The Happiness Hypothesis - how to train your elephant

Jonathan Haidt's book The Happiness Hypothesis takes a very broad and open perspective on happiness, discussing concepts from eastern philosophy and western science – trying to narrow down what happiness really is and how to close in on it. The book does so in an enjoyable fashion, infusing the chapters with interesting anecdotes while using excellent metaphors to explain concepts.

The book contains vast amounts of stories and facts. In this post I have collected a handful of the ones I found particularly interesting.

The elephant and the rider

Most models trying to explain how the mind works, divide it into different compartments. For example Freud divides the mind into superego, ego and id. An excellent metaphor for these aspects of the mind is provided by the author:

The metaphor I use when I lecture on Freud is to think of the mind as a horse and buggy (a Victorian chariot) in which the driver (the ego) struggles frantically to control a hungry, lustful, and disobedient horse (the id) while the driver’s father (the superego) sits in the back seat lecturing the driver on what he is doing wrong.

But for me (as well as the author) the most striking and enlightening metaphor for the mind, is that we can view the emotional, unconscious part of the mind, probably close to what Freud would call the id, as a big grumpy elephant. The elephant represents our deepest emotions and our innermost beliefs and desires. Like all elephants, this part of our mind is very strong and goes wherever it wants.

Then we have the rider, sitting on top of the elephant, trying to manoeuvre it. The analogy for the rider in Freudian terms would be the ego and the superego combined. This is the rational part of our mind, the part that realizes that if we eat a big bag of candy every day while never leaving our sofa, we will have a hard time losing weight. The crux here is that no matter how much the rider thinks he can steer the elephant, if the elephant doesn't want to leave the sofa, we will most definitely stay there.

The rider being a lawyer for the elephant

The rider often assumes the role of a lawyer representing the elephant. We can see this in daily life in people who have a really strong opinion about something. Usually it is their elephant who has this opinion. The rider doesn't know why, but assumes the role of a lawyer, naturally coming up with explanations and arguments for the opinion when trying to justify it to ourselves and the outside world.

Studies of “motivated reasoning” show that people who are motivated to reach a particular conclusion are even worse reasoners than those in Kuhn’s and Perkins’s studies, but the mechanism is basically the same: a one-sided search for supporting evidence only.

Another, more biological way of compartmentalising the mind is right-brain vs left-brain. In experiments when the nerves between the brain halves have been cut, the conflict between the rider and the elephant can become very tangible:

In some split-brain patients, or in others who have suffered damage to the corpus callosum, the right hemisphere seems to be actively fighting with the left hemisphere in a condition known as alien hand syndrome. In these cases, one hand, usually the left, acts of its own accord and seems to have its own agenda. The alien hand may pick up a ringing phone, but then refuse to pass the phone to the other hand or bring it up to an ear. The hand rejects choices the person has just made, for example, by putting back on the rack a shirt that the other hand has just picked out. It grabs the wrist of the other hand and tries to stop it from executing the person’s conscious plans. Sometimes, the alien hand actually reaches for the person’s own neck and tries to strangle him.

Interesting stories

The book contains lots of interesting stories and anecdotes from all kinds of psychological studies, which are great fun to read. For example how the neocortex (which would correspond to the elephant rider) serves a really crucial function in our brain:

There was recently such a case at the University of Virginia’s hospital. A schoolteacher in his forties had, fairly suddenly, begun to visit prostitutes, surf child pornography Web sites, and proposition young girls. He was soon arrested and convicted of child molestation. The day before his sentencing, he went to the hospital emergency room because he had a pounding headache and was experiencing a constant urge to rape his land-lady. (His wife had thrown him out of the house months earlier.) Even while he was talking to the doctor, he asked passing nurses to sleep with him. A brain scan found that an enormous tumor in his frontal cortex was squeezing everything else, preventing the frontal cortex from doing its job of inhibiting inappropriate behavior and thinking about consequences. (Who in his right mind would put on such a show the day before his sentencing?) When the tumor was removed, the hypersexuality vanished.

Or how our elephant tends to really like the sound of our own name:

One of the most bizarre demonstrations of the like-o-meter in action comes from the work of Brett Pelham, who has discovered that one’s like-o-meter is triggered by one’s own name. Whenever you see or hear a word that resembles your name, a little flash of pleasure biases you toward thinking the thing is good. So when a man named Dennis is considering a career, he ponders the possibilities: “Lawyer, doctor, banker, dentist . . . dentist . . . something about dentist just feels right.” And, in fact, people named Dennis or Denise are slightly more likely than people with other names to become dentists. Men named Lawrence and women named Laurie are more likely to become lawyers. Louis and Louise are more likely to move to Louisiana or St. Louis, and George and Georgina are more likely to move to Georgia.

