The most popular course at Yale teaches how to be happy – also William James, Maslow, Seligman and more…

The most popular course at Yale teaches how to be happy.

We took it for you. By  , 28 May 2018 at The Cut.

Professor Laurie Santos didn’t set out to create the most popular course in the history of Yale University and the most talked-about college course in America. She just wanted her students to be happy. And they certainly look happy as they file into a church — a literal church, Battell Chapel, that’s been converted to a lecture hall — on the Yale campus on a sunny April afternoon, lugging backpacks and chatting before taking their seats in the pews. They’ve just returned from a two-week spring break. The weather outside is gorgeous. Professor Santos is playing her pre-class get-pumped playlist featuring the Black-Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling,” And, let’s not forget, all of these students are currently going to Yale. What’s not to be happy about?

Quite a bit, it turns out. The very fact that Santos’s new course, PSYC 157: Psychology and the Good Life, is so wildly popular, with over 1,200 enrolled students, suggests that she’s on to something when she tells me one day, pre-lecture, “College students are much more overwhelmed, much more stressed, much more anxious, and much more depressed than they’ve ever been. I think we really have a crisis writ large at colleges in how students are doing in terms of self-care and mental health.” Then she adds, “Sadly, I don’t think it’s just in colleges.”

Santos is right on both counts. College students aren’t happy, and neither is anyone else. According to a recent survey by the American College Health Association, 52 percent of students reported feeling hopeless, while 39 percent suffered from such severe depression that they had found it difficult to function at some point during the previous year. At the University of Pennsylvania, there’s even a slang term for the grim mask of discontent that accompanies this condition: “Penn Face.” We could go further and diagnose a national case of “USA Face,” given that America recently ranked 18th in the U.N.’s “World Happiness Report,” trailing such national bastions of well-being as Finland (No. 1), Canada (No. 7), and Australia (No. 10).

Here’s the Proof Americans Are Just Not As Happy As They Used to Be

In the face of this epidemic of unhappiness, Santos decided to design a course in “positive psychology” — i.e., the field of study that focuses on well-being, as opposed to psychological dysfunction. Such classes have been around for more than a decade, but they typically served as introductions to the field — sort of Happiness 101. Santos’s course aims to do more. “The thing that makes this course different is that we also focus on what I call ‘behavior change’ — the science of how you move your behavior around,” she says. “How do you actually change your habits and use your situation to your advantage?”

In her very first lecture, Santos emphasizes to her class that she wants to teach them not just the science of happiness but the practice of happiness. And happiness, it turns out, does take practice. But first you have to learn what exactly happiness is. If previous courses in this field might have been characterized as “Why Happy People Are Happy,” this course could be called “What Is Happiness, Why Aren’t You Happy, and What Can You Do to Change That?”

Of course, you don’t have four months (or a Yale student ID) to take the entire course. So we’ve condensed some of the highlights and insights into a mini-course you can take right now. Let’s get started: Are you ready for a pop quiz?

(1) What is happiness?

(2) Why aren’t you happy?

(3) What can you do to change that?

Class, please open your books to lesson No. 1.

Prereq to PSYC 157: The Happiness Inventory

My finger is hovering over my laptop’s mouse, but I’m afraid to click. I’m about to take a survey offered by the University of Pennsylvania titled the “Authentic Happiness Inventory.” You can take this quiz too — it’s available for free online. It’s also a prerequisite for taking Santos’s course. Students take the test at the beginning to establish a baseline for their happiness, then check in at the end to see how they’ve progressed. In part, this is to demonstrate that if you’re unhappy, you’re not alone. “Being able to see that an entire giant concert hall full of people is struggling alongside you is huge,” one student who took the course told the Yale Daily News. “It’s easy to think that everyone at Yale is getting 4.0s, loving their extracurriculars, and feeling happier than you are. But ‘Psych and the Good Life’ proves that is an illusion.”

The reason I’m hesitating to take this happiness quiz is, to be honest, I’m a little scared to pop that illusion for myself. How happy am I, anyway? And do I really want to know quantitatively? If you asked me how I’m doing, like many people, I’d answer, “So busy! So crazy!” — the modern-day New Yorker stand-in for “Fine.” If you asked me explicitly how happy I am, I’d probably say, “Pretty happy?” But the truth is I’m not sure. And I’m worried that this scientifically formulated, data-driven survey — which asks you to answer multiple-choice questions with responses ranging from “I feel like a failure” to “I feel I am extraordinarily successful” — is going to reveal to me that I am, in fact, a miserable wreck.

Luckily, after taking the quiz, we have Professor Santos’s course to look forward to — 21 lectures of up-to-date findings and proven methods to increase your well-being. You can take a version of her course online for free (it’s available at But be prepared: Before we get happiness right, we have to understand why we typically get it so wrong. The first nine (!) lectures on the Yale course syllabus feature titles like “What Doesn’t Lead to Happiness I,” “What Doesn’t Lead to Happiness II,” and “Why Your Mind Sucks.”

What Santos found this year is that the revelation that many of our priorities around happiness are completely erroneous is, for a lot of students at Yale, almost too much to bear. After all, these kids are, definitionally, likely to (a) have shaped their entire lives around a set of preconceptions that have brought them to one of the premier Ivy League colleges in America and presumably set them up for a lifetime of success and (b) currently feel pretty unhappy. In one lecture, in which Santos talked about evidence that high achievement and good grades don’t lead to sustained well-being, she joked that on that basis she was going to give everyone a D. She got so many panicked phone calls and emails from students and parents that she had to issue a clarification — underscoring the very point she was trying to make. “None of these calls were worried about what you were learning in class,” she wrote to students in a follow-up email. “They were just really, really worried about the possibility that you might receive a bad grade.”

The anxiety level forced Santos to rethink her entire approach. “I originally structured the class by talking first about those misconceptions about happiness and why the mind delivers those misconceptions — why do we think we want salary and more stuff, when ultimately it doesn’t matter?” she says. “Then, later in the class, I got to the stuff that really matters. But some of the students were so confused and anxious that I ended up swapping the content. I started talking about what you can do to be happy first, because they couldn’t wait for answers.”

Lecture No. 1  The G.I. Joe Fallacy

As part of the recent anthology This Idea Must Die: Scientific Theories That Are Blocking Progress, Santos and Tamar Gendler, a philosophy professor at Yale, submitted an essay titled “Knowing Is Half the Battle.” It discusses a phenomenon they’ve dubbed “the G.I. Joe Fallacy,” after the old G.I. Joe cartoon, which used the phrase “Knowing is half the battle” as a kind of tagline. This is a fallacy, they explain, because knowing, it turns out, is not half the battle. It’s not even close. “Recent work in cognitive science has demonstrated that knowing is a shockingly tiny fraction of the battle for most real-world decisions,” they explain. “You may know that $19.99 is pretty much the same as $20.00, but the first still feels like a significantly better deal.”

So this is where the course starts: Our minds, it turns out, are very good at persuading us to follow intuitions about happiness that turn out to be entirely wrong. To illustrate, Santos cites a test that often comes up in first-year business school: If a baseball and a bat together cost $1.10, and the bat costs a dollar more than the ball, how much does the ball cost? For most people, the intuitive answer is ten cents. The real answer is five cents. If our brains can be so easily tricked about something as simple as arithmetic, imagine how easily we can be tricked about our own well-being.

Now try this: Make a short list of things that you think would make you happier. They can be big things (a raise, moving to a new city, a new partner) or small (whatever looks good right now in the vending machine).

Okay — have you finished your list? Let’s have a look. I have my red pen ready.

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

Nearly everything you think will make you happier won’t, because nearly everything you’re likely to list — assuming, of course, that your basic life needs are taken care of — is some circumstantial change: more money, a different home or job, a long vacation, or even that enticing snack that lies just beyond the vending-machine glass. Your mind is constantly telling you that if you just got those things, you’d finally, truly, unequivocally be happy. But your mind is wrong and science is right. Why? We find that out in lecture No. 2.

Lectures Nos. 2 to What Doesn’t Make Us Happy

In her second lecture, Santos looks at the work of Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychologist at the University of California, Riverside, and the author of The How of Happiness. Lyubomirsky is well known for her thought experiment about what affects our happiness, which she expresses in a pie chart: She proposes that roughly 50 percent of happiness is determined by genes (i.e., totally out of your control), roughly 10 percent is determined by circumstance (i.e., somewhat out of your control), and the final 40 percent is determined by your thoughts, actions, and attitudes (i.e., entirely within your control). You can see why her book was originally titled The 40 Percent Solution.

The takeaway is simply this: We are inclined to assume that circumstances play the biggest role in our happiness, when research suggests they play the smallest role. (Lyubomirsky is quick to point out that this is only true if your most basic needs are met. If you’re a Syrian refugee, or stuck in an abusive relationship, then your circumstances obviously play an outsize role in your well-being.) What’s more, we grossly underestimate the extent to which changing our behaviors, rather than our circumstances, can significantly increase our well-being. “What we believe would make a huge difference in our lives actually, according to scientific research, makes only a small difference, while we overlook the true sources of personal happiness and well-being,” Lyubomirsky writes.

