctions than he has, which gives them more power in that domain than he has. So the more distinctions you or I have in a domain (business, music, sports, and so on) the more power we have and the more effective we are.

In this article I look at what Haidt terms the Adversity hypothesis described as the need to overcome setbacks in order to grow. He also presents the Virtue hypothesis, the need to practice virtue in order to be happy. Drawing on scientific research, he contrasts post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and post traumatic growth. He also distinguishes between virtue and moral reasoning. Will knowing these things make any difference in my life? The proverbial answer is of course "it depends," depending on whether you are an optimist or a pessimist, whether you are open-minded or cynical, according to Haidt.

Haidt quotes Neitszche who once said, "What doesn't kill me makes me stronger." Good quote, but to what degree is it true? It is well known that soldiers returning from war suffer greatly from PTSD. In addition, we know that excessive stress in daily life can cause depression, anxiety and heart disease. On the other hand, we know that people can profit greatly from stress and setbacks. In my own case, losing an important job at a publishing company was initially stressful, but it was the best thing that could have happened to me. It forced me to reinvent myself.

Are adversity and suffering necessary for maximum human development?

Haidt distinguishes between a weak version and a strong version of the Adversity hypothesis. Scientific research over the last 15 years shows that people can be quite resilient in the face of severe stress. They can discover hidden abilities; they can relate to others more meaningfully; and they can change practices and philosophies towards the present. A challenging experience could lead to joy and self-improvement.

While I was completing my doctorate, I was faced with a traumatic situation when my father died. I felt incredible pain at his loss, even though I hardly knew him (he was in the Merchant Marine and was never home), but he was the most generous person in my life. I will forever be grateful to him and my mother. I recommitted myself to completing my doctorate and finished a year later.

On the other hand, the strong version of the Adversity hypothesis states that people must endure adversity to grow. Haidt quotes Marcel Proust: "We do not receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves..." Recent research supports the strong version. It takes suffering and pain to make you more open-minded, more compassionate and more capable of finding balance between your self and others.

However, for adversity to provide the most benefit some conditions are more favorable than others according to certain researchers. For example, those in their late teens or early 20s respond best to severe adversity. Also, optimists and those with the right social and psychological resources respond best to traumas. Furthermore, the adversity must not be too severe as to overcome the person entirely. I like to think that while each of us has been given the same "deck of cards", it is what we do with the cards that makes all the difference. Each of us has the power to create our lives in spite of the way we are "labeled."

Will cultivating virtue make you happy?

Haidt distinguishes between virtue and moral reasoning. He presents a fascinating tour of ancient wisdom for cultivating virtue. He explores the thinking of the ancient Egyptian Amenemope, Aristotle, Confucius, and Buddha, as well as the 13-week plan for virtuous living of a more recent wise man, Ben Franklin. He admires their "sophisticated understanding of moral psychology." So do I, particularly the approach of the Franklin who tried all his life to develop both personal virtues (temperance, order, resolution, frugality, moderation, industry, cleanliness and tranquility) and social virtues (silence, sincerity, justice, chastity and humility).

Haidt argues that we started getting it wrong with the rise of science and reason. Modern thinkers like Kant and Bentham made great contributions to social theory. However, their emphasis on logical reason in making moral decisions was a mistake.

Haidt recommends that we shift our attention back to character and virtue in being happy with our actions. He applauds the work of positive psychologists, such as Martin Seligman. He came up with a list of 24 character strengths, including curiosity, love of learning, integrity, humility, gratitude, humor to mention a few. By working on our strengths, we can cultivate Haidt calls the six main virtues: wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence.

We must also look beyond ourselves. According to some researchers, altruistic people have depth and virtue to their character and gain happiness from their altruism. So the message for me is I must work on some of these ennobling strengths, not my weaknesses. I must also work on sharing myself with others. In so doing, I open myself to the possibility of being complete and fulfilled.

In Part 5 of the series, I'll look at what divinity and sacredness has to offer and what it means to live a fulfilling and meaningful life.

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