Or another instance of the famous monozygous twin experiment also mentioned in The How of Happiness.

Consider the identical twin sisters Daphne and Barbara. Raised outside London, they both left school at the age of fourteen, went to work in local government, met their future husbands at the age of sixteen at local town hall dances, suffered miscarriages at the same time, and then each gave birth to two boys and a girl. They feared many of the same things (blood and heights) and exhibited unusual habits (each drank her coffee cold; each developed the habit of pushing up her nose with the palm of the hand, a gesture they both called “squidging”). None of this may surprise you until you learn that separate families had adopted Daphne and Barbara as infants; neither even knew of the other’s existence until they were reunited at the age of forty. When they finally did meet, they were wearing almost identical clothing.

How to tame the elephant

So, to get anywhere in terms of happiness and inner calm, we need to find a way to tame the elephant. The rider giving orders is apparently not always enough to get the elephant to do what we want. According to the author there are three effective ways to tame our elephant.

Buddha got it exactly right: You need a method for taming the elephant, for changing your mind gradually. Meditation, cognitive therapy, and Prozac are three effective means of doing so.

Cognitive therapy

We are provided with the gist of cognitive therapy:

A big part of cognitive therapy is training clients to catch their thoughts, write them down, name the distortions, and then find alternative and more accurate ways of thinking. Over many weeks, the client’s thoughts become more realistic, the feedback loop is broken, and the client’s anxiety or depression abates. Cognitive therapy works because it teaches the rider how to train the elephant rather than how to defeat it directly in an argument.

Evolutionary perspective

The author discusses the evolutionary perspective as to how our brains work as well.

Tit for tat appears to be built into human nature as a set of moral emotions that make us want to return favor for favor, insult for insult, tooth for tooth, and eye for eye. Several recent theorists even talk about an “exchange organ” in the human brain, as though a part of the brain were devoted to keeping track of fairness, debts owed, and social accounts-receivable.

It also brings up the somewhat worn but nevertheless very intriguing Dunbar explanation of why we humans "need" to have such oversized brains:

But the only theory that explains why animals in general have particular brain sizes is the one that maps brain size onto social group size. Robin Dunbar has demonstrated that within a given group of vertebrate species—primates, carnivores, ungulates, birds, reptiles, or fish—the logarithm of the brain size is almost perfectly proportional to the logarithm of the social group size.


Human beings ought to live in groups of around 150 people, judging from the logarithm of our brain size; and sure enough, studies of hunter-gatherer groups, military units, and city dwellers’ address books suggest that 100 to 150 is the “natural” group size within which people can know just about everyone directly, by name and face, and know how each person is related to everybody else.

Which leads to an interesting hypothesis; that perhaps the extended need for our oversized brains is to be able to be efficient at gossip, which in turn makes a tribe of humans cooperate more smoothly by facilitating trust between individuals.

In short, Dunbar proposes that language evolved because it enabled gossip. Individuals who could share social information, using any primitive means of communication, had an advantage over those who could not. And once people began gossiping, there was a runaway competition to master the arts of social manipulation, relationship aggression, and reputation management, all of which require yet more brain power.

Illusions about the self

We also get to learn a bit on how the elephant is really keen on protecting its image of ourselves, but that this may be a good thing for happy people as they tend to hold positive illusions about themselves.

evidence shows that people who hold pervasive positive illusions about themselves, their abilities, and their future prospects are mentally healthier, happier, and better liked than people who lack such illusions.

Studies have shown that we are very open to revising decisions and opinions about other people if we receive new information about them. But if we receive new information about ourselves, we are very reluctant to revising our self image.

Striving for money, success and status

One central part of Buddhism and Stoicism is that we should not become attached to material wealth, status, relationships etc. because they are changing in nature and it will make us unhappy when we lose these things.

I have often interpreted this to mean that we should strive to not even possess material wealth or relationships (because then we cannot become sad when losing them), but the author nuances this a bit. We can enjoy things, the key is to not develop attachment to them when doing so.

Stoics and Buddhists can have relationships, jobs, and possessions, but, to avoid becoming upset upon losing them, they must not be emotionally attached to them.


People who report the greatest interest in attaining money, fame, or beauty are consistently found to be less happy, and even less healthy, than those who pursue less materialistic goals.