So what are the true sources of personal happiness? The best way psychologists have found to determine what makes people happy is to reverse-engineer happiness by studying the habits of people who already identify as happy. This is an inexact method, for reasons of correlation versus causation: You may be both happy and tall, but that doesn’t mean being tall is what makes you happy. But there are certain habits that have been shown to be consistent among happy people. Happy people devote time to family and friends. They practice gratitude. They practice optimism. They are physically active. They “savor life’s pleasures and try to live in the present moment,” as Lyubomirsky puts it.

It’s no great shock that being more optimistic, more grateful, and even more physically active can lead to greater happiness. If you enrolled in the most popular course in the history of Yale just to find that out, you might feel a little let down.

But remember: We have an entire semester to go.

Midterm ExaThe Price of Happiness

I know — you’re all for gratitude journals and mindfulness and savoring the moment, but secretly you want to skip ahead to the part of the course where we talk about the question you’re no doubt asking right now: What about money? “Money can’t buy happiness” is an aphorism you learn around the same time you’re old enough to read your first fortune cookie, but … money can buy happiness, right? Otherwise, why are we so obsessed with it? To quote Danny DeVito in the David Mamet film Heist: “Everyone needs money. That’s why it’s called money.”

Here’s another finding from Lyubomirsky: When people making $30,000 a year are asked what kind of annual salary it would take to make them truly happy, the average answer is $50,000. When you ask the same question of people making $100,000 a year, you’d expect them to say, “I’m double-happy! I make twice the happiness threshold!” Instead, what they actually say, on average, is that if they made $250,000 a year, then they’d be truly happy.

You might think that means there is no set monetary amount that brings happiness, but that’s not entirely true, either. There is a set amount, and it’s $75,000. At least, that’s what the Nobel Prize–winning economists Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton found when they studied 1,000 American households. Reported well-being rises with income until you hit $75,000, at which point it levels off. Beyond that, there’s no observable increase in happiness with higher income.

There’s some debate over that finding, and other economists have found that people’s happiness does rise as their income increases (though that may be because they’ve been conditioned to associate wealth with higher life satisfaction, even as their actual well-being remains static). But the point remains that once our basic needs are met — lodging, food, etc. — the relationship between money and happiness becomes purely theoretical.

For Santos, the goal of such research is to prompt her students to reconsider their own priorities. She notes that in 1967, when incoming freshmen in American colleges were asked what they valued, 87 percent reported that “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” was important to them, while only 42 percent valued being “well-off financially.” By 2005, those numbers had reversed: 71 percent of freshmen valued being well-off, while only 52 percent valued a meaningful life philosophy. Santos does offer a silver lining for her students, pointing out that the median income level of Yale grads by age 34 is $76,000 — almost exactly the salary scientifically proven to provide the maximum amount of well-being.

Special AssignmenTime Affluence

Illustration: Zohar Lazar

To understand why we overvalue the role of money in happiness, let’s skip ahead to a “special event” scheduled on the syllabus for right after the midterm.

Pop quiz: If you suddenly found you had an extra $100, what would you do with it?

Now: What would you do if you suddenly found you had an extra hour?

With the money, chances are you’d be inclined to use it on a treat — to buy something you did not budget for otherwise, rather than paying off an existing debt. With time, it’s the opposite: There’s a good chance you’d use that hour to catch up on work, rather than go for a walk or visit a museum you’d otherwise not have time to do.

As a time-starved New Yorker, I found this reversal particularly intriguing. Sixty percent of working parents report feeling “always” rushed, and 80 percent of working adults, with or without children, would like to have more time to spend with loved ones. In psychology, this sense of not having enough time is known as “time famine.” The sense of having plenty of time is called “time affluence.”

Affluence is a fitting analogy, as time and money are both commodities. We see them as literally equivalent: “Time is money.” We think of both as scarce and therefore valuable: We “spend” and “waste” and “save” them both. Yet it turns out we do a terrible job of valuing time and money correctly — in part because we don’t understand the kind of commodities they really are. (Those who value time report a higher overall level of happiness in other areas of life).

Here, Santos draws on the work of Ashley Whillans, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, and Elizabeth Dunn, a professor at the University of British Columbia, who have studied how we value time versus money and how our attitudes affect our well-being. First, we have to understand a crucial difference between them: As a personal commodity, money is extremely elastic, in that you can theoretically accumulate an infinite amount of it, and your income fluctuates at different points in your life. Time, by contrast, is intrinsically inelastic: You cannot accumulate more of it, and you’ve never had any less of it. You get the same amount of minutes and hours in every day of your life.

By that reasoning, an hour should be much more valuable than a dollar — yet we consistently behave as if the opposite were true. For example: Would you accept a new job with a 20 percent higher salary if it meant a 25 percent longer workweek or a 50 percent longer commute? If so, you are valuing your monetary affluence over your time affluence. You are what Whillans and Dunn would call a “Morgan” — in their studies, they use the figures of “Taylor” (who values time) and “Morgan” (who values money) and ask respondents to identify with one or the other. Interestingly, people are reliably split evenly on whom they identify with. Yet the Taylors of the world report a much higher level of overall happiness in other areas of life.

Another illogical way in which we value these two commodities: An abundance of money is considered a status symbol, while an abundance of time is considered shameful. That’s why, in America, there’s a premium on busyness — on having a deficit of time. (According to research, this does not hold true in many other cultures, where there is no stigma to an abundance of time.)

In another study, Whillans and Dunn engineered an experiment in which participants were offered $40 and required to spend it on a time-saving purchase of their own devising. Some ordered takeout; some used the money on a house cleaner; some employed a neighborhood kid to finish up that lingering yard work. Later, the same participants were offered another $40, this time with the instruction that they had to spend it on a material good, like a book or an item of clothing. The test subjects were reliably happier when they spent the money to buy time — and they reported that their happiness was directly associated with that alleviation of time pressure. (Let’s overlook, for the moment, the fact that this means you can, indeed, buy happiness — by purchasing time from other, less affluent people.)

As for Santos, she came up with a straightforward way of communicating the concept of time affluence to her students. After the midterm, when they arrived on the day of the “special event,” Santos and her teaching assistants handed out flyers at the door of the lecture hall that read “Class is canceled. Go practice time affluence. You have one free hour.” The only proviso was that they were not allowed to fill that hour with work. They had to do something unexpected: Read for pleasure. Take a hike. Meet a friend for coffee. One student was so grateful for this one-hour reprieve in her overpacked schedule that, at news of this gift, she started to cry.

Lectures Nos. 13 to 2Synthetic Happiness

If Santos originally front-loaded her course with information debunking our notions of happiness, the back end is packed with scientifically tested methods to actively improve your well-being — ways to “rewire” your brain toward happiness. She calls these “course rewirements,” a pun so egregious that she acknowledges it in the syllabus with a self-conscious groan. Throughout the class, students use a ReWi app specially developed for the course to alter their behavior and enhance their well-being. They aren’t tests per se but exercises designed for self-betterment: Keep a daily gratitude journal for seven days; take a survey to determine your signature strengths; get at least seven hours of sleep for three days in a row.

This rewirement, though, involves a fundamental reassessment of what happiness is and how it works — not just how to achieve it but whether it’s something that we even “achieve.” Because there’s excellent evidence that it is not.

At a certain point, you might ask: How realistic are these “rewirements” for the rest of us who aren’t going to Yale? It’s all well and good to tell people to value time over money, or to practice mindfulness, but if you’re holding down three part-time jobs and barely making rent, are these tips really applicable to your life? If your life is objectively stressful, is there any hope for you to be happy?

Let’s take that question even further. Ask yourself this: If you were hit by a car today and paralyzed from the neck down, do you think you’d be happier in five years than you are right now? Or less so?

Answer: Neither. You’d be about the same.

This is the surprising finding of Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert, the author of Stumbling on Happiness and a proponent of the concept of “synthetic happiness.” Gilbert makes the somewhat radical claim that happiness isn’t something we chase or achieve but rather something we manufacture. In other words, you don’t find happiness — you make it.

Gilbert cites a famous study in which people who recently won the lottery or suffered permanent paralysis were asked to rate their own happiness, and then compared to a control group. The lottery winners, on average, were slightly happier than the control group, and the recently disabled were slightly less happy  but neither group diverged from the norm as drastically as would be expected. In fact, according to Gilbert, most of the test subjects returned to their baseline levels of happiness after three months, whether they had hit the jackpot or ended up in a wheelchair for life. The reason, he argues, is the existence of a “psychological immune system” that prevents our happiness level from being spiked by external circumstances, good or bad. Much like our physical immune system, which should neither be hypoactive (failing to attack enemy viruses) nor hyperactive (overzealously attacking our own cells), a healthy psychological immune system allows us to recognize setbacks (“I’ve been laid off”) without collapsing into despondency (“I am a total disaster with no prospects”).

