I am an Associate Professor in the Social Psychology area of the Department of Psychology at the University of Virginia. I study morality and emotion, and how they vary across cultures. I am also active in positive psychology (the scientific study of human flourishing) and study positive emotions such as moral elevation, admiration, and awe.
My research these days focuses on the moral foundations of politics, and on ways to transcend the “culture wars” by using recent discoveries in moral psychology to foster more civil forms of politics. Morality, by its very nature, makes it hard to study morality. It binds people together into teams that seek victory, not truth. It closes hearts and minds to opponents even as it makes cooperation and decency possible within groups.
Question: Why did you write a book about happiness?
Jonathan Haidt: I didn’t set out to write a book on happiness. I guess, in my own life I set out to figure out the meaning of life, because I was a suburban kid at the age of 17 who read Waiting for Godot and was already pretty much an atheist, and began to think, oh, my God, there’s no meaning to life. I’d better major in philosophy. So that was my personal quest that led to the book.
Along the way, life had a lot of twists and turns for me. I didn’t get a job my first time out of grad school, ended up doing a post doc in health psychology, which taught me a lot about the conditions of human flourishing and human health.
I was assigned to teach Introductory Psychology at the University of Virginia, and that forced me to review the entire field of psychology. And in reviewing all of psychology, I found myself looking for or choosing quotations from the ancients, from poetry, to help my students understand how the mind works, how the heart works.
And it was only once I did that, that I thought, hey, there are a lot of these great quotes. I wonder how many great truths there are. I wonder how many insights the ancients had. So it was really just a set of coincidences and flukes that led me to write a book [The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom] about the great psychological truths, which my publisher then labeled a book about happiness.
Question: Which ancient thinker has taught you the most about happiness?
Jonathan Haidt: I think you’d have to start with the Stoics and Buddha, because they were saying basically the same thing.
I think the greatest truths, the ones that you find in every culture that has any sort of history of reflection of writing, the greatest truth is that there’s nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so. That’s the way Shakespeare put it. But you get basically the same idea from Buddha, from the Bhagavad Gita in India, and from the Stoics in ancient Greece and Rome.
So an understanding that the world doesn’t usually affect us directly. It’s what we do with it. It’s the filters that we put on it. That’s the foundation of certainly most pop-psychology, and of a lot of psychotherapy, cognitive therapy. So that, I think, is the greatest truth.
But if you take that to its logical conclusion, you get a psychology or philosophy of life that says stop striving, look within, meditate, disengage. And the conclusion I came to in writing The Happiness Hypothesis, it wasn’t where I started, was that that contemplative life, that life of reflection, that Stoic life, might have worked for some people in some times, but it’s generally a bad idea for us Westerners. Many of us who are not anchored in a religion, we feel like we’re seeking. Many of us end up at Buddhism. Many of us think, oh, so wise. Oh, meditate, reflect, withdraw. Of course, you can still be engaged in the world in a way, but oh, you know, passionate engagement is bad for you.
I think that we are passionate creatures who really live our fullest life when we are deeply engaged, when we feel successes, and exult in them, when we feel losses and tragedies and are hurt by them.
So I came to the conclusion that Eastern ideas of withdrawal may not be right for modern Westerners. Now, a lot of modern Buddhists have given me flak for this because they say, oh, no, Buddhism is compatible with modern life. And, sure, modern American Buddhism is--because it’s modern American.
If you read the ancient texts, they’re pretty severe. I mean, they really are not the sort of thing that you would think compatible with really throwing yourself into life and being a part of it.
Question: What is the divided self?
Jonathan Haidt: The divided self is the other greatest truth; there’s nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so being the second one.
The first, the most basic fact of psychology, is that the mind is divided into parts that often conflict. [Sigmund] Freud brought this to everyone’s awareness, but he had a kind of an odd scheme of how these parts are. He had an unconscious that was deep and dark and repressed and sexual and violent. The unconscious can be all of those things, but mostly the unconscious is just the 99% of stuff that you’re not thinking about right now, most of which you can never think about, because you can’t look inside and see the operation of your mind.
So almost everything we do is automatic, yet we’re not aware of that. We feel like there’s a circle of light. I’m looking within it.
We’re like the drunk who lost his keys and is looking under the streetlight, and the cop says, “Where’d you lose your keys?” You say, “Back in the alley, but the light’s so much better over here.”
So the divided self refers to the fact that we are basically animals with animal brains. These animal brains run our lives. They’re very good at it.
We are like a rider on top of a gigantic elephant. We can steer the elephant, and if he’s not busy, he’ll go where we want, but if he has other desires, he’ll often go where he wants.
Question: How can we control the elephant?
Jonathan Haidt: How can one control the elephant? In part, this comes with maturity. In part, this comes with the development of your frontal cortex, so the frontal areas of the brain are especially involved in self-control, in suppressing your initial instinct to act.
This is why teenagers are so impulsive. This is why it’s terrible to allow the death penalty for teenagers, because they really don’t have working brains yet.
So a lot of it comes with maturity. Psychotherapy can help some people, especially people who are highly neurotic, who are always making problems for themselves. They need to get a better working relationship between the rider and the elephant.
In part, I think you get it just from watching yourself stumble around in life, make mistakes, and then read a little psychology and stop blaming yourself. Realize that I am flawed. I am complicated. I am divided, and I’m doing the best I can.
Question: Is it possible to change the brain?
Jonathan Haidt: There is some research suggesting that years and years and years of meditation can have a lasting impact on the brain. This research isn’t well replicated yet, but it may be true.
I think that we Americans, in particular, tend to think too directly about problems. If there’s a problem we want to basically go in with a screwdriver or else drop bombs on it.
A better way to solve problems is to think indirectly and try to change the environment. So I think you can gain much better self-control not so much by working on yourself as by looking at the situations you’re in and the people you hang around, and changing your environment.
If you want to affect an animal’s behavior, you want to be very careful about what’s in their environment, and you have to look at us as animals.
Recorded on May 9, 2008.