Jonathan Haidt on elephants, riders, and happiness

Rohan: Jonathan Haidt is the author of the much acclaimed book “The Happiness Hypothesis” and as a bit of a happiness geek, I had been attempting to reach him for a while.

Interviewing Jonathan was a real pleasure and it feels like one of the biggest takeaways from interviewing “real leaders” is that they are all incredibly nice.


About Jonathan

jon_featuredJonathan Haidt (pronounced “height”) is a social psychologist at the NYU-Stern School of Business. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1992, and spent most of his career (1995-2011) at the University of Virginia. Haidt’s research examines the intuitive foundations of morality, and how morality varies across cultures–including the cultures of American liberals, conservatives, and libertarians. Haidt is the author of The Happiness Hypothesis, and of the New York Times bestseller The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. In his new position at NYU-Stern, he is applying his research on moral psychology to business ethics, asking how companies can structure and run themselves in ways that will be resistant to ethical failures.

Please visit Happiness Hypothesis and Righteous Mind for more information.

Interview Transcript


Rohan:  Firstly, I would like to begin by thanking you for The Happiness Hypothesis.  It is a book that practically everybody I know now has read, so it is a common fixture.  

Why do you do what you do, and how did you get here?  What are the defining moments?  I’ve looked at your research; I’m sure there’s some sort of squiggly line connecting it all and I’d love to understand that story!

Haidt:  I’ll try to go for the short to medium length story rather than the long one. I’ve always wanted to be a scientist because I love figuring things out.  That’s always my great pleasure.  Joseph Campbell, a man who studied mythology decades ago, advised everyone to figure out what mythological character you are. If I were in mythology I would not be the king, joker, princess, or prince; I would be the explorer because I’ve always wanted to go everywhere and learn everything.

Once I was in college I thought I would be a scientist, probably a doctor doing biomedical research, but it turned out that Organic Chemistry was very boring.  Everyone hated being there and I couldn’t stand it either.  I left that path and I started my computer programs just to make a living after college.  I worked for the U.S government, decided I wanted to go to grad school and thought about what I should go in?  I studied philosophy, I studied psychology, and I worked in computers and artificial intelligence. I started applying to grad school in computer science, and that also felt kind of weird as the people just didn’t feel right.

Just on a whim, I stopped at the psychology department and everything felt right.  I talked to people who were really human. There were plants and carpeting in the lobby, and people seemed to be happy. So I applied to psychology.  I ended up studying morality.  I love my topic.  It allows me to go everywhere.  I’ve applied morality to politics in recent years.  Now I have the Stern School of Business.  I’m using morality to study business ethics.

When I got to University of Virginia (UVA), my first teaching job, I was assigned to teach Psych 101, and that forced me to learn about all areas of psychology well enough to teach them. This is just the kind of challenge I love, because I love immersing myself into a complicated sense of material.  You sink your head deep enough into it and sort of shake your head around, and after a while it all falls into place.  I did that with psych 101. In the process of explaining all this psychology, I found myself quoting the ancients a lot and thus the whole idea for The Happiness Hypothesis.

I thought if I don’t get tenure and had to leave UVA, I would try to write a trade book and maybe make some money and support myself as a writer.  It turns out I did get tenure and I got to stay at UVA but I still thought about that book idea.  That sounded pretty fun.  “Why don’t I do it anyway?”  I spent a couple of years and I read all kinds of ancient sources, and every time I had a psychological insight, I would write it down.  I had a long, long list I would put into categories, and then I basically wrote ten essays around ten clusters of great ideas.



Rohan:  Your research went all the way from Machiavelli to Hindu scriptures, etc.  Most of these things, at least the Hindu scriptures, are pretty cryptic.  How did you manage to find your way around it?   I would imagine you probably did English translations of Sanskrit and that would have made it even more cryptic.  How did you get around that?

