top of page
  • Toby Sinclair

Happiness Hypothesis Summary - Jonathan Haidt

Updated: Jun 2, 2021

Happiness Hypothesis Summary

⭐ Toby's Rating: 7/10 - Recommended For: Everyone

3 Big Ideas:

  1. Happiness Formula (H = S + C + V) - Happiness = Set Level + Conditions + Voluntary activities

    1. Set Level -The set-point theory of happiness suggests that our level of subjective well-being is determined primarily by heredity and by personality traits ingrained in us early in life, and as a result remains relatively constant throughout our lives

    2. Conditions – Relationships(connection) is one of the most important conditional factors to happiness. You can never adapt if you lose connections.

    3. Voluntary activities – Focus on activities that bring joy to others. Such as showing gratitude, kindness, favours.

  2. Retrain the Elephant – A strong metaphor throughout. Rider = Rational Brain Elephant = Compulsive, Irrational brain. Lasting happiness does not occur through an epiphany. It occurs through focusing on the relationship between rider and elephant and retraining the elephant. You need to consistently act your way to change through tiny habits.

  3. Coherence is a strong theme throughout. Living coherently leads to happiness. This includes coherence between different levels of your personality, personal values, the environment you live and work within, relationships you have.


“Happiness is not something that you can find, acquire, or achieve directly. You have to get the conditions right and then wait. Some of those conditions are within you. Other conditions require relationships to things beyond you: Just as plants need sun, water, and good soil to thrive, people need love, work, and a connection to something larger
“Work less, Consume less, Attach less, Connect more”

Tobys Takeaway:

The biggest takeaway from the Happiness Hypothesis:

Focus on building good relationships in my life.

Relationships between myself and others, between myself and work, between myself and a greater purpose.


Big Ideas Expanded

The Happiness Hypothesis Summary of ideas expanded:

The brain sends bad feedback signals quicker than good. We are wired for negativity bias.

Three beliefs depressed people hold:

  1. I’m no good

  2. My world is no good

  3. My future is hopeless

Three best ways to change thought patterns:

  1. Meditation

  2. CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy)

  3. Prozac

Throughout the Happiness Hypothesis, this metaphor is used. The rider and the elephant.

The rider and the elephant are often in conflict. The elephant usually wins.

You can’t change your mind(or anything else) through willpower alone. You need to act your way to changes through tiny habits done consistently such as meditation and thinking habits formed through CBT

Our search for knowledge is flawed. We search for facts that confirm our position and once found we stop thinking and looking for alternatives (Confirmation Bias)

Our perception of others is often correct. Our perception of self is flawed. We have significant blind spots. The ego is strong. We see ourselves through rose-tinted spectacles

Naive Realism – we see the world objectively, everyone else is wrong!

Progress Principle – Joy comes through the journey towards the goal not the achievement of the goal.

Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work

Adaptation Principle – In the long run, it doesn’t matter what happens to you, good or bad, you will ultimately return to your happiness equilibrium which is largely influenced by your genes. Also referred to as Hedonic Treadmill

Relationships(connection) is one of the most important factors to happiness. You can never adapt if you loose connections.

Experiences, such as going to a concert, give more happiness due to their social value. They bring connection

Voluntary Activity essential is to your daily habits. Build reciprocal habits can have the biggest effect. Such as showing gratitude, kindness, favours for others

Happiness = work less, consume less, attach less, connect more

3 levels of personality (McAdams):

  1. Basic internal traits (having)

  2. Personal values, goals, projects (doing)

  3. Life Story (making)

Coherence between the 3 levels is essential for happiness

3 typical responses to tragedy:

  1. Active response(taking action)

  2. Reframing (such as into a positive)

  3. Avoidance

4 types of Life Goals:

  1. Spiritual

  2. Work/Achievement – People least happy if they drive towards this goal

  3. Relationship

  4. Legacy

3 ways to manage your environment:

  1. Adapt – respond to changing environment

  2. Shape – changing the environment to suit needs

  3. Select – choosing the environment to work within

People are not computers. The technology metaphor is now so pervasive we see people as machines. And therapy as the repair shop. Our metaphors are wrong. People are more like plants

Most plants will come back to life without repairing plant. Focus on

the conditions. Fix the environment the plant(person) will naturally spring back to life.


vital conditions for humans to flourish:

  1. Social connection (love)

  2. Compelling purpose or goal greater than ourselves

Vital Engagement = Flow + Meaning

Coherence is important for individuals happiness. Coherence at the three levels of your personality. If you do not have coherence, it is likely you will be tormented. Without good skills to diagnose your personal system, you may struggle to find the problem You need coherence with your personal “optimisation” goal.

When you do find coherence, it may be one of the most profound moments in your life.

Items which need coherence: – Habits – Goals – Values – Work – Love

These items are always in healthy tension but importantly there needs to be coherence.

Coherence needed at all levels:

  1. Physical

  2. Psychological

  3. Social

We have an internal desire to share learning and ideas. The desire to reciprocate shares this even further and creates a virtuous cycle. Helping others succeed is hard-wired into humans.

Blinkist Wide


bottom of page