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THE HAPPINESS HYPOTHESIS : FINDING MODERN TRUTH IN ANCIENT WISDOM (Unplugged)
A conversation between Jonathan Haidt & Moe Abdou

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The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (Unplugged)

Jonathan Haidt with Moe Abdou

!

About Jonathan Haidt & Moe Abdou Jonathan Haidt Jonathan Haidt’s is a Professor in Social Psychology at the University of Virginia. He received his Ph. D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1992 and was awarded the Templeton Prize in Positive Psychology on 2001. His research focuses on morality – its emotional foundations, cultural variations, and developmental course. He began his career studying the negative moral emotions, such as disgust, shame, and vengeance, but then moved on to the understudied positive moral emotions, such as admiration, awe, and moral elevation. Moe Abdou Moe Abdou is the creator of 33voices — a global conversation about things that matter in business and in life. moe@33voices.com

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The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (Unplugged)

Jonathan Haidt with Moe Abdou

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A lot of the stuff that you do is very relevant to the world that we’re living today and I’m fascinated by your work. I guess maybe I’d like to get your perspective very quickly on this whole happiness thing. Why is happiness so elusive to people? There are so many people around the world that choose to be unhappy. It was just so evident to me this morning at a couple of meetings. Part of the room was extremely vibrant and we had another part of the room that seems to be just looking for misery. It was ironic that I’m speaking to you today and you see that all over the place. What causes that? Why is happiness so elusive to people? Well first, most people are moderately happy. If you just survey people even people whose lives look miserable from the outside such as prostitutes in Calcutta. Most people report more happiness than unhappiness. But with that said, depression is very common. At any given time, about 3% to 6% of people are severely depressed. The kind of phenomena you’re talking about where in a given room some people are reacting positively and others negatively, that’s not because the negatives chose to be negative. That’s because their brains are just wired to perceive threats and problems and other people are wired to perceive opportunities. This is the major reason why some people are happy and others less so. Our genes made our brains and some people have genes that made brains that are always looking for possibility others for threat. So for the brains wired to look for threat. How likely is it they can make that shift in their thinking so they start to think in terms of possibilities? That’s the major question at positive psychology with design to address. We know that happiness is very highly heritable. On your program you had Sonja Lyunomirsky awhile ago. She has done some work showing if you start from looking at the genetic study showing that about 50% to 70% of the variance between people is heritable, but actually, there is a fair amount that you can do with the remaining variance. There are some things you can do. What you can’t do is just resolve to be happy. You can’t just say, “I’m going to be happy today. I’m going to smell the roses. I’m going to smile at people.” That’s worthless. We can get into that but the basic reason is because our minds are divided into parts that sometimes conflicts and our behavior is really controlled by what we might call the elephants rather than a little guy sitting on the elephant’s back urging him to, “Hey go this way. Go that way.”
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The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (Unplugged)

Jonathan Haidt with Moe Abdou

!

Can you give us some steps for the ones who are anxious to make that shift to start up? Once you see yourself as a confederation of parts or modules, and once you see yourself as being composed mostly of unconscious processes which you might think of as the elephant, that’s what most of the brain is, automatic processes just like other animals. And then we have this little new ability. This language based ability to say, “I want to be happier. What can I do?” Once you see that the real task of the self change is to change the elephant, it’s not to change the writer. Then you narrow down your options quite a bit to the things that might actually work. You can’t just pass resolutions. What you can do is meditation, self hypnosis, cognitive therapy, and Prozac. Those are the four main psychological interventions that are basically ways of retraining your habitual thoughts. I should add into that also exercise and some dietary things such as increasing omega-3 fatty acid. There are some simple things you can do that will change your brain a little bit and exercise is one of the best. Johnathan is it easier for the children to make that shift than it is for adults in 30s or 40s? I don’t think children are very good at making changes in themselves because when you look at it in terms of the rider in the elephant, the rider is some of the conscious self-controlled parts of the mind that are located especially in the frontal cortex - will power, self control. The frontal cortex doesn’t really finish developing until around the age of 30. It’s notoriously undeveloped in teenagers and children. So people who are prone to depression and moping and misery, they might know that they have a problem. But to undertake a sustained program, say of cognitive therapy or self hypnosis, they require some discipline. So children are just extremely bad. It’s not impossible but children are extremely bad at changing. Adults especially over 30 are much better at implementing a program and sticking with it. So if the rider can pick a plan for changing the elephant and then has the willpower to stick with it, then yes, you can definitely make yourself substantially happier. If they did one of the four, like for example, meditation, does that get them on the right track?
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The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (Unplugged)

Jonathan Haidt with Moe Abdou

!