What’s more, Gilbert’s research into what he calls “prospection” — basically, thinking about the future, a trait that humans alone exhibit — shows that we are very bad at guessing our reactions to both advantageous and adverse events. Things that seem terrible when they’re looming in the future (“I’m going to be fired!” “My partner is going to dump me!”) are actually not that bad in the rearview mirror (“I got fired and ended up pursuing my dream of being a sculptor!” “My boyfriend was a loser anyway, and I’m glad to be rid of him!”).

Happiness, in the end, is a mind-set to be cultivated, not a condition to be imposed. By the time students complete the course, Santos hopes that they’ll not just be happier but also have a variety of tools that enable them to take control of their happiness. This, above all, is what she imagines motivated so many students to enroll in her course in the first place. “Honestly, my sense it that students don’t like the culture here — they don’t like a culture where everybody is overwhelmed and feeling stressed but too scared to admit it,” she says. “They saw this course as something that might allow for the cultural change they’re seeking — or at least start a conversation about it.”

Final ExaHow Happy Can You Be?

At the beginning of the class, Santos made an admission to her students. She decided to develop this class in part because she felt her students needed it, in part because she felt the world needed it, and in part because she felt she needed it. She, too, had taken the Authentic Happiness Inventory — the one I was so hesitant to get started on — and found she was less happy than she’d hoped. She didn’t just want to introduce these tools to her students — she wanted to apply them to herself.

Like her students, she took the survey again when the course concluded. She found that her happiness, as measured on a scale of one to five, had increased over the year by a full point. Her students experienced a similar benefit. “I didn’t realize how challenging it would be to better myself,” one says. “I’m glad the class was difficult — it made me work harder to get more sleep, meditate, and practice gratitude more.”

I recalled this outcome when I came to the end of my own Authentic Happiness Inventory. As I worked my way through question after intimidating question, I realized that the survey itself had pulled off a sneaky trick: Like the course, the survey got me thinking about happiness in a new way. So when it asked me to choose on a spectrum from “I have sorrow in my life” to “My life is filled with joy,” I had to admit that, despite some recent sorrowful events, including a death in the family, my life feels suffused with joy. When facing the survey’s final question — a choice ranging from “My life is a bad one” to “My life is a wonderful one” — the very act of having taken the time to reflect on what I have to be grateful for, how happy I am, and what happiness really means, left me thinking that, yeah, my life is a good one, all in all.

In the end, I scored a 3.79 out of 5. That puts me in the 80th percentile of happiness for people of my gender, age, and Zip Code. There’s room for improvement, and, thanks to this course and the research it draws on, I have lots of ideas of how to go about it. (This afternoon, for example, I’m going to cancel an appointment and do something pointless for an hour.) The first lesson of Psychology and the Good Life is that happiness is something worth working at. The final lesson is that the class never truly ends. But for now, as scores go, I’m pretty happy with it.

Guest LecturKeep It Down:  “A lot of people think of happiness as a very, very exciting emotion. They expect it to be this constant state of ecstasy — as opposed to equanimity, which is a more sustainable and attainable form of happiness, almost like a quiet joy. It doesn’t look like winning the lottery. It looks much more like sitting quietly and noticing that your life is actually wonderful.” —Hedy Kober, Yale University

Think Small: “One thing people get wrong about happiness is they focus on the extraordinary instead of the ordinary. We think that happiness comes from big or transformative experiences, but we neglect how we can spend moments in happier ways on a daily basis. All my research says that the best way people can be happier is to spend $40 on a time-saving service. Instead of fighting with your spouse over who should do the laundry, hire a laundry service. Forgo that time fighting to make a meal together or go for a walk with the person you love.” —Ashley Whillans, Harvard Business School  
Can Money Buy Happiness? “The biggest misconception is that more will be better. We did a survey of millionaires and asked, ‘How much more money would you need to be a perfect ten in happiness?’ People with $1 million said, ‘Three times as much.’ But people with $3 million also said, ‘Three times as much.’ All the way up. Money doesn’t make people unhappy. It’s just not the only currency that’s important.” —Michael Norton, Harvard Business School

Extra CrediKeep a Daily Gratitude Journal: For the next week, write down at least five things for which you’re grateful every day. These can be big things (your kids) or small things (the Twizzlers you bought at the corner deli didn’t taste like they’d been there for eight months). One study found that, in severely depressed patients, taking the time to record just three things daily over 15 days led to a reported increase in well-being in 94 percent of respondents.

Leave Your Phone in Your Pocket.  As Charles Duhigg explains in The Power of Habit, MIT researchers discovered a behavioral “loop” at the core of our habits. The loop is cue, routine, reward. The cue might be “hunger,” the routine might be “go to the vending machine,” and the reward might be “Doritos.” One of today’s most common loops goes like this: cue = boredom, routine = pull out smartphone, reward = a few moments of empty stimulation. So try this: Next time you feel the boredom cue, leave your phone where it is and consciously choose a reward that contributes to well-being. Two of the best rewards, happiness-wise: starting a conversation with a stranger or being more present in the moment.

Insights: Be a Slow Samaritan: Research shows that helping others makes us happy. But what prevents us from helping others? Researchers at Princeton studied three groups of seminary students on their way to a meeting who passed a needy person on the sidewalk. The first group had plenty of time, the second had a little time, and the third was in a rush. The finding: Seminarians in the unrushed group were far more likely to stop and help than the ones pressed for time. So next time you’re headed for the subway, leave ten minutes early.

Meditate: Researchers have conclusively linked increased happiness with a meditation practice of even as little as ten minutes per day.

Be Responsible:  Having responsibility over something else — a kid, a pet, a garden — makes you happier. In one study, residents of a nursing home were given plants. Half were charged with caring for the plant themselves; half were told that a staff member would do it for them. After six months, 30 percent of those who outsourced their plant care had died — twice the rate of those who cared for the plants themselves.
Sleep = Happiness.  Stanford researchers found that resolving insomnia in depressed patients doubled the success rate of treating their depression.
Key Terms: What Is WOOP?.  In studying people’s good intentions, psychology professor Gabriele Oettingen of NYU discovered something unexpected: Positive thinking can actually impede the likelihood of attaining our goals. That’s because we focus on our ideal outcome (I want to lose weight) rather than the obstacles we’ll face to get there (pizza is delicious). So Oettingen developed a tactic called WOOP to overcome hurdles.  First you identify your wish (losing weight) and imagine the outcome (having lost weight). Then you think about a likely obstacle (I love pizza) and make a concrete plan to get around it (avoid all pizzerias). WOOP!

Required ReadinFive must-reads from the PSYC 157 syllabus.

☛ Nudge, by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. Why we make bad decisions and how to make better ones; may be most-cited book on the syllabus.

☛ Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment, by Martin Seligman. A primer from the pioneer of positive psychology.

☛ The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, by Jonathan Haidt. An ethics professor from NYU explores how recent research intersects with religious traditions.

The Happiness Hypothesis
The Happiness Hypothesis.jpg
Author Jonathan Haidt
Genre Psychology
Publisher Basic Books
Publication date
Pages 320
ISBN 978-0-465-02802-3

The Happiness Hypothesis a 2006 psychology book by Jonathan Haidt written for a general audience. In it, Haidt poses several “Great Ideas” on happiness espoused by thinkers of the past – PlatoBuddhaJesus and others – and examines them in the light of contemporary psychological research, extracting from them any lessons that still apply to our modern lives. Central to the book are the concepts of virtue, happiness, fulfillment, and meaning.

Ch.1: The divided self

Haidt looks at a number of ways of dividing the self that have existed since ancient times:

Haidt focuses on controlled vs. automatic, between the conscious/reasoned processes and automatic/implicit processes. His metaphor is a rider on the back of an elephant in which the conscious mind is the rider and the unconscious mind is the elephant. The rider is unable to control the elephant by force: this explains many puzzles about our mental life, particularly why we have such trouble with weakness of will. Learning how to train the elephant is the secret of self-improvement.

Ch.2: Changing your mind

The automatic emotional reactions of the “elephant” (affective priming) guide us throughout our lives. People even tend to choose mates, and professions, whose names resemble their own. Though there is a bias towards negativity, some people are optimists and others pessimists. Haidt discusses three ways of changing those automatic reactions: meditationcognitive therapy, and SSRI medications such as Prozac.

Ch.3: Reciprocity with a vengeance

Many species have a social life, but among mammals, only humans in particular are ultra-social – able to live in very large cooperative groups. The Golden Rule, supplemented with gossip, is the secret of our success. Calling on Robert Cialdini‘s “six weapons of influence”, Haidt describes ways in which understanding the deep workings of reciprocity can help to solve problems in our social lives and guard against the many ways that we can be manipulated.

