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The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt - Summary and Book Notes

Haidt explores different paths to happiness, examines them through the lens of modern research, and proposes a revised 'Happiness Hypothesis'.


The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt

This is a great rundown of positive psychology's main findings. Haidt writes clearly while backing up his arguments with research. The book has solid recommendations for improving happiness levels.

Highly recommend for anyone who:

  • Wants to understand how happiness works
  • Wants to shape their lives to improve well-being
  • Has limited knowledge of psychology

Psychology majors could probably skip this one.

Quick Summary

  • 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.
  • Attachments bring pain, but they also bring our greatest joys
  • People need obligations and constraints to provide structure and meaning to their lives
  • The turn in philosophy from character to quandary was a profound mistake
  • The human mind does perceive “divinity.”
  • "Why are we here?" and "How ought I to live?" are separate questions, don't conflate them.
  • Vital engagement does not reside in the person or in the environment; it exists in the relationship between internal and external factors.
  • People gain a sense of meaning when their lives cohere across the three levels of their existence
  • The final version of the happiness hypothesis is that happiness comes from between. You have to get the conditions right and then wait.

If you are a pessimist:

  • consider meditation, cognitive therapy, or even Prozac.
  • Second, cherish and build your social support network.
  • Third, religious faith and practice can aid growth, both by directly fostering sense making and by increasing social support
Buy The Happiness Hypothesis on Amazon.
Recommendations for Further Reading

Book Notes

The following are rough notes I took while reading. These are mostly paraphrased or quoted directly from the book.

we have a deep need to understand violence and cruelty through “the myth of pure evil.”

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.

Baumeister found that violence and cruelty have four main causes:

  • greed/ambition (violence for direct personal gain, as in robbery)
  • sadism (pleasure in hurting people).

greed/ambition explains only a small portion of violence, and sadism explains almost none.

  • high self-esteem
  • moral idealism.

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.

Baumeister questions the usefulness of programs that try raise children’s self-esteem directly instead of by teaching them skills they can be proud of.

to really get a mass atrocity going you need idealism—the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.

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. they are a consensual hallucination.

once anger comes into play, people find it extremely difficult to empathize with and understand another perspective.

The Pursuit of Happiness

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


The elephant and the rider metaphor: The rider represents the conscious controlled processes and the elephant represents all of the automatic processes.

here’s the trick with reinforcement: It works best when it comes seconds—not minutes or hours—after the behavior.

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.

when it comes to goal pursuit, it really is the journey that counts, not the destination.

“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.”4


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.

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.

“hedonic treadmill.”

Men have more freedom and power than women, yet they are not on average any happier. (Women experience more depression, but also more intense joy). People who live in cold climates expect people who live in California to be happier, but they are wrong.

at the lowest end of the income scale money does buy happiness. once you are freed from basic needs and have entered the middle class, the relationship between wealth and happiness becomes smaller.

Only a few activities avoid the adaptation principle:

  • 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.


Yes, genes explain far more about us than anyone had realized, but the genes themselves often turn out to be sensitive to environmental conditions.

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.

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 Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, Schkade, and Seligman call the “happiness formula:”


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.

There really are some external conditions (C) that matter:

  • Noise.

people who must adapt to new and chronic sources of noise (such as when a new highway is built) never fully adapt. Noise, especially noise that is variable or intermittent, interferes with concentration and increases stress.

  • Commuting.

Even after years of commuting, those whose commutes are traffic-filled still arrive at work with higher levels of stress hormones.

  • Lack of control.
  • Shame.

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)

  • Relationships.

conflicts in relationships—having an annoying office mate or room-mate, or having chronic conflict with your spouse—is one of the surest ways to reduce your happiness.

in the happiness formula, C is real and some externals matter.


Two different kinds of enjoyment. One is physical or bodily pleasure. At meal times, people report the highest levels of happiness, on average.

The other is Flow: the state of total immersion in a task that is challenging yet closely matched to one’s abilities.

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).

In the flow experience, elephant and rider are in perfect harmony.

distinction between pleasures and gratifications: Pleasures are “delights that have clear sensory and strong emotional components."

Gratifications are activities that engage you fully, draw on your strengths, and allow you to lose self-consciousness.