Haidt:  Ancient sources vary a lot in how intelligible they are.  The sources from the West were easier for me than sources from the East.  Sources written after about 400 or 500 B.C. are easier than sources written before 700 B.C.  Everything before the axial age, everything before 600 or 700, is much more cryptic than things written afterwards.

I read some of the Upanishads, the Nadis.  They weren’t very typical, so there I didn’t really rely on my own reading.  I couldn’t take something and just read a few pages around it.  So there I found other lists of wisdom from the Nadis, and I only had a couple from ancient India.  That was harder.  But the Bhagvad Gita, that is much more recent. I found that much more intelligible, and it also deals with the basic situation of a person reacting so strongly to success and failure.

The basic wisdom of the East is that the world is an illusion of your making.  You’re the one who’s feeding on all the things you react to extremely.  The Bhagvad Gita, it’s part of the epics.  The epics are stories.  Stories are always intelligible, and that’s amazing.  You can hear a story from thousands of years ago, and you can totally understand them. Whereas religious writings are much more difficult sometimes.



Rohan:  You sum happiness up with the word “between.”  Can you talk me through that, and how it happened, and what that means to you?

Haidt:  The original title to the book when I proposed it to the publishers was Twelve Great Truths: Insights into Mind and Heart for Ancient Cultures and Modern Psychology.  That’s exactly what the book is about, but it’s not a very good title.  By the time I turned it in, it had turned into Ten Great Truths instead because I ran out of time and I had ten instead of twelve.  I turned in the first version of the manuscript, and the publisher said, “Well, we don’t like that title.  How about The Happiness Hypothesis?  We kind of get the idea that it’s a science hypothesis, but it’s also about happiness.”

I said, “Well, first of all the book isn’t about happiness primarily.  There’s a lot of happiness stuff in it, but it’s about all sorts of things.  And secondly, I don’t know what the happiness hypothesis is.  What if someone asks me what it is?”

But as I was revising the book, I realized that there were a couple of different hypotheses.  The simplest one is that happiness comes from getting what you want, and that’s the one that was very easy to say.  We feel relief, we feel happy briefly, but the next day it’s like it’s over.  That makes it easy to dismiss it based on research and our own interception.

The second version of the hypothesis which is the one that you find all over the ancient world is that happiness comes from within.  This again is the wisdom of the East and also of the stoics.  That’s what makes a great truth.  You cannot control the world, you cannot make the world perform to your liking; therefore, work on yourself.  If you get yourself right, that’s the way to achieve happiness.  Well that’s a lot wiser, a lot deeper, a lot more inspiring, and that’s what I found in many places.  That’s a great truth.

But the conclusion I came to by the end of the book was that it is not right certainly for westerners who live in a very, very safe world in which you actually can plan for the future.  You can control any aspect of your environment, and the possibility of a heroic life in which you make a big difference in the world is really open to you.  I decided that advice from the East about getting some distance, and not reacting so strongly might be good for a much older man or woman. Also that there is something really not just noble, but it’s really living life to the fullest to really strive, throw yourself in, and try to make a difference, especially when you’re younger.

What I realized is that so much of modern psychology tells us that the key to happiness is love and work.  That’s what Freud said, and I think that’s one of the few areas where he was really right.  Love and work, and the essence of love and work are about your degree of connection or embeddedness.  Love isn’t just “Oh, I love you baby so much.  Oh, let’s get married.”  Love is the nature of your connection and embeddedness with others.  Companion love is more important in the long run than passionate love, so getting the right kind of connection between yourself and many others is the best you can do in terms of feeling like you are part of a social network.

Work turns out to be very similar.  Work isn’t just about achieving something.  The key idea was that I describe in detail in chapter 10 is vital engagement.  It is the term used by Csikzentmihalyi.  I came to understand that concept of vital engagement, of immersing yourself in something – you learn about it more and more and you become part of the community of people who are working at something. It seemed so similar to love that I realized that that’s really the key.  It’s not causing a change in the world which leads to happiness; it’s getting embedded in the right way with other people and with your work.  Once I saw that I realized, hey that’s the happiness hypothesis.