Cialdini’s theory of influence is based on seven key principles: reciprocity, commitment and consistency, social proof, authority, liking, scarcity, and unity:[7]  

  1. Reciprocity – People tend to return a favor, thus the pervasiveness of free samples in marketing. In his conferences, he often uses the example of Ethiopia providing thousands of dollars in humanitarian aid to Mexico just after the 1985 earthquake, despite Ethiopia suffering from a crippling famine and civil war at the time. Ethiopia had been reciprocating for the diplomatic support Mexico provided when Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935. The good cop/bad cop strategy is also based on this principle.
  2. Commitment and consistency – If people commit, orally or in writing, to an idea or goal, they are more likely to honor that commitment because of establishing that idea or goal as being congruent with their self-image. Even if the original incentive or motivation is removed after they have already agreed, they will continue to honor the agreement. Cialdini notes Chinese brainwashing of American prisoners of war to rewrite their self-image and gain automatic unenforced compliance. Another example is children being made to repeat the Pledge of Allegiance each morning and why marketers make you close popups by saying “I’ll sign up later” or “No thanks, I prefer not making money”.[8]
  3. Social proof – People will do things that they see other people are doing. For example, in one experiment, one or more confederates would look up into the sky; bystanders would then look up into the sky to see what they were seeing. At one point this experiment was aborted, as so many people were looking up that they stopped traffic. See conformity, and the Asch conformity experiments.
  4. Authority – People will tend to obey authority figures, even if they are asked to perform objectionable acts. Cialdini cites incidents such as the Milgram experiments in the early 1960s and the My Lai massacre.
  5. Liking – People are easily persuaded by other people that they like. Cialdini cites the marketing of Tupperware in what might now be called viral marketing. People were more likely to buy if they liked the person selling it to them. Some of the many biases favoring more attractive people are discussed. See physical attractiveness stereotype.
  6. Scarcity – Perceived scarcity will generate demand. For example, saying offers are available for a “limited time only” encourages sales.
  7. Unity principle. The more we identify ourselves with others, the more we are influenced by these others.[11]

His 1984 book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, was based on three “undercover” years applying for and training at used car dealerships, fund-raising organizations, and telemarketing firms to observe real-life situations of persuasion. It has been mentioned in 50 Psychology Classics.[9][10]  

Ch.4: The faults of others

Part of our ultra-sociality is that we are constantly trying to manipulate others’ perceptions of ourselves, without realizing that we are doing so. As Jesus said, we see the faults of others clearly, but are blind to our own. (“Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?”) Haidt looks at what social psychology has to say about this, beginning with the work of Daniel Batson on cheating and self-justification,[1] mentioning Robert Wright‘s description of our “constitutional ignorance” of hypocrisy in The Moral Animal, and moving on to work by Deanna Kuhn and David Perkins on confirmation bias and Roy Baumeister’s work on “The Myth of Pure Evil”[2] Haidt then discusses ways of taking off “the moral glasses” and seeing the world as it really is.

Ch.5: The pursuit of happiness

It is a common idea that happiness comes from within and can’t be found in external things. For a while in the 1990s, psychologists agreed with ancient sages (such as Buddha and Epictetus) that external conditions are not what matters. But Haidt argues that we now know that some external circumstances do matter. He identifies ways of improving happiness by altering these, including spending money well, and argues that the Western emphasis on action and striving is not without merit.

Ch.6: Love and attachments

5 Steps to a Happier Life: infographic based on The Happiness Hypothesis

There are many kinds of love, but, Haidt asserts, they all begin to make sense when you see where love comes from, and what it does. To do this he examines John Bowlby‘s World Health Organization-sponsored study and report, “Maternal Care and Mental Health” in 1950, and the subsequent work with monkeys by Harry Harlow. Understanding the different kinds of love, he writes, can help explain why people make so many mistakes with love, and why philosophers hate love and give us bad advice about it.

Ch.7: The uses of adversity

Nietzsche wrote, “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger”, but this is not true for everyone; adversity may result in post-traumatic stress disorder. Haidt discusses how and why some people grow from their suffering, along with ways of improving one’s chances of finding post-traumatic growth. Adversity at the right time in life, as Robert Sternberg‘s research on wisdom shows, can make people more compassionate and better able to balance the needs of self and others. 

Among his major contributions to psychology are the triarchic theory of intelligence and several influential theories related to creativity, wisdom, thinking styles, love, and hate.

Sternberg’s main research include the following interests:

  • Higher mental functions, including intelligence and creativity and wisdom
  • Styles of thinking
  • Cognitive modifiability
  • Leadership
  • Love and hate

Sternberg has proposed a triarchic theory of intelligence and a triangular theory of love. Sternberg (2003) categorizes intelligence into three parts, which are central in his theory:

  • Analytical intelligence, the ability to complete academic, problem-solving tasks, such as those used in traditional intelligence tests. These types of tasks usually present well-defined problems that have only a single correct answer.
  • Creative or synthetic intelligence, the ability to successfully deal with new and unusual situations by drawing on existing knowledge and skills. Individuals high in creative intelligence may give ‘wrong’ answers because they see things from a different perspective.
  • Practical intelligence, the ability to adapt to everyday life by drawing on existing knowledge and skills. Practical intelligence enables an individual to understand what needs to be done in a specific setting and then do it.

Sternberg (2003) discusses experience and its role in intelligence. Creative or synthetic intelligence helps individuals to transfer information from one problem to another. Sternberg calls the application of ideas from one problem to a new type of problem relative novelty. In contrast to the skills of relative novelty there is relative familiarity which enables an individual to become so familiar with a process that it becomes automatized. This can free up brain resources for coping with new ideas.

Context, or how one adapts, selects and shapes their environment is another area that is not represented by traditional measures of giftedness. Practically intelligent people are good at picking up tacit information and utilizing that information. They tend to shape their environment around them. (Sternberg, 2003)

Sternberg (2003) developed a testing instrument to identify people who are gifted in ways that other tests don’t identify. The Sternberg Triarchic Abilities Test measures not only traditional intelligence abilities but analyticsynthetic, automatization and practical abilities as well. There are four ways in which this test is different from conventional intelligence tests.

  • This test is broader, measuring synthetic and practical skills in addition to analytic skills. The test provides scores on analytic, synthetic, automatization, and practical abilities, as well as verbal, quantitative, and figural processing abilities.
  • The test measures the ability to understand unknown words in context rather than vocabulary skills which are dependent on an individual’s background.
  • The automatization subtest is the only part of the test that measures mental speed.
  • The test is based on a theory of intelligence.[27]

Ch.8: The felicity of virtue

Taking Benjamin Franklin as an example, Haidt looks at how success can follow virtue, in the broad sense of virtue that goes back to the Ancient Greek arete, excellence. The ancients, according to Haidt, had a sophisticated psychological understanding of virtue, using maximsfables and role-models to train “the elephant”, the automatic responses of the individual. Though the beginnings of Western virtue lie in HomerAesop and the Old Testament, the modern understanding of it has much to do with the arguments of Kant (the categorical imperative) and Bentham (utilitarianism). With these came a shift from character ethics to quandary ethics, from moral education to moral reasoning.

To address the question of how a common morality can be forged in a diverse society, Haidt turns to positive psychology, specifically to Seligman and Peterson’s work on virtues and strengths.[3] 

Character Strengths and Virtues (CSV) is a book by Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman (2004) that attempts to present a measure of humanist ideals of virtue in an empirical, rigorously scientific manner. In the same way that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is used to assess and facilitate research on mental disorders, CSV is intended to provide a theoretical framework to assist in developing practical applications for positive psychology.[1]  CSV identifies six classes of virtue (i.e., “core virtues”), made up of twenty-four measurable “character strengths”: The organization of the 6 virtues and 24 strengths is as follows:

  1. Wisdom and Knowledge: creativitycuriosityopen-mindednesslove of learningperspectiveinnovation
  2. Courage: braverypersistenceintegrityvitalityzest
  3. Humanity: lovekindnesssocial intelligence
  4. Justice: citizenship, fairness, leadership
  5. Temperance: forgiveness and mercyhumilityprudenceself control
  6. Transcendence: appreciation of beauty and excellencegratitudehopehumorspirituality

CSV defined character strengths as satisfying most of the ten following criteria. Character strengths are fulfilling; intrinsically valuable, in an ethical sense (giftsskillsaptitudes, and expertise can be squandered, but character strengths and virtues cannot); non-rivalrous; not the opposite of a desirable trait (a counterexample is steadfast and flexible, which are opposites but are both commonly seen as desirable); trait-like (habitual patterns that are relatively stable over time); not a combination of the other character strengths in the CSV; personified (at least in the popular imagination) by people made famous through story, song, etc.; observable in child prodigies (though this criterion is not applicable to all character strengths); absent in some individuals; and nurtured by societal norms and institutions.

The introduction of CSV suggests that these six virtues are considered good by the vast majority of cultures and throughout history and that these traits lead to increased happiness when practiced. Notwithstanding numerous cautions and caveats, this suggestion of universality hints that in addition to trying to broaden the scope of psychological research to include mental wellness, the leaders of the positive psychology movement are challenging moral relativism and suggesting that virtue has a biological basis.[1] These arguments are in line with the science of morality.