Seligman proposes that V (voluntary activities) is largely a matter of arranging your day and your environment to increase both pleasures and gratifications

You can find out your strengths by taking an online test at www.authentichappiness.org.

people experienced longer-lasting improvements in mood from the kindness and gratitude activities than from those in which they indulged themselves.

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;

People would be happier if they reduced their commuting time, took longer vacations

Conspicuous and inconspicuous consumption follow different psychological rules. Conspicuous consumption is a zero-sum game

Activities connect us to others; objects often separate us.

“consume” more family time, vacations, and other enjoyable activities.

The elephant cares about prestige, not happiness,

"Paradox of Choice”: We value choice and put ourselves in situations of choice, even though choice often undercuts our happiness.

paradox mostly applies to people they call “maximizers"

"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.


Most people (with the exception of homeless people) are more satisfied than dissatisfied with their lives.

Another reason for Buddha’s emphasis on detachment may have been the turbulent times he lived in

Yes, attachments bring pain, but they also bring our greatest joys

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.

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.

Love and Attachments

“contact comfort” is a basic need that young mammals have for physical contact with their mother.

the attachment of mother and child is so enormously important for the survival of the child that a dedicated system is built into mother and child in all species that rely on maternal care.

Bowlby’s grand synthesis is called Attachment Theory.

two basic goals guide children’s behavior: safety and exploration. A child who stays safe survives; a child who explores and plays develops the skills and intelligence needed for adult life.

These two needs are often opposed, however, so they are regulated by a kind of thermostat that monitors the level of ambient safety. When the safety level is adequate, the child plays and explores. But as soon as it drops too low, it’s as though a switch were thrown and suddenly safety needs become paramount.

If you want your children to grow up to be healthy and independent, you should hold them, hug them, cuddle them, and love them.

Give them a secure base and they will explore and then conquer the world on their own.

Harlow, Bowlby, and Ainsworth can help us understand grown-up love.

Some people change style as they grow up, but the great majority of adults choose the descriptor that matched the way they were as a child.

How did human females come to hide all signs of ovulation and get men to fall in love with them and their children?

the most plausible theory in my opinion begins with the enormous expansion of the human brain

There were physical limits to how large a head hominid females could give birth to and still have a pelvis that would allow them to walk upright.

our ancestor—evolved a novel technique that got around this limitation by sending babies out of the uterus long before their brains were developed enough to control their bodies. Humans are the only creatures on Earth whose young are utterly helpless for years, and heavily dependent on adult care for more than a decade.

active fathers, male-female pair-bonds, male sexual jealousy, and big-headed babies all co-evolved—that is, arose gradually but together.

But from what raw material could a tie evolve between men and women where one did not exist before?

It didn’t take much change to modify the attachment system, which every man and every woman had used as a child to attach to mom, and have it link up with the mating system


Take one ancient attachment system, mix with an equal measure of caregiving system, throw in a modified mating system and voila, that’s romantic love. I seem to have lost something here; romantic love is so much more than the sum of its parts.

myth of “true” love—the idea that real love burns brightly and passionately, and then it just keeps on burning until death

But if true love is defined as eternal passion, it is biologically impossible.

two kinds of love: passionate and companionate.

Passionate love is the love you fall into.

companionate love, in contrast, as “the affection we feel for those with whom our lives are deeply intertwined.”

if passionate love is a drug—literally a drug—it has to wear off eventually.

Passionate love and companionate love are two separate processes, and they have different time courses.

People are not allowed to sign contracts when they are drunk, and I sometimes wish we could prevent people from proposing marriage when they are high on passionate love

The other danger point is the day the drug weakens its grip.

True love, the love that undergirds strong marriages, is simply strong companionate love, with some added passion, between two people who are firmly committed to each other.


In the ancient East, the problem with love is obvious: Love is attachment.

people need close and long-lasting attachments to particular others.

several reasons why real human love might make philosophers uncomfortable. First, passionate love is notorious for making people illogical and irrational,

two less benevolent motivations are at work. First, there may be a kind of hypocritical self-interest in which the older generation says, “Do as we say, not as we did.”

second motivation is the fear of death.

when people are asked to reflect on their own mortality, they find the physical aspects of sexuality more disgusting,


people who had fewer social constraints, bonds, and obligations were more likely to kill themselves.

people need obligations and constraints to provide structure and meaning to their lives

Having strong social relationships strengthens the immune system, extends life (more than does quitting smoking), speeds recovery from surgery, and reduces the risks of depression and anxiety disorders.

