On my former housemate Barnaby’s recommendation, I recently read Jonathan Haidt’s “Happiness Hypothesis”. I thought that the book was interesting and at times illuminating. I enjoyed it and am glad that I read it, and thought that it was better than most books I have read.

A central theme in the book is that being human is like being a rider on an elephant, the rider being our conscious intentional awareness, and the elephant being our instinctual habitual animal self. The elephant can be trained, slowly, so that it will obey the rider’s whims, but it takes time and patience. Trained, the elephant can do great things, but, if untrained, it can cause destruction. The book also talked at length about the need for love and human connection and for meaningful work for human happiness to flourish.

The author made these points drawing from modern psychological research, and from various philosophical and religious traditions. He especially examined Buddhism, and its relevance to happiness. I thought that he made some interesting points about Buddhism. I think, however, that he misunderstood and misused technical Buddhist ideas by using the words in their conventional English meanings. For example, he using the word “attachment” to signify simple caring or emotional investment, rather than the technical Buddhist meaning of a viscosity of internal experience that attempts to unnaturally hold, congeal around, and grab at experiences of pleasure. He also examined “happiness” as simple pleasantness of mood, rather than the Buddhist meaning, which is more liberation from constriction, congealing, and identification with phenomena that enables life to be experienced as natural unforced vibratory emanations from Divinity/Emptiness (which is a “happiness” that includes and transcends both mundane “happiness” and mundane “unhappiness”).

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Every time he said, “In the end, I think Buddhism gets it wrong, and I think that happiness instead comes from …”, the thing he stated in contrast to Buddhism with seemed to me to be pretty Buddhist, or at least compatible with Buddhism. An example was where he said that happiness, in the normal sense of the word, isn’t a purely internal process (which seems to me to be a false, straw man notion of Dharma teaches), but instead arises in the interaction between a person’s psyche and their environment (which is what I have always understood Dharma to more saying).

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