Each of the twenty-four character traits is defined behaviorally, with psychometric evidence demonstrating that it can be reliably measured. The book shows that “empirically minded humanists can measure character strengths and virtues in a rigorous scientific manner.”[2]

Practical applications of positive psychology include helping individuals and organizations correctly identify their strengths and use them to increase and sustain their respective levels of well-being. Each trait “provides one of many alternative paths to virtue and well-being.”[2] Therapists, counselors, coaches, and various other psychological professionals can use the new methods and techniques to build and broaden the lives of individuals who are not necessarily suffering from mental illness or disorder.

Finally, other researchers have advocated grouping the 24 identified character traits into just four classes of strength (Intellectual, Social, Temperance, Transcendent) or even just three classes (without Transcendence). Not only is this easier to remember, but additionally there is evidence that these adequately capture the components of the 24 original traits.[3]

Perspective and wisdom (personified for example by Ann Landers): the coordination of “knowledge and experience” and “its deliberate use to improve wellbeing.”[4] Many, but not all, studies find that adults’ self-ratings of perspective/wisdom do not depend on age.[5] This stands in contrast to the popular notion that wisdom increases with age.[5]

Ch.9: Divinity with or without God

Using the metaphor of Flatland, Haidt argues that the perception of sacredness and divinity are two basic features of the human mind; the emotions of disgust, moral elevation, and awe tell us about this dimension, but not everybody listens. The “religious right” can only be understood by acknowledging this dimension, which most liberals and secular thinkers ignore or misunderstand.[4] The work of William James and of Abraham Maslow (on “peak experiences“) shows ways in which this dimension is also relevant to the non-religious.

A peak experience is a moment accompanied by a euphoric mental state often achieved by self-actualizing individuals.[1] The concept was originally developed by Abraham Maslow in 1964, who describes peak experiences as “rare, exciting, oceanic, deeply moving, exhilarating, elevating experiences that generate an advanced form of perceiving reality, and are even mystic and magical in their effect upon the experimenter.”[1]:21[2] There are several unique characteristics of a peak experience, but each element is perceived together in a holistic manner that creates the moment of reaching one’s full potential.[3] Peak experiences can range from simple activities to intense events;[4][5] however, it is not necessarily about what the activity is, but the ecstatic, blissful feeling that is being experienced during it.[6]

Peak experiences were originally described by psychologist Abraham Maslow as “moments of highest happiness and fulfillment” in his 1964 work Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences.[2] To some extent the term represents Maslow’s attempt to denominate those experiences which have generally been identified as religious experiences and whose origins have, by implication, been thought of as supernatural. Maslow (1970) believed the origin, core and essence of every known “high religion” was “the private, lonely, personal illumination, revelation, or ecstasy of some acutely sensitive prophet or seer” (p. 19).  Maslow’s assertions about peak experience, along with his famous hierarchy of needs, were widely celebrated due to the theories’ focus on the psychology of healthy people, which stood out in a time where the bulk of psychology research focused on psychological disorders.[7]

In original peak experience research, Maslow utilized interviews and questionnaires to gather participants’ testimonies of peak experience. These early studies suggested common triggers for peak experience included art, nature, sex, creative work, music, scientific knowledge, and introspection.[8]

Historically, peak experience is associated with the psychological phenomenon flow. Peak experience is differentiated from flow due to a number of factors including subjective level of experience intensity: while peak experience denotes a high level of stimulation or euphoria, flow is not associated with an increased level of stimulation.[8] For further differentiation, see “Peak Experiences in Self-Actualization” below.


An individual in a peak experience will perceive the following simultaneously:

  • loss of judgment to time and space[6]
  • the feeling of being one whole and harmonious self, free of dissociation or inner conflict[3]
  • the feeling of using all capacities and capabilities at their highest potential, or being “fully functioning”[6]
  • functioning effortlessly and easily without strain or struggle[6]
  • feeling completely responsible for perceptions and behavior. Use of self-determination to becoming stronger, more single-minded, and fully volitional[6]
  • being without inhibition, fear, doubt, and self-criticism[6]
  • spontaneity, expressiveness, and naturally flowing behavior that is not constrained by conformity[6]
  • a free mind that is flexible and open to creative thoughts and ideas[6]
  • complete mindfulness of the present moment without influence of past or expected future experiences[6]
  • a physical feeling of warmth, along with a sensation of pleasant vibrations emanating from the heart area outward into the limbs.


Self-actualization is a concept developed by Abraham Maslow that is characterized by one becoming all they want to be, and can be, by maximizing their potential.[9] A common phenomenon that many self-actualized people experience is called flow, proposed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.[9] Flow has been described as a state of mind when one is using their full potential, completely immersed in their current activity, and are therefore not conscious of time, or anything else for that matter.[9]

Self-actualized people often experience flow, as well as peak experiences.[9] Although flow and peak experiences are often thought of as the same thing, they are different occurrences. While flow is a subjective conscious process that happens internally, peak experiences are describing an event that has occurred to someone who was functioning at optimal levels.[5] Peak experiences are the actual outcome of an external occurrence, while flow is an internal mental process that may or may not precede a peak experience.[5] Due to the nature and characteristics of self-actualized individuals, peak experiences often occur in their lives with their ability to perceive, accept, understand, and enjoy the journey of life.[10]

Polyson (1985): “Most of the peak experiences had occurred during athletic, artistic, religious, or nature experiences, or during intimate moments with a friend or family member.”[4]

Maslow (1962): “Think of the most wonderful experience of your life: the happiest moments, ecstatic moments, moments of rapture, perhaps from being in love, or from listening to music or suddenly ‘being hit’ by a book or painting, or from some creative moment.”[6]

Specific examples of when peak experiences often occur:

Abraham Maslow considers the peak experience to be one of the most important goals of life, as it is an indication of self-actualization.[6] This moment of feeling wholly and completely the true self makes the peak experience an essential component of identity.[6] The aftereffects of the peak experience leave the individual to see himself and the world in a new way. He views himself more positively, he views life as worthwhile and meaningful, and most importantly, he seeks to repeat the experience.[6] The peak experience is an exhibition of Maslow’s emphasis on the quest for positive growth maximizing potential as the true goal of human existence.

Qualities of self-actualizing people[edit]

He realized that all the individuals he studied had similar personality traits. All were “reality centered,” able to differentiate what was fraudulent from what was genuine. They were also “problem centered,” meaning that they treated life’s difficulties as problems that demanded solutions. These individuals also were comfortable being alone and had healthy personal relationships. They had only a few close friends and family rather than a large number of shallow relationships.[35]

Self-actualizing people tend to focus on problems outside themselves; have a clear sense of what is true and what is false; are spontaneous and creative; and are not bound too strictly by social conventions.

Maslow noticed that self-actualized individuals had a better insight of reality, deeply accepted themselves, others and the world, and also had faced many problems and were known to be impulsive people. These self-actualized individuals were very independent and private when it came to their environment and culture, especially their very own individual development on “potentialities and inner resources”.[36]

According to Maslow, self-actualizing people share the following qualities:

  • Truth: honest, reality, beauty, pure, clean and unadulterated completeness
  • Goodness: rightness, desirability, uprightness, benevolence, honesty
  • Beauty: rightness, form, aliveness, simplicity, richness, wholeness, perfection, completion,
  • Wholeness: unity, integration, tendency to oneness, interconnectedness, simplicity, organization, structure, order, not dissociated, synergy
  • Dichotomy: transcendence, acceptance, resolution, integration, polarities, opposites, contradictions
  • Aliveness: process, not-deadness, spontaneity, self-regulation, full-functioning
  • Uniqueness: idiosyncrasy, individuality, non comparability, novelty
  • Perfection: nothing superfluous, nothing lacking, everything in its right place, just-rightness, suitability, justice
  • Necessity: inevitability: it must be just that way, not changed in any slightest way
  • Completion: ending, justice, fulfillment
  • Justice: fairness, suitability, disinterestedness, non partiality,
  • Order: lawfulness, rightness, perfectly arranged
  • Simplicity: nakedness, abstract, essential skeletal, bluntness
  • Richness: differentiation, complexity, intricacy, totality
  • Effortlessness: ease; lack of strain, striving, or difficulty
  • Playfulness: fun, joy, amusement
  • Self-sufficiency: autonomy, independence, self-determining.[37]

Dynamics of self-actualization

Maslow based his theory partially on his own assumptions about human potential and partially on his case studies of historical figures whom he believed to be self-actualized, including Albert Einstein and Henry David Thoreau.[38] Consequently, Maslow argued, the way in which essential needs are fulfilled is just as important as the needs themselves. Together, these define the human experience. To the extent a person finds cooperative social fulfillment, he establishes meaningful relationships with other people and the larger world. In other words, he establishes meaningful connections to an external reality—an essential component of self-actualization. In contrast, to the extent that vital needs find selfish and competitive fulfillment, a person acquires hostile emotions and limited external relationships—his awareness remains internal and limited.