As a character in Jean-Paul Sartre’s play No Exit said, “Hell is other people.” But so is heaven.

The Uses of Adversity

Adversity hypothesis,” which says that people need adversity, setbacks, and perhaps even trauma to reach the highest levels of strength, fulfillment, and personal development.

When is adversity beneficial, when is it harmful?


Psychopaths are not violent (although most serial murderers and serial rapists are psychopaths). They are people, mostly men, who have no moral emotions, no attachment systems, and no concerns for others.

One of the most common lessons people draw from bereavement or trauma is that they are much stronger than they realized, and this new appreciation of their strength then gives them confidence to face future challenges.

The adversity hypothesis has a weak and a strong version. In the weak version, adversity can lead to growth, strength, joy, and self-improvement

The weak version is well-supported by research, but it has few clear implications for how we should live our lives.

The strong version of the hypothesis is more unsettling: It states that people must endure adversity to grow, and that the highest levels of growth and development are only open to those who have faced and overcome great adversity.

Psychologists often approach personality by measuring basic traits such as the “big five”: neuroticism, extroversion, openness to new experiences, agreeableness (warmth/niceness), and conscientiousness

psychologist Dan McAdams has suggested that personality really has three levels, and too much attention has been paid to the lowest level, the basic traits.

second level of personality, “characteristic adaptations,” includes personal goals, defense and coping mechanisms, values, beliefs, and life-stage concerns (such as those of parenthood or retirement) that people develop to succeed in their particular roles and niches.

The third level of personality is that of the “life story.” The life story is written primarily by the rider.

You create your story in consciousness as you interpret your own behavior, and as you listen to other people’s thoughts about you. It is more like a work of historical fiction that makes plenty of references to real events and connects them by dramatizations and interpretations that might or might not be true to the spirit of what happened.

Most of the life goals that people pursue at the level of “characteristic adaptations” can be sorted—as the psychologist Robert Emmons has found—into four categories:

  • work and achievement
  • relationships and intimacy
  • religion and spirituality
  • generativity (leaving a legacy and contributing something to society).

People who strive primarily for achievement and wealth are, Emmons finds, less happy, on average, than those whose strivings focus on the other three categories

At the third level of personality, the need for adversity is even more obvious: You need interesting material to write a good story.

people who are mentally healthy and happy have a higher degree of “vertical coherence” among their goals. Higher-level (long term) goals and lower-level (immediate) goals all fit together well so that pursuing one’s short-term goals advances the pursuit of long-term goals.


When bad things happen to good people, we have a problem.

Psychologists have devoted a great deal of effort to figuring out who benefits from trauma and who is crushed. Optimists are more likely to benefit than pessimists.

When a crisis strikes, people cope in three primary ways:

  • active coping (taking direct action to fix the problem),
  • reappraisal (doing the work within—getting one’s own thoughts right and looking for silver linings)
  • avoidance coping

If you are a pessimist, you are probably feeling gloomy right now. But despair not!If you can find a way to make sense of adversity and draw constructive lessons from it, you can benefit, too. And you can learn to become a sense maker by reading Jamie Pennebaker’s Opening Up.

Pennebaker asked people to write about “the most upsetting or traumatic experience of your entire life,” preferably one they had not talked about with others in great detail. He gave them plenty of blank paper and asked them to keep writing for fifteen minutes, on four consecutive days.

The people who wrote about traumas went to the doctor or the hospital fewer times in the following year.

it’s not about steam; it’s about sense making.

You have to use words, and the words have to help you create a meaningful story.

If you are a pessimist:

  • consider meditation, cognitive therapy, or even Prozac.
  • The second step is to cherish and build your social support network.
  • Third, religious faith and practice can aid growth, both by directly fostering sense making and by increasing social support

And finally, no matter how well or poorly prepared you are when trouble strikes, at some point in the months afterwards, pull out a piece of paper and start writing.

Pennebaker suggests34 that you write continuously for fifteen minutes a day, for several days. Don’t edit or censor yourself; Before you conclude your last session, be sure you have done your best to answer these two questions: Why did this happen? What good might I derive from it?

