Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Happiness Hypothesis

Had the opportunity this morning to listen to a guest lecture by Jonathan Haidt, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and author of The Happiness Hypothesis.

Professor Haidt argued that the question we should be asking ourselves is not "What is the meaning of life?" but rather "How can I live a full, rich, satisfying life? How can I find purpose and meaning within life?"

His primary thesis was that "happiness comes from between," that is, from interpersonal relationships. Indeed, the importance of relationships is a theme throughout The Happiness Hypothesis. He urged us to work on existing relationships, cultivate new relationships (especially in groups), and engage in happiness-boosting activities based on our relationships, such as writing gratitude letters, which have been shown to raise self-reported well-being for longer periods of time than material pursuits.

He also encouraged us to "lose ourselves" in something larger than our individual interests, whether through nature, social causes, academia, or any number of pursuits that lead us to abandon pure self-interest and instead behave as humans sometimes do according to his "conditional hive psychology" hypothesis. Here, he quoted Willa Cather, which, incidentally, transported me back several years to a certain Massachusetts farmhouse in late winter:
I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness: to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep." (Willa Cather, My Ántonia)
It was particularly interesting to hear from Professor Haidt in person today, as I am planning to include a discussion of his moral foundations theory in my cognitive science senior thesis. But more on that another day...