Yes. You can do anyone of the four but they are differentially likely to work. What I found informally just from talking to people and from assigning various activities in my psychology classes would be that meditation is the hardest. Meditation takes a lot of willpower. I think that young people in particular have a problem with it. Again, their frontal cortex isn’t well developed enough. So meditation is actually at the bottom of my list even though if you can do it, if you could stick with it, the results are wonderful and there are no side effects. In terms of the greatest likelihood of success, that goes to Prozac. Simply taking an SSRI such as Prozac or Paxil or Lexapro; any of those, they are very similar. They don’t just make you happier, they actually change the way you think. I’ve tried them myself out of both curiosity and anxiety. They really just shift your brain over from seeing threats to sort of saying, “Oh well, that thing happened, what’s next? What do I do next?” So simply taking a pill everyday is the easiest and probably the most likely to succeed. But overall, the best strategy, the single method which has no side effects whatsoever and a very high likelihood of success is cognitive behavioral therapy. Where you learn to challenge your negative assumptions, your negative thinking patterns, and replace your habitually negative thoughts with more positive thoughts. Can you give us one example of that? Certainly, when somebody doesn’t return your call. A lot of people instantly -by the time the day is out or the next day they think, “Oh, he probably doesn’t like me. I must have offended him. What did I say? I don’t know. Is something wrong with me?” That’s very common. That’s very normal. You can agonize over it, “Oh I wish I hadn’t said that little thing on my message.” It turns out the guy was just on vacation. He’s going to call you the next day most of the time. When you catch yourself criticizing yourself or worrying or saying, he hates me or it’s the end of the world. When you catch yourself doing that, once you have names for these errors, these ridiculous cognitive distortions that most of us do everyday, with cognitive therapy, you learn names for them. You learn the technique for questioning them, replacing them with more positive thoughts. Even though it starts off being something that you do very deliberately, it’s something done by the writer, we could say. After a few weeks, you change your habitual thought patterns and the elephant kind of gets it. So when I’ve assigned in my positive psychology classes at the University of Virginia, when I assign students to change themselves within 10
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The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (Unplugged)

Jonathan Haidt with Moe Abdou

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weeks, pick a change you want to make in yourself and do it, and give me evidence that you’ve changed, the students who pick cognitive therapy to change themselves are generally the most successful ones. Your stuff is absolutely fascinating. I want to be conscious of time. I just want to ask a few of those questions I sent you. The metaphor I hear a lot in business is, ‘Do what I say, not what I do.’ As you know, there are a lot of leaders in business who are so guilty of that -- including myself certainly when I was running my organization. What advice can you share with us about these expectations? I think the most important piece of advice is to lower your expectations about change. If you appreciate our mental structure; if you appreciate the difficulties that we have in changing the elephant; if you appreciate how hard it is to change yourself when you really want to change yourself and have resolve to do so. Then how likely are you to change somebody else who doesn’t necessarily see things as you do and haven’t necessarily committed to the change you want to impose on them. The first piece of advice would be, lower your expectations for your ability to change others. With that said, you can certainly change their behavior by changing payoffs, by changing the environment. There are many things you can as a leader that will end up producing different behavior and different outcomes. But if you try to run your plans through the mechanism of changing your employees’ personalities or values, that’s very difficult to do. That’s why it’s so common for people to say, ‘Do as I say and not as I do.’ Because I can’t even make myself do this thing but I’m going to ask you to do it. Absolutely. As you know in our society today, there is a general lack of trust specifically in business and on Wall Street in particular. Do you feel that this stems from a lack of trust within the self? I still think trust is an extremely important social variable. You can describe any society, any organization by the degree to which people within it expect to be treated well by others and expect that others aren’t going to rip them off or take advantage of them. I think the level of trust isn’t very much influenced by what’s going on within us. It’s not a matter of self esteem or self trust or anything else. I think it’s very much a matter of a few simple variables. One of the most important is having a long time horizon. If people are together for a long time, it’s much easier for them to trust each other than if it’s a very temporary arrangement. This is why for example, if you’re in a border town, you can pretty much count on being ripped off because people just pass
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The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (Unplugged)

Jonathan Haidt with Moe Abdou

!

through and they don’t come back. Whereas if you’re in a small town, where people tend to stay, people treat each other quite well. Another is the degree of mobility and diversity. All of these things undercut trust to the extent that people feel that they’re similar to others, they can trust them. But when we have ethnic diversity or any other kind of diversity, it reduces the way to which people trust each other. I’m not advocating hiring based on raise, I’m just saying, for all of our emphasis on diversity; we ought to recognize that certain kinds of diversity actually reduce people’s ability to trust each other and work together. There are a lot of things that you can pay attention to within a system, within a company that will increase trust - procedural fairness, the expectation that when problems arise, they’re dealt with fairly; that if people don’t get preference based on how much they suck up to the boss; the sense that deviance or selfish behavior is punished. When people feel that they are part of a community in which deviance or selfish behavior is punished and good behavior is rewarded, they’re much more likely to trust, to give their all, and secure that they’re not going to be ripped or taken advantage of. There is obviously a lot of eastern influence in your work. Certainly, for me personally, there is tremendous eastern influence in my thinking. How do you feel that when you use quotes like you use in you book, “if you want the truth to stand clear before you …never be for or against the struggle for or against is the mind disease”. When I was Wall Street for 24 years, using that type of terminology, it was very difficult for people especially leader to concede. We were forced to make decisions and something had to be right and something had to be wrong. Are you seeing a shift when people start to program their thinking in that context? I wouldn’t say I’m seeing a shift across years or decades. The way I think about it is that each culture is an expert in certain aspects of what it is to be a human being. This is an important idea in cultural psychology from the anthropologist, Richard Shweder. Each culture is an expert in certain things. We Westerners are experts in getting things done. If there is a problem, let’s build the machine, let’s pass a law, let us fix the problem. We’re always striving. That makes us very productive. Easterners are the experts in finding equanimity in finding calm. Here I’m talking about the Asia of ancient times. Obviously, Asians in the last 10 or 20 years have been quite good at striving and producing but in terms of the
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The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (Unplugged)