When people older than thirty are asked to remember the most important or vivid events of their lives, they are disproportionately likely to recall events that occurred between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five.

adversity may be most beneficial for people in their late teens and into their twenties.

Knowledge comes in two major forms: explicit and tacit.

Tacit knowledge is procedural (it’s “knowing how” rather than “knowing that”),

The strong version of the adversity hypothesis might be true, but only if we add caveats: For adversity to be maximally beneficial, it should happen at the right time (young adulthood), to the right people (those with the social and psychological resources to rise to challenges and find benefits), and to the right degree (not so severe as to cause PTSD).

The Felicity of Virtue

The Greek word aretē meant excellence, virtue, or goodness, especially of a functional sort.

Thus in saying that well being or happiness (eudaimonia) is “an activity of soul in conformity with excellence or virtue,” Aristotle was saying that a good life is one where you develop your strengths, realize your potential, and become what it is in your nature to become.

Franklin himself admitted that he failed utterly to develop the virtue of humility, yet he reaped great social gains by learning to fake it.


When we Westerners think about morality, we use concepts that are thousands of years old, but that took a turn in their development in the last two hundred years.

Most approaches then specified actions that were good and bad with respect to those virtues.

these ancient texts rely heavily on maxims and role models rather than proofs and logic. When moral instruction triggers emotions, it speaks to the elephant as well as the rider.

many ancient texts emphasize practice and habit rather than factual knowledge.

the ancients reveal a sophisticated understanding of moral psychology. They all knew that virtue resides in a well-trained elephant. They all knew that training takes daily practice and a great deal of repetition.

Why the shift away from Tacit Knowledge?

  • First, the Greek mind that gave us moral inquiry also gave us the beginnings of scientific inquiry. Science values parsimony, but virtue theories, with their long lists of virtues, were never parsimonious.
  • Second, the widespread philosophical worship of reason made many philosophers uncomfortable with locating virtue in habits and feelings.

Kant turned the problem around and said that people should think about whether the rules guiding their own actions could reasonably be proposed as universal laws. This simple test, which Kant called the “categorical imperative,” It offered to make ethics a branch of applied logic

Bentham was the father of utilitarianism

The argument between Kant and Bentham has continued ever since. Descendants of Kant (known as “deontologists” from the Greek deon, obligation) try to elaborate the duties and obligations that ethical people must respect, even when their actions lead to bad outcomes

Descendants of Bentham (known as “consequentialists” because they evaluate actions only by their consequences) try to work out the rules and policies that will bring about the greatest good, even when doing so will sometimes violate other ethical principles

They both believe in parsimony. They both distrust intuitions and gut feelings, which they see as obstacles to good reasoning. And they both shun the particular in favor of the abstract

This turn from character ethics to quandary ethics has turned moral education away from virtues and toward moral reasoning.

believe that this turn from character to quandary was a profound mistake, for two reasons.

  • First, it weakens morality and limits its scope. Where the ancients saw virtue and character at work in everything a person does, our modern conception confines morality to a set of situations that arise for each person only a few times in any given week
  • The second problem with the turn to moral reasoning is that it relies on bad psychology.

Many moral education efforts since the 1970s take the rider off of the elephant and train him to solve problems on his own.

Trying to make children behave ethically by teaching them to reason well is like trying to make a dog happy by wagging its tail.


Peterson and Seligman suggest that there are twenty-four principle character strengths, each leading to one of the six higher-level virtues.

strengths test (at www.authentichappiness.org).

  1. Wisdom: • Curiosity • Love of learning • Judgment • Ingenuity • Emotional intelligence • Perspective
  2. Courage: • Valor • Perseverance • Integrity
  3. Humanity: • Kindness • Loving
  4. Justice: • Citizenship • Fairness • Leadership
  5. Temperance: • Self-control • Prudence • Humility
  6. Transcendence: • Appreciation of beauty and excellence • Gratitude • Hope • Spirituality • Forgiveness • Humor • Zest

Here’s my favorite idea: Work on your strengths, not your weaknesses

[In Haidt's class] the final project is to make yourself a better person, using all the tools of psychology, and then prove that you have done so. the most successful ones usually either use cognitive behavioral therapy on themselves (it really does work!) or employ a strength, or both.


it true that acting against my self-interest, for the good of others, even when I don’t want to, is still good for me? Sages and moralists have always answered with an unqualified yes, but the challenge for science is to qualify: When is it true, and why?