Number three is happiness comes from between.  There you go.



Rohan:  Is there a Viktor Frankl influence to it?  Viktor Frankl’s thesis was that it comes from the pursuit.  He believed entirely in the pursuit and I think that he had a fair claim given what he went through.  What was the influence?

Haidt:  I read Frankl when I was in college.  I loved it, but I kind of forgot about the book when I was writing.  I should have reread it.  It certainly is a book full of wisdom, but the fact that he puts it that way indicates that that is a great truth.  I think there was a quote from Shakespeare somewhere in the book: “Joy so lies in the doing.”  It’s not the achievement, it’s the doing, and there’s a lot of scientific support showing that our brains get more pleasure from making progress towards a goal than actually achieving the goal.



Rohan:  There is a particular line, “Happiness is the state of the human being that has achieved cross level coherence between herself, the people, challenges, and institutions around her.”  When I read this, one of the thoughts that came to mind was, “Is this integrity?”  Steven Covey brought up integrity from integer meaning whole.  It meant coherence at every level.  He connected it to making and keeping commitments to his first be proactive idea.  Is that a thought that crossed your mind?

Haidt:  No, it’s not a thought that crossed my mind, but I think it’s a good one.  The idea of cross level coherence is the hardest idea in the whole book, and it basically refers to the fact that we exist on three levels.  We are psychological creatures who have experiences, of course.  We also are physical creatures and have an embodiment.  We move in certain ways.  Our culture makes us feel the physical world in certain ways, and so it’s (happiness) when your psychology and your physical embodiment really mesh out.  And then we’re cultural creatures; we live in a world of stories, history, and institutions.  When all of that matches up at multiple levels, that’s cross level coherence.

Some things need to feel right.  That is not the same thing as moral integrity or personal integrity, but I think integrity literally means linking together.  I think it is the same idea that things that could come apart, people’s behavior and values can come apart.  When a person has that kind of coherence between word and deed and what they really want inside, I think we see that in others and we do recognize it as a kind of integrity.  So they’re at least analogous if not homologous.



Rohan:  Why do we do things that we know are bad for us?  Why is it so hard to sustain a good habit?  You can say that we fight the elephant’s resistance when we go to the gym on the first day, but we walk out on the first day feeling good.  Yet, if we get a chance on the thirtieth day to break that habit, it feels like we would.  Why is it so hard?

Haidt:  Research shows that it takes 10-12 weeks for a habit to stick, so 12 times 7, that’s about day 80-85 days, and at that point you won’t be so tempted.  For those that haven’t read the book, the foundational metaphor of the book and the foundational metaphor of so much of ancient wisdom is that the mind is divided into parts that sometimes conflict.  This is the idea that you find in every civilization that has writing.  It is expressed in a quote from Ovid: “I see the right way and approve it; alas I follow the wrong.”  

Ben Franklin said, “If passion drives, let reason hold the reigns.”  There are so many ideas that we’re divided into parts.   Plato and many others give us the metaphor that the mind is like a charioteer driving a horse.  A man on a horse is a very common metaphor.  I honestly don’t know whether I took the metaphor of a rider on an elephant from Buddha; I probably did without realizing it.  But Buddha talks about meditation and describes self-cultivation as being like taming or training an elephant.  That’s a much better metaphor because an elephant is much bigger than a horse, much smarter, and very, very sociable.

Why do we see the right way, approve it, and yet follow the wrong?  Because our behavior is governed primarily by the elephant, but our conscious thinking is the rider.  Our conscious thinking is not in control of our behavior.  We are animals. Like other animals, our motivational centers are not our language centers.  Our language centers evolved very, very recently in the last half million years.  So our language is like an advisor.  We can think, we can plan, and we have a lot of self-control.  We can make ourselves do something for a while but in the long run, if you don’t change the elephant, you’re likely to fail. That’s the explanation.