Jonathan Haidt with Moe Abdou

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wisdom of the various cultures, the wisdom of the East is the ancient idea that you can never achieve happiness by making the world conform to your wishes. You need to work on yourself. You need to look within. You need to accept your Dharma. Accept your lot in life. When Westerners are deep into striving especially when they have setbacks, they find the wisdom of the East quite appealing. And conversely, when Easterners felt that they were stuck in outdated economic structures and social structures, they saw the West moving ahead in the last 50 years, they looked westward. So I think that wisdom is a kind of Yin Yang sort of thing. The East and the West both have a lot to contribute and they both do better when they look across the Pacific, let’s say. So let’s touch on one last thing, adversity. This is an area that all entrepreneurs deal with regularly almost on a daily basis. Yet, we all struggle to deal with it because a lot of times maybe it is that, “Oh my goodness, this guy didn’t call me back and it was the big deal.” It has an impact on us. Can you give us advice on dealing with adversity for those who haven’t read the book? Yes. The most important advice is to recognize that there is some truth to the old adage what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger. What I did in my book, Happiness Hypothesis is I reviewed all of these ancient ideas and usually they’re right to some extent and wrong to some extent. There are some things that don’t kill you that damage you for life. Give you post traumatic stress disorder or end up amputating limbs. It’s not that all adversity is good for you. What I found in reviewing the psychological literature, is that there is a process called post traumatic growth. That is when people have cancer, when they lose their house, when all sorts of terrible things happen to people, it hurts like hell. They think it’s the end of the world, but what happens is they discover that as long as they don’t biologically die, they discover that they actually survive it. They have strength they didn’t know about. They tend to change their values. Adversity tends to make you focus on what really matters to yourself. What I found is that there are really two versions of the adversity hypothesis. One version is that adversity in general sometimes makes you stronger and that certainly is true. The more interesting version, the strong version is that unless a person has some serious major setbacks in life, they simply cannot rise to the top of their ability. They cannot make it into the top range of human performance. I can’t say for sure that this is true but it appears to be true. When you look at almost every great person, they have some major failures,
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The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (Unplugged)

Jonathan Haidt with Moe Abdou

!

some major setbacks that toughen them, that strengthen them. That sets the stage for their eventual victory. This is actually one of my concerns about Barrack Obama whom I love as president but he was never really tempered by failure the way say, Bill Clinton or many other presidents had been. So, just one piece of advice that may sound trite to all entrepreneurs out there is that if you haven’t had a few major failures you either haven’t been taking enough risks or you haven’t been doing the things you need to do to toughen yourself up for your eventual success. It probably is not much comfort at the time, but just know that just about every great person had enormous failures. In many cases, those failures were necessary for their eventual success. What’s keeping you inspired nowadays? Is there anything in particular with positive psychology that is keeping you specifically inspired? Yes. The thing that makes me get out of bed early in the morning and run down to my office to get back to work is the topic I’m working on now. It is (inaudible 19:21) hypothesis chapter 4 on moralism and our tendency to judge others and judge people as good or evil. What I’m working on now is a book which will be called, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. My goal in the book is to help people understand what morality really is, why liberal and conservatives are strongly committed to moral visions that are both quite defensible and quite honorable. I’m hoping to use findings in moral psychology to help others respect the other side. And to realize that even liberalism and conservatism, is kind of a yin yang thing. We, as a society, we need a force for change and that’s liberalism and we need a force for stability and order and that’s conservatism. If one side gets complete control, you got problems. You really need both pushing against each other to reach an optimal balance point. This excites me and inspires me. I’m hoping if I can find a time to finish the book while still caring for my two young kids and teaching my courses, if I ever can get the book out, I’m hoping that it will be a conversation starter for people who are interested in how to reduce political polarization and in civility and often nastiness that we see in our nation right now. Still slated for 2011? I hope to finish it by early 2011 and I hope it will come out around January of 2012, in time for the next presidential election.

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The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (Unplugged)

Jonathan Haidt with Moe Abdou

!

I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your time and I appreciate your work and everything that you’re sharing with the world. I really believe your style of writing and your ability to articulate what you articulate. Not only has it made a difference with me but everyone I’ve shared this information with. I really appreciate it. It’s very kind of you Moe. Thanks very much.

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