The Happiness Hypothesis Summary

1-Sentence-Summary: The Happiness Hypothesis is the most thorough analysis of how you can find happiness in our modern society, backed by plenty of scientific research, real-life examples and even a formula for happiness.

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If you’re looking for a scientifically proven way to find happiness, you’ve come to the right place.

These blinks show that Jonathan Haidt, social psychologist and professor at NYU, has pulled out all the stops.

In the beginning of The Happiness Hypothesis, he establishes a metaphor, which then serves throughout the rest of the book to explain happiness in different contexts.

He says our brain is divided into two main parts. Your limbic system is in charge of your basic instincts, the needs for sleep, food and sex.

The neocortex is, as its name suggests, a newer part of the brain, responsible for your rational thinking. It’s what keeps your limbic system in check and makes sure you don’t run around naked on the street, overeat, or sleep in when you’re supposed to go to work.

While the neocortex follows suit to your thoughts, your limbic brain doesn’t. It’s fully in charge of your heart rate, moving while you sleep or the knee-jerk reflex.

Haidt therefore describes the limbic brain as a wild elephant, with your neocortex being the rider, trying to control the elephant.

Unhappiness comes from the rider and the elephant disagreeing, and Haidt uses this metaphor to show you what you can do to close the gap between the two.

50% to 80% of your baseline level of happiness is determined in your genes, but by changing your thoughts you can still train the elephant.

For example, your limbic brain is trained to recognize danger everywhere, in order to survive, but by becoming an optimist, you can lessen this behavior, which isn’t quite so useful today.

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A large chunk of our happiness comes from our social relationships, and the first step towards improving them, is understanding them.

Reciprocity is the principle on which we interact, which is why you feel guilty if you don’t return a favor and Sheldon feels compelled to give a gift back. We feel so strongly about it, that we’d prefer to get nothing, rather than receiving an unfair share.

You can use this principle the next time you fight with your spouse or roommate: Just admit some of the things you did wrong. Your friend will start to reciprocate and also admit what they did wrong, helping both of you to resolve the conflict.

Doing this also helps lessening your self-serving bias, since your elephant thinks it’s always right and your rider usually defends it.

Next to your relationships, your work is one of the few factors that matters a lot to your happiness.

The adaptation principle shows that whatever lucky event or adversity we face, we get used to it. This was proven in a study showing that people who won the lottery and people who became paralyzed both returned to their baseline happiness levels after one year.

However, what you spend your time working on is one of those external circumstances that has a big impact, thanks to the progress principle. It says that we draw much more happiness from working towards a goal, rather than reaching it.

So try to find meaningful work you’re good at – as Confucius says: “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”

Your most important relationship in your life will likely be the one with your partner or spouse. But on your quest for love, don’t just rely on passion. No matter how much “in love” you are at the beginning of the relationship, it naturally fades – and that’s okay.

Haidt says we must seek to develop companionate love, which is what best friends, brothers, sisters and family members share. Having someone at your side through the ups and downs of life, sharing your joy and sadness and exploring and learning together creates a much stronger bond, which can last you a lifetime, but it takes time to develop.

So don’t give up a relationship once passion fades, but give your companionate love time to develop.

The rider and the elephant might also disagree about who you are. For example your rider can try to preserve your image of being an efficient, career-driven manager, while your elephant just wants to cut himself some slack and play soccer with his buddies.

It often takes a crisis for us to see these differences, which is why adversity can make us happier. This is especially true for people in their teens and twenties, who spend a lot of time thinking and looking for meaning in their lives. A crisis gives you the chance to see what the elephant really wants and help the rider adjust your self-image to match your true desires.

Lastly, we need to feel connected to something greater than ourselves, which is why religion has a place in our lives. Even if you’re an atheist, you probably believe in karma, destiny or fortune. That’s a good thing! Belief gives us a sense of awe, because it makes us realize that we’re a small part of something much greater.

To sum up:

  1. Surround yourself with the people you love the most and live in accordance with reciprocity
  2. Do work that matters to you
  3. Find a partner who will stand by your side through sunshine and rain
  4. Allow yourself to be part of something greater

These are just some of the things I learned from these blinks, as there were so many good insights, let alone in the book.

The Happiness Hypothesis Review

These blinks did an awesome job. I read parts of The Happiness Hypothesis, and every page hits you with a new insight. I don’t know how I would’ve summarized it, but Blinkist did it.

I would have liked to learn about the formula here (Haidt gives a formula for happiness in the book, consisting of your biological set points, the conditions of your life, and your voluntary activities), but I don’t mind that they went for the rider and the elephant metaphor.

Using this throughout all blinks made the summary very consistent and actionable. The book is great, the summary is superb – I highly recommend you get both.

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Who would I recommend the Happiness Hypothesis summary to?

The 27 year old who burns through one love relationship after another, the 47 year old who still slaves away in a corporate job she hates in hope for a good retirement and anyone who thinks happiness is just something your born with.

Last Updated on December 5, 2022

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Niklas Göke

Niklas Göke is an author and writer whose work has attracted tens of millions of readers to date. He is also the founder and CEO of Four Minute Books, a collection of over 1,000 free book summaries teaching readers 3 valuable lessons in just 4 minutes each. Born and raised in Germany, Nik also holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration & Engineering from KIT Karlsruhe and a Master’s Degree in Management & Technology from the Technical University of Munich. He lives in Munich and enjoys a great slice of salami pizza almost as much as reading — or writing — the next book — or book summary, of course!