Jonathan Haidt was mentioned in a MOOC I was doing as a good author to read to get an overview of the history of philosophy. Despite the name, it’s not a bubble-brained positive thinking self help book. It’s a great overview of major thoughts of philosophy and interesting correlations to modern psychology and a nice compliment to the MOOCs I’ve been doing. My current MOOC is on Heidegger but also references a lot of Plato,which is convenient because I’m still plodding through audiobooks of Plato’s work.

The First 5 chapters

Chapter 1 is about ‘the divided self’, and I lovelovelove the breakdown of this little piece of hegemony. Haidt points out that we’re used to thinking of our conscious mind as the driver and our unconscious self as a car that just goes where we steer, as opposed to an ‘elephant’ that will stubbornly make its own decisions much of the time.

This deconstruction frames a lot of the idea in the first few chapters, as modern psychology has proven that we unconsciously lean towards negative thinking, we’re often hypocritical and excellent at justifying our self-serving biases and decisions. One interesting take away from this is that people like the sound of their own name so much it can influence where they live, who they date, what they eat etc – simply because the name sounds like theirs.

Disturbingly, he also surmises that people’s genes and natural brain chemistry means that they tend to snap back to a ‘natural’ state of happiness for them – so if you luck out in the gene pool you’ll find it very difficult to ever be happier. Furthermore we adapt so quickly to life that the effect of any positive changes are shortlived. He recommends meditation as a brain-changer, as well as cognitive therapy or prozac.

He turns to research to recommend strong relationships and community ties, longer holidays and shorter commutes to assist with longer term happiness. Bizarrely enough he also argues against living somewhere noisy – apparently disturbing noise is something people never acclimatise to if they have no control over it. This is partly because it gives them a sense of  a lack of control, but also the basic disturbance to concentration.

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I have further thoughts on Haidt’s discussion of Buddhism, but that’s worthy of another post.

It’ll be interesting to see what the next 5 chapters hold!