Hierarchy of needs

An interpretation of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, represented as a pyramid with the more basic needs at the bottom[40]  Main article: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

Maslow described human needs as ordered in a prepotent hierarchy—a pressing need would need to be mostly satisfied before someone would give their attention to the next highest need. None of his published works included a visual representation of the hierarchy. The pyramidal diagram illustrating the Maslow needs hierarchy may have been created by a psychology textbook publisher as an illustrative device. This now iconic pyramid frequently depicts the spectrum of human needs, both physical and psychological, as accompaniment to articles describing Maslow’s needs theory and may give the impression that the Hierarchy of Needs is a fixed and rigid sequence of progression. Yet, starting with the first publication of his theory in 1943, Maslow described human needs as being relatively fluid—with many needs being present in a person simultaneously.[41] Late in life, Maslow came to conclude that self-actualization was not an automatic outcome of satisfying the other human needs [43][44]

Human needs as identified by Maslow:

  • At the bottom of the hierarchy are the “Basic needs or Physiological needs” of a human being: food, water, sleep, sex, homeostasis, and excretion.
  • The next level is “Safety Needs: Security, Order, and Stability”. These two steps are important to the physical survival of the person. Once individuals have basic nutrition, shelter and safety, they attempt to accomplish more.
  • The third level of need is “Love and Belonging”, which are psychological needs; when individuals have taken care of themselves physically, they are ready to share themselves with others, such as with family and friends.
  • The fourth level is achieved when individuals feel comfortable with what they have accomplished. This is the “Esteem” level, the need to be competent and recognized, such as through status and level of success.
  • Then there is the “Cognitive” level, where individuals intellectually stimulate themselves and explore.
  • After that is the “Aesthetic” level, which is the need for harmony, order and beauty.[45]
  • At the top of the pyramid, “Need for Self-actualization” occurs when individuals reach a state of harmony and understanding because they are engaged in achieving their full potential.[46] Once a person has reached the self-actualization state they focus on themselves and try to build their own image. They may look at this in terms of feelings such as self-confidence or by accomplishing a set goal.[5]

The first four levels are known as Deficit needs or D-needs. This means that if you do not have enough of one of those four needs, you will have the feeling that you need to get it. But when you do get them, then you feel content. These needs alone are not motivating.[5]

Maslow wrote that there are certain conditions that must be fulfilled in order for the basic needs to be satisfied. For example, freedom of speech, freedom to express oneself, and freedom to seek new information[47] are a few of the prerequisites. Any blockages of these freedoms could prevent the satisfaction of the basic needs.

Maslow defined self-actualization as achieving the fullest use of one’s talents and interests—the need “to become everything that one is capable of becoming.”[51] As implied by its name, self-actualization is highly individualistic and reflects Maslow’s premise that the self is “sovereign and inviolable” and entitled to “his or her own tastes, opinions, values, etc.”[52] Indeed, some have characterized self-actualization as “healthy narcissism.”[53]  Maslow used the term metamotivation to describe self-actualized people who are driven by innate forces beyond their basic needs, so that they may explore and reach their full human potential.[55]

In studying accounts of peak experiences, Maslow identified a manner of thought he called “Being-cognition” (or “B-cognition”), which is holistic and accepting, as opposed to the evaluative “Deficiency-cognition” (or “D-cognition”), and values he called “Being-values”.[56]He listed the B-values as:

  • Wholeness (unity; integration; tendency to one-ness; interconnectedness; simplicity; organization; structure; dichotomy-transcendence; order);
  • Perfection (necessity; just-right-ness; just-so-ness; inevitability; suitability; justice; completeness; “oughtness”);
  • Completion (ending; finality; justice; “it’s finished”; fulfillment; finis and telos; destiny; fate);
  • Justice (fairness; orderliness; lawfulness; “oughtness”);
  • Aliveness (process; non-deadness; spontaneity; self-regulation; full-functioning);
  • Richness (differentiation, complexity; intricacy);
  • Simplicity (honesty; nakedness; essentiality; abstract, essential, skeletal structure);
  • Beauty (rightness; form; aliveness; simplicity; richness; wholeness; perfection; completion; uniqueness; honesty);
  • Goodness (rightness; desirability; oughtness; justice; benevolence; honesty);
  • Uniqueness (idiosyncrasy; individuality; non-comparability; novelty);
  • Effortlessness (ease; lack of strain, striving or difficulty; grace; perfect, beautiful functioning);
  • Playfulness (fun; joy; amusement; gaiety; humor; exuberance; effortlessness);
  • Truth (honesty; reality; nakedness; simplicity; richness; oughtness; beauty; pure, clean and unadulterated; completeness; essentiality).
  • Self-sufficiency (autonomy; independence; not-needing-other-than-itself-in-order-to-be-itself; self-determining; environment-transcendence; separateness; living by its own laws).

Humanistic psychology gave rise to several different therapies, all guided by the idea that people possess the inner resources for growth and healing and that the point of therapy is to help remove obstacles to individuals’ achieving them. The most famous of these was client-centered therapy developed by Carl RogersThe basic principles behind humanistic psychology are simple: 1. Someone’s present functioning is their most significant aspect. As a result, humanists emphasize the here and now instead of examining the past or attempting to predict the future. 2. To be mentally healthy, individuals must take personal responsibility for their actions, regardless of whether the actions are positive or negative. 3. Each person, simply by being, is inherently worthy. While any given action may be negative, these actions do not cancel out the value of a person. 4. The ultimate goal of living is to attain personal growth and understanding. Only through constant self-improvement and self-understanding can an individual ever be truly happy.[57]

Humanistic psychology theory suits people who see the positive side of humanity and believe in free will. This theory clearly contrasts with Freud’s theory of biological determinism. Another significant strength is that humanistic psychology theory is compatible with other schools of thought. Maslow’s Hierarchy is also applicable to other topics, such as finance, economics, or even in history or criminology. Humanist psychology, also coined positive psychology, is criticized for its lack of empirical validation and therefore its lack of usefulness in treating specific problems. It may also fail to help or diagnose people who have severe mental disorders.[57] Transpersonal psychology – Maslow published in 1962 a collection of papers on this theme, which developed into his 1968 book Toward a Psychology of Being.[58][59] In this book Maslow stresses the importance of transpersonal psychology to human beings, writing: “without the transpersonal, we get sick, violent, and nihilistic, or else hopeless and apathetic” (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2011).[58] Human beings, he came to believe, need something bigger than themselves that they are connected to in a naturalistic sense, but not in a religious sense: Maslow himself was an atheist[60] and found it difficult to accept religious experience as valid unless placed in a positivistic framework.[61]  Maslow called his work positive psychology.[63][64] His work has influenced since 1968 the development of Positive Psychotherapy, a transcultural, humanistic based psychodynamic psychotherapy method used in mental health and psychosomatic treatment founded by Nossrat Peseschkian [65]. Since 1999 Maslows work enjoyed a revival of interest and influence among leaders of the positive psychology movement such as Martin Seligman. This movement focuses only on a higher human nature.[66][67] Positive psychology spends its research looking at the positive side of things and how they go right rather than the pessimistic side.[68] 

In 1966, Maslow published a pioneering work in the psychology of science The Psychology of Science: A Reconnaissance, the first book ever actually titled ‘psychology of science’. In this book Maslow proposed a model of ‘characterologically relative’ science, which he characterized as an ardent opposition to the ‘‘historically, philosophically, sociologically and psychologically naıve’’ positivistic reluctance to see science ‘‘relative to time, place, and local culture’’.[69] As Maslow acknowledged, the book was greatly inspired by Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), and it offers a psychological reading of Kuhn’s famous distinction between ‘normal’ and ‘revolutionary’ science in the context of his own distinction between ‘safety’ and ‘growth’ science, put forward as part of a larger program for the psychology of science, outlined already in his 1954 magnum opus Motivation and Personality. Interestingly enough, not only that Maslow offered a psychological reading of Kuhn’s categories of ‘normal’ and revolutionary’ science as an aftermath of Kuhn’s Structure, but he also offered a strikingly similar dichotomous structure of science 16 years before the first edition of Structure, in his nowadays little known 1946 paper ‘‘Means-centering versus problem-centering in science’’ published in the journal Philosophy of Science.[70][71]  He is also known for Maslow’s hammer, popularly phrased as “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” from his book The Psychology of Science, published in 1966.[72]

The Hierarchy of Needs has been accused of having a cultural bias—mainly reflecting Western values and ideologies. From the perspective of many cultural psychologists, this concept is considered relative to each culture and society and cannot be universally applied.[75] However, according to the University of Illinois researchers Ed Diener and Louis Tay,[76] who put Maslow’s ideas to the test with data collected from 60,865 participants in 123 countries around the world over the period of five years (2005-2010), Maslow was essentially right in that there are universal human needs regardless of cultural differences, although the authors claim to have found certain departures from the order of their fulfillment Maslow described. In particular, while they found—clearly in accordance with Maslow—that people tend to achieve basic and safety needs before other needs, as well as that other ‘higher needs’ tend to be fulfilled in a certain order, the order in which they are fulfilled apparently does not strongly influence their subjective well-being (SWB).  Maslow, however, would not be surprised by these findings, since he clearly and repeatedly emphasized that the need hierarchy is not a rigid fixed order as it is often presented:

We have spoken so far as if this hierarchy were a fixed order, but actually it is not nearly so rigid as we may have implied. It is true that most of the people with whom we have worked have seemed to have these basic needs in about the order that has been indicated. However, there have been a number of exceptions. — Maslow, ‘Motivation and Personality’ (1970), p. 51

Maslow also regarded that the relationship between different human needs and behaviour, being in fact often motivated simultaneously by multiple needs, is not a one-to-one correspondence, i.e., that “these needs must be understood not to be exclusive or single determiners of certain kinds of behavior”.[77]  Maslow’s concept of self-actualizing people was united with Piaget’s developmental theory to the process of initiation in 1993.[78]

Maslow also recognized a related but distinct phenomena of the plateau experience.