Rohan:   How have these studies changed your life?  What were your motivations and what has been the end result?  Are you happier?  What is your happiness level on a scale of 1-10?

Haidt:  I think I was born on the happiness spectrum around average, or maybe just a little above average.  Like most people if my life is going well, and if I’m well embedded, then I’m a happy person. But I’ve had periods that were not exactly depression. They were rather periods of anxiety and just not enjoying life. It’s hard to say how the book affected me because lots of things changed at the same time.  I had a few years (and I talk about it in the book) when I was a single assistant professor; I was alone.  I didn’t know if I had a secure future in the academic world.  Those were the worst years of my life, and if happiness comes from between, I was pretty separate.

Then all around the same time I got tenure and I met the woman who became my wife.  She had a wonderful little dog and that dog, Angie, became a part of my life.  I got much more secure in my work.  My life has been really good since then.  I guess I would say that writing the book has greatly satisfied the philosophical urges and yearnings that I had in my teen years and my twenties.  I had forgotten those for a while when I became a social psychologist, and this really allowed me to satisfy things I’ve always been so interested in.

As for how it changes my behavior, I don’t think it changes my behavior very much directly because again, what you do doesn’t necessarily change your behavior. It’s really helped me to understand love; I fell in love and got married just before writing the book. It’s allowed me to give much better advice to friends who were falling in love and doing crazy things.  It’s allowed me to make much better apologies.   I still say stupid things, but now I’m really, really good at apologizing.  I know how self-righteousness works.  In the past, if I said something stupid I would then try to defend myself and now I don’t.



Rohan:  You also speak of little habits like counting blessings, journaling, and forgiving people.  How many of these have you done yourself, or have you relied on research?

Haidt:  I’ve never done them, in part because I didn’t know about them back when I was depressed or anxious.  Back then I experimented with smart drugs – St. John’s Wort and Prozac.  I went for the quick fix because I was so busy trying to do my research to get tenure, so I had an experimental approach to life.  Had I known about those things back then in the late 90’s, I would have done them but it was only in 2002 or 2003 that those results began to come out.

I’ve been fortunate that I went through some tough years because that has allowed me to appreciate just how fortunate I am now to be so well embedded.  UVA was wonderful, but now I have an amazing job at New York University.  I get to live in New York City which is spectacular these days.  I have two young children who are beautiful, healthy, and so cute.  If you want to know where I am on a scale of 1-10, I’d have to say 10.  My normal position is 7 or 8, but especially since moving to New York and having the excitement of learning new things and a new environment, it’s pretty fun these days.



Rohan:  Are there any little hacks, tips, things, habits that you use to be productive?

Haidt:  Absolutely.  The first is to know your body, and your energy cycle.  Writing these two books, The Happiness Hypothesis and The Righteous Mind, I discovered that writing a book takes thousands of hours and you have to stick that into a busy life.  The only way you can do that is to get the most out of yourself and also to push back all other obligations.

Know your body; for me what that meant was writing in the morning.  I actually didn’t know that, I thought that I was an evening person.  I discovered that if I get up two hours earlier around 5:00 or 6:00 in the morning, write for a little bit, then have breakfast, then write a little longer, then I’m done for the day by lunchtime.  After lunch you can have meetings with people, you can return phone calls, you can do email, and then do the reading at night so that the next morning you’ll have the ideas in your head to work on.

Another is you have to be really brutal about saying no.  I used to have a quote on my wall, something like, “You’ve got to decide what it is that’s important and then say no to others politely, firmly, non-apologetically.”  I would use Gmail’s canned messages to respond to so many requests. I couldn’t fulfill all the things that were asked of me so I would say no, but in a funny way.  I had a bounce message and I actually got more praise over that than anything else I’d ever written because everybody recognizes the situation where you have to say no.  Know your energy cycle and your productivity habits. Be firm but funny if possible about saying no so that you carve out large blocks of time on consecutive days that are necessary to do something creative.