[Children] go through a phase in which many rules take on a kind of sacredness and unchangeability. During this phase, children believe in “immanent justice”—justice that is inherent in an act itself.

In this stage, they think that if they break rules, even accidentally, something bad will happen to them, even if nobody knows about their transgressions.


Does helping others really confer happiness or prosperity on the helper?

the evidence suggests that they often gain happiness.

When a person increased volunteer work, all measures of happiness and well-being increased (on average) afterwards, for as long as the volunteer work was a part of the person’s life.

The elderly benefit even more than do other adults,

two of the big benefits of volunteer work are that it brings people together, and it helps them to construct a McAdams-style life story.


Should we in the West try to return to a more virtue-based morality? I believe that we have indeed lost something important—a richly textured common ethos with widely shared virtues and values.

Anomie is the condition of a society in which there are no clear rules, norms, or standards of value. In an anomic society, people can do as they please; but without any clear standards or respected social institutions to enforce those standards, it is harder for people to find things they want to do. Anomie breeds feelings of rootlessness and anxiety and leads to an increase in amoral and antisocial behavior.

the history of America ever since has been one of increasing diversity. In response, educators have struggled to identify the ever-shrinking set of moral ideas everyone could agree upon.

This shrinking reached its logical conclusion in the 1960s with the popular “values clarification” movement, which taught no morality at all.

(For a sensitive analysis from a more liberal perspective of the need for “cultural resources” for identity creation, see Anthony Appiah’s The Ethics of Identity.)

We have paid a price for our inclusiveness, but we have bought ourselves a more humane society,

I wondered whether celebrating diversity might also encourage division,

two main kinds of diversity—demographic and moral. Demographic diversity is about socio-demographic

nobody can coherently even want moral diversity.

Liberals are right to work for a society that is open to people of every demographic group, but conservatives might be right in believing that at the same time we should work much harder to create a common, shared identity.

Divinity With or Without God

In all human cultures, the social world has two clear dimensions: a horizontal dimension of closeness or liking, and a vertical one of hierarchy or status.

My claim is that the human mind perceives a third dimension, a specifically moral dimension that I will call “divinity.”

the human mind simply does perceive divinity and sacredness, whether or not God exists.

The logic of disgust.

Disgust was originally shaped by natural selection as a guardian of the mouth:

But disgust doesn’t guard just the mouth; its elicitors expanded during biological and cultural evolution so that now it guards the body more generally.


when people think about morality, their moral concepts cluster into three groups, which he calls the ethic of autonomy, the ethic of community, and the ethic of divinity.

educated Americans of high social class relied overwhelmingly on the ethic of autonomy in their moral discourse, whereas Brazilians, and people of lower social class in both countries, made much greater use of the ethics of community and divinity.

Purity is not just about the body, it is about the soul. If you know that you have divinity in you, you will act accordingly:

the ethic of divinity had been central to public discourse in the United States until the time of the World War I, after which it began to fade (except in a few places, such as the American South—

Eliade says that the modern West is the first culture in human history that has managed to strip time and space of all sacredness and to produce a fully practical, efficient, and profane world.

had never even wondered whether “uplift” is a real, honest-to-goodness emotion.

Jefferson went on to say that the physical feelings and motivational effects caused by great literature are as powerful as those caused by real events. He even said that it was the opposite of disgust. He chose the word “elevation,”

moral elevation appears to be different from admiration for nonmoral excellence.

Witnessing extraordinarily skillful actions gives people the drive and energy to try to copy those actions. Elevation, in contrast, is a calmer feeling, not associated with signs of physiological arousal.

Although people say, in all our studies, that they want to do good deeds, in two studies where we gave them the opportunity to sign up for volunteer work or to help an experimenter pick up a stack of papers she had dropped, we did not find that elevation made people behave much differently.

oxytocin might be released during moments of elevation. Oxytocin causes bonding, not action. Elevation may fill people with feelings of love, trust, and openness, making them more receptive to new relationships. yet, given their feelings of relaxation and passivity, they might be less likely to engage in active altruism toward strangers.