A classic topic is material wealth and/or "success" and how it doesn't contribute much to long term happiness and well-being. This is a metaphor that can be useful:

The final moment of success is often no more thrilling than the relief of taking off a heavy backpack at the end of a long hike. If you went on the hike only to feel that pleasure, you are a fool. Yet people sometimes do just this.

And we have the usual examples of why external material conditions will not guarantee happiness nor sadness:

Within a year, lottery winners and paraplegics have both (on average) returned most of the way to their baseline levels of happiness.


Lottery winners are so often harassed that many have to move, hide, end relationships, and finally turn to each other, forming lottery winner support groups to deal with their new difficulties. (It should be noted, however, that nearly all lottery winners are still glad that they won.)

The author argues that the reason for striving must always be to make the striving in itself the focus and the reward:

We can call this “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.”


people would be happier and healthier if they took more time off and “spent” it with their family and friends, yet America has long been heading in the opposite direction. People would be happier if they reduced their commuting time, even if it meant living in smaller houses, yet American trends are toward ever larger houses and ever longer commutes. People would be happier and healthier if they took longer vacations, even if that meant earning less, yet vacation times are shrinking in the United States, and in Europe as well. People would be happier, and in the long run wealthier, if they bought basic, functional appliances, automobiles, and wristwatches, and invested the money they saved for future consumption; yet, Americans in particular spend almost everything they have—and sometimes more—on goods for present consumption, often paying a large premium for designer names and superfluous features.

The value of good relationships

As discussed in the Harvard Study of Adult Development, relationships are crucial for long term happiness.

A good marriage is one of the life-factors most strongly and consistently associated with happiness.


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.

Five conditions that will affect happiness

As everything I have read so far on happiness, the author argues that conditions such as wealth, job etc. will not make us much happier or unhappier. However, the author argues that there are five strong exceptions to this:

One of the most important ideas in positive psychology is what Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, Schkade, and Seligman call the “happiness formula:” H=S+C+V 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.


Research shows that people who must adapt to new and chronic sources of noise (such as when a new highway is built) never fully adapt, and even studies that find some adaptation still find evidence of impairment on cognitive tasks. Noise, especially noise that is variable or intermittent, interferes with concentration and increases stress.


Commuting. Many people choose to move farther away from their jobs in search of a larger house. But although people quickly adapt to having more space, they don’t fully adapt to the longer commute, particularly if it involves driving in heavy traffic. Even after years of commuting, those whose commutes are traffic-filled still arrive at work with higher levels of stress hormones.


In a review paper that Rodin and I wrote, we concluded that changing an institution’s environment to increase the sense of control among its workers, students, patients, or other users was one of the most effective possible ways to increase their sense of engagement, energy, and happiness.

Here we get the somewhat contradictory and surprising intel that plastic surgery actually does make us happier. Hmm.

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) in the years after the operation. The biggest gains were reported for breast surgery, both enlargement and reduction.


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. You never adapt to interpersonal conflict; it damages every day, even days when you don’t see the other person but ruminate about the conflict nonetheless.

Pleasures vs. gratifications

An inconvenient thing is that the word "happiness" encompasses so many different kinds of feelings for most of us. This is probably part of the reason why we think that winning the lottery will make us happy – because in our mind we don't really differentiate between that kind of short-lived excitement and more stables types of happiness. The author distinguishes between pleasure and gratification as two different kinds of happiness.

He discovered that there are two different kinds of enjoyment. One is physical or bodily pleasure. At meal times, people report the highest levels of happiness, on average. People really enjoy eating, especially in the company of others, and they hate to be interrupted by telephone calls (and perhaps Csikszentmihalyi’s beeps) during meals, or (worst of all) during sex. But you can’t enjoy physical pleasure all day long. By their very nature, food and sex satiate.

After explaining pleasure we get to know about different kinds of gratification, the main one being flow.

Csikszentmihalyi called it “flow” because it often feels like effortless movement: Flow happens, and you go with it. Flow often occurs during physical movement—skiing, driving fast on a curvy country road, or playing team sports. Flow is aided by music or by the action of other people, both of which provide a temporal structure for one’s own behavior (for example, singing in a choir, dancing, or just having an intense conversation with a friend). And flow can happen during solitary creative activities, such as painting, writing, or photography.

The concept of flow is very important, and most of us probably recognize this wonderful state of mind.

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).


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

In summary, we should try to have both gratifications and pleasures in our daily lives to optimize happiness.