This is serene and calm rather than a poignantly emotional, climactic, autonomic response to the miraculous, the awesome, the sacralized, the Unitive, the B-values. So far as I can now tell, the high plateau-experience always has a noetic and cognitive element, which is not always true for peak experiences, which can be purely and exclusively emotional. It is far more voluntary than peak experiences are. One can learn to see in this Unitive way almost at will. It then becomes a witnessing, an appreciating, what one might call a serene, cognitive blissfulness which can, however, have a quality of casualness and of lounging about.[2]

After Maslow’s death, investigation into the nature of plateau experiences “largely fizzled into obscurity.”[13]

William James (January 11, 1842 – August 26, 1910) was an American philosopher and psychologist, and the first educator to offer a psychology course in the United States. [3] James was one of the leading thinkers of the late nineteenth century and is believed by many to be one of the most influential philosophers the United States has ever produced, while others have labeled him the “Father of American psychology”.[4][5][6] Along with Charles Sanders Peirce and John Dewey, James is considered to be one of the major figures associated with the philosophical school known as pragmatism, and is also cited as one of the founders of functional psychology. A Review of General Psychology analysis, published in 2002, ranked James as the 14th most eminent psychologist of the 20th century.

James defined true beliefs as those that prove useful to the believer. His pragmatic theory of truth was a synthesis of correspondence theory of truth and coherence theory of truth, with an added dimension. Truth is verifiable to the extent that thoughts and statements correspond with actual things, as well as the extent to which they “hang together,” or cohere, as pieces of a puzzle might fit together; these are in turn verified by the observed results of the application of an idea to actual practice.[25][26]

“The most ancient parts of truth . . . also once were plastic. They also were called true for human reasons. They also mediated between still earlier truths and what in those days were novel observations. Purely objective truth, truth in whose establishment the function of giving human satisfaction in marrying previous parts of experience with newer parts played no role whatsoever, is nowhere to be found. The reasons why we call things true is the reason why they are true, for ‘to be true’ means only to perform this marriage-function,” he wrote.[27]

“Anything short of God is not rational, anything more than God is not possible” he wrote.

He writes, “First, it is essential that God be conceived as the deepest power in the universe, and second, he must be conceived under the form of a mental personality.”

He also writes, “A God who can relish such superfluities of horror is no God for human beings to appeal to. …In other words the “Absolute” with his one purpose, is not the man-like God of common people.”

James held a world view in line with pragmatism, declaring that the value of any truth was utterly dependent upon its use to the person who held it. Additional tenets of James’s pragmatism include the view that the world is a mosaic of diverse experiences that can only be properly interpreted and understood through an application of “radical empiricism.” Radical empiricism, not related to the everyday scientific empiricism, asserts that the world and experience can never be halted for an entirely objective analysis; the mind of the observer and the act of observation affect any empirical approach to truth. The mind, its experiences, and nature are inseparable. James’s emphasis on diversity as the default human condition—over and against duality, especially Hegelian dialectical duality—has maintained a strong influence in American culture. James’s description of the mind-world connection, which he described in terms of a “stream of consciousness“, had a direct and significant impact on avant-garde and modernist literature and art, notably in the case of James Joyce.

In What Pragmatism Means, James writes that the central point of his own doctrine of truth is, in brief, that “Truths emerge from facts, but they dip forward into facts again and add to them; which facts again create or reveal new truth (the word is indifferent) and so on indefinitely. The ‘facts’ themselves meanwhile are not true. They simply are. Truth is the function of the beliefs that start and terminate among them.” Richard Rorty made the contested claim that James did not mean to give a theory of truth with this statement and that we should not regard it as such. However, other pragmatism scholars such as Susan Haack and Howard Mounce do not share Rorty’s instrumentalistinterpretation of James.[28] James responded to critics accusing him of relativismscepticism or agnosticism, and of believing only in relative truths. To the contrary, he supported an epistemological realismposition.[30]  Pragmatism is an approach to philosophy which holds that the truth or meaning of a statement is to be measured by its practical consequences. [31] From the introduction to William James’s Pragmatism by Bruce Kuklick, p. xiv.

James went on to apply the pragmatic method to the epistemological problem of truth. He would seek the meaning of ‘true’ by examining how the idea functioned in our lives. A belief was true, he said, if it worked for all of us, and guided us expeditiously through our semihospitable world. James was anxious to uncover what true beliefs amounted to in human life, what their “cash value” was, and what consequences they led to. A belief was not a mental entity which somehow mysteriously corresponded to an external reality if the belief were true. Beliefs were ways of acting with reference to a precarious environment, and to say they were true was to say they were efficacious in this environment. In this sense the pragmatic theory of truth applied Darwinian ideas in philosophy; it made survival the test of intellectual as well as biological fitness.

James’s book of lectures on Pragmatism is arguably the most influential book of American Philosophy. The lectures inside depict his position on the subject. In his sixth lecture he starts of by defining truth as “agreement with reality”. With this, James warns that there will be disagreements between pragmatics and intellectualists over the concepts of “agreement” and “reality”, the last reasoning before thoughts settle and become autonomous for us. However, he contrasts this by supporting a more practical interpretation that: a true idea or belief is one that we can blend with our thinking so that it can be justified through experiences. [32]

If theological ideas prove to have a value for concrete life, they will be true, for pragmatism, in the sense of being good for so much. For how much more they are true, will depend entirely on their relations to the other truths that also have to be Acknowledged. [33]

James has three dimensions with which “reality” must agree with truths: “(1) matters of fact, (2) relations of ideas, and (3) the entire set of other truths to which we are committed” (James). Saying that these truths “agree” with the “realities” pragmatically means that they lead us to useful outcomes. [34]

According to William James’ pragmatic approach to belief, knowledge is commonly viewed as a justified and true belief. James will accept a view if it’s conception of truth is analyzed and justified through interpretation, pragmatically. As a matter of fact, James’ whole philosophy is of productive beliefs.

“All [questions] must terminate in belief or disbelief or doubt; disbelief is merely a negative belief, and doubt is the true opposite of both. [35]

Belief in anything involves conceiving of how it is real, but disbelief is the result when we dismiss something because it contradicts another thing we think of as real. In his “Sentiment of Rationality”, saying that crucial beliefs are not known is to doubt their truth, even if it seems possible. James names four “postulates of rationality” as valuable but unknowable: God, immorality, freedom, and moral duty. [36]

In contrast, the weak side to pragmatism is that the best justification for a claim is whether it works. However, a claim that does not have outcomes cannot be justified, or unjustified, because it will not make a difference.

There can be no difference that doesn’t make a difference. [37]

Will to believe doctrine[edit]

In William James’s lecture of 1896 titled “The Will to Believe”, James defends the right to violate the principle of evidentialism in order to justify hypothesis venturing. This idea foresaw 20th century objections to evidentialism and sought to ground justified belief in an unwavering principle that would prove more beneficial. Through his philosophy of pragmatism William James justifies religious beliefs by using the results of his hypothetical venturing as evidence to support the hypothesis’ truth. Therefore, this doctrine allows one to assume belief in a god and prove its existence by what the belief brings to one’s life.

This was criticized by advocates of skepticism rationality, like Bertrand Russell in Free Thought and Official Propaganda and Alfred Henry Lloyd with The Will to Doubt. Both argued that one must always adhere to fallibilism, recognizing of all human knowledge that “None of our beliefs are quite true; all have at least a penumbra of vagueness and error”, and that the only means of progressing ever-closer to the truth is to never assume certainty, but always examine all sides and try to reach a conclusion objectively.

Free will[edit]

In his search for truth and assorted principles of psychology, William James developed his two-stage model of free will. In his model, he tries to explain how it is people come to the making of a decision and what factors are involved in it. He firstly defines our basic ability to chose as free will. Then he specifies our two factors as chance and choice. “James’s two-stage model effectively separates chance (the indeterministic free element) from choice (an arguably determinate decision that follows causally from one’s character, values, and especially feelings and desires at the moment of decision).” [38]

Chance is, as previously said, the “free element” it is that part of the model we have no control over, the wild stallion if you will. James says that in the sequence of the model, chance comes before choice. In the moment of decision we are given the chance to make a decision and then the choice is what we do (or do not do) regarding the decision.