Rohan:  What is an idea that inspires you that you would like to share?

Haidt: I think I’ll share two of them with you.  One that I learned is that most people don’t talk a lot about the importance of balance, and I feel like I’ve gone through the rapids with writing these books.  Then there’s a lot of press exposure especially around The Righteous Mind.  My life has been very unbalanced for much of it. What I’m coming to see is that balance is of value in life overall but one should not strive for balance in every point in his or her life.  Periods of extreme imbalance can be most beneficial in terms of allowing you to make a contribution, or to do something beyond what you thought you could do.  It just makes your life more exciting.

It can’t go on forever; you burn out.  I would urge you to do something great and if necessary distort your life and live in a very unbalanced way.  You can’t keep it up for years but for brief periods of time, maybe even a year or two, go for it.  In the long run you may actually be happier going through some hardship and some imbalance.

The second is that we are all flawed, hypocritical, and biased creatures. Once you come to understand world psychology it makes you more modest, and it makes you angry.  I hardly ever get angry, but I spent the 1980’s angry at Ronald Reagan and republicans.  I’m sort of a type A, pushy New York Jewish guy, and I used to get angry a lot.  Since doing this research, I find it fascinating to understand people and why they believe the things they believe and I don’t get angry that often anymore.  I think that moral psychology has the potential to liberate us from these moralistic judgments, which of course is something that Buddhism promises and delivers as well.  Buddha was all about understanding your limits, being more humble, and understanding that we all are operating within a veil of illusion. If you do that, how can you get mad?



Rohan:  There is so much ancient wisdom on everything in moderation, and it naturally leads to the idea that even moderation should be in moderation.

Haidt:  There are times in life for throwing moderation to the wind.



Rohan:  I agree. It’s enabled me to take myself so much less seriously because I realize that I’m probably saying one thing, doing another, and then saying another thing again after that.

Haidt:  In The Righteous Mind, I catch myself lying to my wife.  I didn’t even realize I was lying to her until I went back to start writing about lying and thought, oh my God, I just did that to my wife.  It’s amazing not just that we can tie our shoes in the morning; it’s amazing that we can actually have a civilization which has relatively little violence.  If you look at it that way, it’s miraculous that things are going as well as they’re going.



Rohan:  There’s a lot of talk about this being a bad time and a dangerous time.  I’m reading Ian Morris’s book, Why the West Rules.  It’s a great treatise on history and why the world is the way it is.  When you look at where we came from, we’re living in an incredible time.

Haidt:  I used to be somewhat pessimistic about the future, but when I see the graphs of world poverty, world poverty has ended.  Not entirely, but extreme poverty is going to be close to zero over the next 15-20 years.  It’s not because of governments; it’s not because of NGO’s.  It’s because of business.  It’s because India and China have adopted free market capitalism and are experiencing just what England and America did but in a very compressed way.  When you think about that, oh my God, poverty could actually end on this planet?  What an incredible miracle.

So if you look at rising wealth, declining poverty, declining violence, things are getting amazingly good.  The population will begin shrinking in the next century.  It’s going to be tough on the environment in the next fifty years but I think that if we make it through that, the environment’s going to get a lot better too.



Rohan:  I’m sitting in the southern hemisphere in Buenos Aires you’re in the northern hemisphere in New York and we’re having a seamless conversation with top quality.  It’s like magic.  It’s an amazing time to be alive I think.  

Haidt:  The network effect of having ideas flow around the world instantly, it only used to be a few tens of millions of people involved in the convocation of ideas; now suddenly there’s a billion.  In a few years there will be four or five billion who are actively involved.  I’m actually pretty happy to see these days.

Thank you for a very insightful interview, John. Looking forward to reading your new book “The Righteous Mind” and having another great discussion on morality. Until then,

Real Leaders Team