Pleasures are “delights that have clear sensory and strong emotional components,” such as may be derived from food, sex, backrubs, and cool breezes. Gratifications are activities that engage you fully, draw on your strengths, and allow you to lose self-consciousness. Gratifications can lead to flow. Seligman proposes that V (voluntary activities) is largely a matter of arranging your day and your environment to increase both pleasures and gratifications. Pleasures must be spaced to maintain their potency.

Mother-child-bonding system "reused" for romantic love

One very interesting hypothesis is that the same system in our body govern both mother-child bonding and romantic bonding.

Once you think about it, the similarities between romantic relationships and parent-infant relationships are obvious. Lovers in the first rush of love spend endless hours in face-to-face mutual gaze, holding each other, nuzzling and cuddling, kissing, using baby voices, and enjoying the same release of the hormone oxytocin that binds mothers and babies to each other in a kind of addiction.

Oxytocin is an interesting hormone.

when oxytocin floods the brain (male or female) while two people are in skin-to-skin contact, the effect is soothing and calming, and it strengthens the bond between them.

For some reason I really love to find signs of this type of "evolutionary pragmatism". I mean, we have a perfectly good set of genes for mother-child attachment, why not reuse it when creating the fairly unique concept of romantic love present in humans? Why reinvent the wheel? I think I find this appealing because it show that in the layers of complexity constituting our DNA and evolution, there are also instances of striking simplicity.

Hardships – who needs 'em?

Hardships and traumas are also discussed. Are they purely bad for our well-being, or can they be useful – even essential – to developing happiness and inner peace?

There is a window of time—just a few weeks or months after the tragedy—during which you are more open to something else. During this time, achievement goals often lose their allure, sometimes coming to seem pointless. If you shift toward other goals—family, religion, or helping others—you shift to inconspicuous consumption, and the pleasures derived along the way are not fully subject to adaptation (treadmill) effects. The pursuit of these goals therefore leads to more happiness but less wealth (on average). Many people change their goals in the wake of adversity; they resolve to work less, to love and play more. If in those first few months you take action—you do something that changes your daily life—then the changes might stick.


For example, in the “commitment story,” the protagonist has a supportive family background, is sensitized early in life to the sufferings of others, is guided by a clear and compelling personal ideology, and, at some point, transforms or redeems failures, mistakes, or crises into a positive outcome, a process that often involves setting new goals that commit the self to helping others. The life of the Buddha is a classic example.

He even argues that there could be an optimal time in our life for a major crisis or trauma, namely in our late teens or early twenties.

Elder says that life starts to “crystallize” by the late twenties. Even young men who had not been doing well before serving in World War II often turned their lives around afterward, but people who faced their first real life test after the age of thirty (for example, combat in that war, or financial ruin in the Great Depression) were less resilient and less likely to grow from their experiences. So adversity may be most beneficial for people in their late teens and into their twenties.

Overcoming traumas and mental wounds by writing

A very interesting treatment method to recover from traumas was discussed.

The people who wrote about traumas went to the doctor or the hospital fewer times in the following year. I did not believe this result when I first heard it. How on earth could one hour of writing stave off the flu six months later? Pennebaker’s results seemed to support an old-fashioned Freudian notion of catharsis: People who express their emotions, “get it off their chests” or “let off steam,” are healthier. Having once reviewed the literature on the catharsis hypothesis, I knew that there was no evidence for it. Letting off steam makes people angrier, not calmer. Pennebaker discovered that it’s not about steam; it’s about sense making.


Pennebaker suggests that you write continuously for fifteen minutes a day, for several days. Don’t edit or censor yourself; don’t worry about grammar or sentence structure; just keep writing. Write about what happened, how you feel about it, and why you feel that way. If you hate to write, you can talk into a tape recorder. The crucial thing is to get your thoughts and feelings out without imposing any order on them—but in such a way that, after a few days, some order is likely to emerge on its own. 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?

Goals that make us happy

What kind of goals are worthy of striving for? There are a few suggestions about this:

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, and generativity (leaving a legacy and contributing something to society). Although it is generally good for you to pursue goals, not all goals are equal. 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.


The psychologists Ken Sheldon and Tim Kasser have found that people who are mentally healthy and happy have a higher degree of “vertical coherence” among their goals—that is, 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.

So, there you have it! I really enjoyed this book, even if it contained too much boring text about the author's own research of religion and norms withing societies etc. which didn't particularly interest me.

Header photo by Honza Soukup (CC BY 2.0).

Micael Widell

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