For many people, one of the pleasures of going to church is the experience of collective elevation.

This love has no specific object; it is agape. It feels like a love of all humankind


Something about the vastness and beauty of nature makes the self feel small and insignificant, and anything that shrinks the self creates an opportunity for spiritual experience.

Drugs in this class [have the] ability to induce massive alterations of perception and emotion that sometimes feel, even to secular users, like contact with divinity, and that cause people to feel afterwards that they’ve been transformed.

When people bring a reverential mindset and take the drugs in a safe and supportive setting, as is done in the initiation rites of some traditional cultures, these drugs can be catalysts for spiritual and personal growth.

William James analyzed the “varieties of religious experience,” including rapid and gradual religious conversions and experiences with drugs and nature. James found such extraordinary similarity in the reports of these experiences that he thought they revealed deep psychological truths.

we experience life as a divided self, torn by conflicting desires.

Religious experiences are real and common, whether or not God exists, and these experiences often make people feel whole and at peace.

In the rapid type of conversion experience, the old self, full of petty concerns, doubts, and grasping attachments, is washed away in an instant, usually an instant of profound awe.

Maslow suggested that all religions are based on the insights of somebody’s peak experience. Peak experiences make people nobler, just as James had said, and religions were created as methods of promoting peak experiences and then maximizing their ennobling powers.

Religions sometimes lose touch with their origins, however; they are sometimes taken over by people who have not had peak experiences—the bureaucrats and company men who want to routinize procedures and guard orthodoxy for orthodoxy’s sake.

But what is most surprising in Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences is Maslow’s attack on science for becoming as sterile as organized religion.

scientists and philosophers had traditionally held an attitude of wonder toward the natural world and the objects of their inquiry. But in the late sixteenth century, European scientists began to look down on wonder.


the development of the self may have been crucial to the development of human ultrasociality. the self also gave each one of us a personal tormenter.

It is important to note that the self is not exactly the rider—much of the self is unconscious and automatic—but because the self emerges from conscious verbal thinking and storytelling, it can be constructed only by the rider.

The self is the main obstacle to spiritual advancement,

But I am trying to understand the mutual incomprehension of the two sides in the culture war, and I believe that Shweder’s three ethics—particularly the ethic of divinity—are the key to it.

Many of the key battles in the American culture war are essentially about whether some aspect of life should be structured by the ethic of autonomy or by the ethic of divinity.

liberals were much more permissive and relied overwhelmingly on the ethic of autonomy; conservatives, much more critical, used all three ethics in their discourse.

I do not entirely lament the “flattening” of life in the West over the last few hundred years. An unfortunate tendency of three-dimensional societies is that they often include one or more groups that get pushed down on the third dimension and then treated badly, or worse.

Because the culture war is ideological, both sides use the myth of pure evil.

Happiness Comes from Between

There appear to be two specific sub-questions to which people want answers, and for which they find answers enlightening. The first can be called the question of the purpose of life: “What is the purpose for which human beings were placed on Earth? Why are we here?

Either you believe in a god/spirit/intelligence who had some idea, desire, or intention in creating the world or you believe in a purely material world in which it and you were not created for any reason;

The second sub-question is the question of purpose within life: “How ought I to live? What should I do to have a good, happy, fulfilling, and meaningful life?

When people ask the Holy Question, one of the things they are hoping for is a set of principles or goals that can guide their actions and give their choices meaning or value. Aristotle asked about aretē (excellence/virtue) and telos (purpose/goal), and he used the metaphor that people are like archers, who need a clear target at which to aim. Without a target or goal, one is left with the animal default.

In my adolescent existentialism, I conflated the two sub-questions. Because I embraced the scientific answer to the question of the purpose of life, I thought it precluded finding purpose within life.

religions teach that the two questions are inseparable.

For the rest of this chapter I will ignore the purpose of life and search for the factors that give rise to a sense of purpose within life.


The computer metaphor has so pervaded our thought that we sometimes think about people as computers, and about psychotherapy as the repair shop or a kind of reprogramming. But people are not computers, and they usually recover on their own from almost anything that happens to them.

think a better metaphor is that people are like plants.

If people are like plants, what are the conditions we need to flourish?

Love and work are, for people, obvious analogues to water and sunshine for plants. people and many other mammals have a basic drive to make things happen.

Karl Marx’s criticism of capitalism was based in part on his justified claim that the Industrial Revolution had destroyed the historical relationship between craftsmen and the goods they produced.

most people can get more satisfaction from their work.

Take the strengths test and then choose work that allows you to use your strengths every day, thereby giving yourself at least scattered moments of flow.

If you are stuck in a job that doesn’t match your strengths, recast and reframe your job so that it does.

Work at its best, then, is about connection, engagement, and commitment. As the poet Kahlil Gibran said, “Work is love made visible.”

Happiness comes not just from within, as Buddha and Epictetus supposed, or even from a combination of internal and external factors. Happiness comes from between.

Vital engagement does not reside in the person or in the environment; it exists in the relationship between the two.


If your lower-level traits match up with your coping mechanisms, which in turn are consistent with your life story, your personality is well integrated and you can get on with the business of living.

People are multilevel systems in another way: We are physical objects (bodies and brains) from which minds somehow emerge; and from our minds, somehow societies and cultures form.

To understand ourselves fully we must study all three levels—physical, psychological, and sociocultural

[People gain a sense of meaning when their lives cohere across the three levels of their existence](/cohesion).

You can’t just invent a good ritual through reasoning about symbolism. You need a tradition within which the symbols are embedded, and you need to invoke bodily feelings that have some appropriate associations. Then you need a community to endorse and practice it over time.

Meaning and purpose simply emerge from the coherence, and people can get on with the business of living. But conflict, paralysis, and anomie are likely when a community fails to provide coherence, or, worse, when its practices contradict people’s gut feelings or their shared mythology and ideology.


Do humans compete, live, and die as a group?

As long as each human being has the opportunity to reproduce, the evolutionary payoffs for investing in one’s own welfare and one’s own offspring will almost always exceed the payoffs for contributing to the group; in the long run, selfish traits will therefore spread at the expense of altruistic traits.

human beings evolve at two levels simultaneously: genetic and cultural.

Cultural elements, however, don’t spread by the slow process of having children; they spread rapidly whenever people adopt a new behavior, technology, or belief.

groups that parlayed those beliefs into social coordination devices (for example, by linking them to emotions such as shame, fear, guilt, and love) found a cultural solution to the free-rider problem and then reaped the enormous benefits of trust and cooperation.


From Wilson’s perspective, mystical experience is an “off” button for the self. When the self is turned off, people become just a cell in the larger body, a bee in the larger hive.

Newberg believes that rituals that involve repetitive movement and chanting, particularly when they are performed by many people at the same time, help to set up “resonance patterns” in the brains of the participants that make this mystical state more likely to happen.


The final version of the happiness hypothesis is that happiness comes from between. You have to get the conditions right and then wait.

Some of those conditions are within you, such as coherence among the parts and levels of your personality. Other conditions require relationships to things beyond you: Just as plants need sun, water, and good soil to thrive, people need love, work, and a connection to something larger.

It is worth striving to get the right relationships between yourself and others, between yourself and your work, and between yourself and something larger than yourself. If you get these relationships right, a sense of purpose and meaning will emerge.

Conclusion: On Balance

Psychology and religion can benefit by taking each other seriously, or at least by agreeing to learn from each other while overlooking the areas of irreconcilable difference.

But the most important lesson I have learned in my twenty years of research on morality is that nearly all people are morally motivated. Selfishness is a powerful force, particularly in the decisions of individuals, but whenever groups of people come together to make a sustained effort to change the world, you can bet that they are pursuing a vision of virtue, justice, or sacredness.

Each culture develops expertise in some aspects of human existence, but no culture can be expert in all aspects.

liberals are experts in thinking about issues of victimization, equality, autonomy, and the rights of individuals, particularly those of minorities and nonconformists. Conservatives, on the other hand, are experts in thinking about loyalty to the group, respect for authority and tradition, and sacredness.

good place to look for wisdom, therefore, is where you least expect to find it: in the minds of your opponents.

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## Further Reading

  • The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt - Haidt explores morality and it's effects on politics and religion.
  • Book Notes on Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari - More on the history of humankind
  • More on Cohesion for the self.
  • The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz - More on satisficers and maximizers