When it comes to choice, James says we make a choice based on different experiences. It comes from our own past experiences, the observations of others or as James himself says “A supply of ideas of the various movements that are […] left in the memory by experiences of their involuntary performance is thus the first prerequisite of the voluntary life.” [39] What James describes is that once you’ve made a decision in the past, the experience is stockpiled into your memory where it can be referenced the next time a decision must be made. And will be drawn from as a positive solution. But in his development of the design, James also struggled with being able to prove that free will is actually free or predetermined.

People can make judgements of regret, moral approval and moral disapproval, and if those are absent, then that means our will is predetermined. An example of this is “James says the problem is a very “personal” one and that he cannot personally conceive of the universe as a place where murder must happen.” [40] Essentially, if there were no regrets or judgements then all the bad stuff would not be considered bad, only as predetermined because there are no options of “good” and “bad”. “The free will option is pragmatically truer because it better accommodates the judgements of regret and morality.” [41] Overall James uses this line of reasoning to prove that our will is indeed free: because of our morality codes, and the conceivable alternate universes where a decision has been regarded different than what we chose.

In The Will to Believe, James simply asserted that his will was free. As his first act of freedom, he said, he chose to believe his will was free. He was encouraged to do this by reading Charles Renouvier, whose work convinced James to convert from monism to pluralism. In his diary entry of April 30, 1870, James wrote,

I think that yesterday was a crisis in my life. I finished the first part of Renouvier’s second Essais and see no reason why his definition of free will—”the sustaining of a thought because I choose to when I might have other thoughts”—need be the definition of an illusion. At any rate, I will assume for the present—until next year—that it is no illusion. My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.[42]

In 1884 James set the terms for all future discussions of determinism and compatibilism in the free will debates with his lecture to Harvard Divinity School students published as “The Dilemma of Determinism.” In this talk he defined the common terms “hard determinism” and “soft determinism” (now more commonly called “compatibilism“).

Old-fashioned determinism was what we may call hard determinism. It did not shrink from such words as fatality, bondage of the will, necessitation, and the like. Nowadays, we have a soft determinism which abhors harsh words, and, repudiating fatality, necessity, and even predetermination, says that its real name is freedom; for freedom is only necessity understood, and bondage to the highest is identical with true freedom.[43]

James called compatibilism a “quagmire of evasion”,[43] just as the ideas of Thomas Hobbes and David Hume—that free will was simply freedom from external coercion—were called a “wretched subterfuge” by Immanuel Kant.

James described chance as neither hard nor soft determinism, but “indeterminism“. He said

The stronghold of the determinist argument is the antipathy to the idea of chance…This notion of alternative possibility, this admission that any one of several things may come to pass is, after all, only a roundabout name for chance.[44]

James asked the students to consider his choice for walking home from Lowell Lecture Hall after his talk.

What is meant by saying that my choice of which way to walk home after the lecture is ambiguous and matter of chance?…It means that both Divinity Avenue and Oxford Street are called but only one, and that one either one, shall be chosen.[45]

With this simple example, James laid out a two-stage decision process with chance in a present time of random alternatives, leading to a choice of one possibility that transforms an ambiguous future into a simple unalterable past. James’ two-stage model separates chance (undetermined alternative possibilities) from choice (the free action of the individual, on which randomness has no effect). Subsequent thinkers using this model include Henri PoincaréArthur Holly Compton, and Karl Popper.

Philosophy of religion[edit]


James did important work in philosophy of religion. In his Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh he provided a wide-ranging account of The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) and interpreted them according to his pragmatic leanings. Some of the important claims he makes in this regard:

  • Religious genius (experience) should be the primary topic in the study of religion, rather than religious institutions—since institutions are merely the social descendant of genius.
  • The intense, even pathological varieties of experience (religious or otherwise) should be sought by psychologists, because they represent the closest thing to a microscope of the mind—that is, they show us in drastically enlarged form the normal processes of things.
  • In order to usefully interpret the realm of common, shared experience and history, we must each make certain “over-beliefs” in things which, while they cannot be proven on the basis of experience, help us to live fuller and better lives.
  • Religious Mysticism is only one half of mysticism, the other half is composed of the insane and both of these are co-located in the ‘great subliminal or transmarginal region’.[46]

James investigated mystical experiences throughout his life, leading him to experiment with chloral hydrate (1870), amyl nitrite (1875), nitrous oxide (1882), and peyote (1896).[citation needed] James claimed that it was only when he was under the influence of nitrous oxide that he was able to understand Hegel.[47] He concluded that while the revelations of the mystic hold true, they hold true only for the mystic; for others, they are certainly ideas to be considered, but can hold no claim to truth without personal experience of such. American Philosophy: An Encyclopedia classes him as one of several figures who “took a more pantheist or pandeist approach by rejecting views of God as separate from the world.”[48]


William James provided a description of the mystical experience, in his famous collection of lectures published in 1902 as The Varieties of Religious Experience. [49] These criteria are as follows

  • Passivity – a feeling of being grasped and held by a superior power not under your own control.
  • Ineffability – no adequate way to use human language to describe the experience.
  • Noetic – universal truths revealed that are unable to be acquired anywhere else.
  • Transient – the mystical experience is only a temporary experience.


Like Sigmund Freud, James was influenced by Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection.[50] At the core of James’ theory of psychology, as defined in The Principles of Psychology (1890), was a system of “instincts”.[50] James wrote that humans had many instincts, even more than other animals.[50] These instincts, he said, could be overridden by experience and by each other, as many of the instincts were actually in conflict with each other.[50] In the 1920s, however, psychology turned away from evolutionary theory and embraced radical behaviorism.[50]

Theory of emotion[edit]

James is one of the two namesakes of the James–Lange theory of emotion, which he formulated independently of Carl Lange in the 1880s. The theory holds that emotion is the mind’s perception of physiological conditions that result from some stimulus. In James’s oft-cited example, it is not that we see a bear, fear it, and run; we see a bear and run; consequently, we fear the bear. Our mind’s perception of the higher adrenaline level, heartbeat, etc. is the emotion.

This way of thinking about emotion has great consequences for the philosophy of aesthetics as well as to the philosophy and practice of education.[51] Here is a passage from his great work, The Principles of Psychology, that spells out those consequences:

[W]e must immediately insist that aesthetic emotion, pure and simple, the pleasure given us by certain lines and masses, and combinations of colors and sounds, is an absolutely sensational experience, an optical or auricular feeling that is primary, and not due to the repercussion backwards of other sensations elsewhere consecutively aroused. To this simple primary and immediate pleasure in certain pure sensations and harmonious combinations of them, there may, it is true, be added secondary pleasures; and in the practical enjoyment of works of art by the masses of mankind these secondary pleasures play a great part. The more classic one’s taste is, however, the less relatively important are the secondary pleasures felt to be, in comparison with those of the primary sensation as it comes in. Classicism and romanticism have their battles over this point.

The theory of emotion was also independently developed in Italy by the Anthropologist Giuseppe Sergi,.[52][53] In order to give due credit, such a theory should be called the James-Lange-Sergi theory of emotion.[citation needed]

William James’ bear[edit]

From Joseph LeDoux‘s description of William James’s Emotion[54]

Why do we run away if we notice that we are in danger? Because we are afraid of what will happen if we don’t. This obvious answer to a seemingly trivial question has been the central concern of a century-old debate about the nature of our emotions.

It all began in 1884 when William James published an article titled “What Is an Emotion?”[55] The article appeared in a philosophy journal called Mind, as there were no psychology journals yet. It was important, not because it definitively answered the question it raised, but because of the way in which James phrased his response. He conceived of an emotion in terms of a sequence of events that starts with the occurrence of an arousing stimulus (the sympathetic nervous system or the parasympathetic nervous system); and ends with a passionate feeling, a conscious emotional experience. A major goal of emotion research is still to elucidate this stimulus-to-feeling sequence—to figure out what processes come between the stimulus and the feeling.

James set out to answer his question by asking another: do we run from a bear because we are afraid or are we afraid because we run? He proposed that the obvious answer, that we run because we are afraid, was wrong, and instead argued that we are afraid because we run:

Our natural way of thinking about… emotions is that the mental perception of some fact excites the mental affection called emotion, and that this latter state of mind gives rise to the bodily expression. My theory, on the contrary, is that the bodily changes follow directly the perception of the exciting fact, and that our feeling of the same changes as they occur IS the emotion (called ‘feeling’ by Damasio).

The essence of James’s proposal was simple. It was premised on the fact that emotions are often accompanied by bodily responses (racing heart, tight stomach, sweaty palms, tense muscles, and so on; sympathetic nervous system) and that we can sense what is going on inside our body much the same as we can sense what is going on in the outside world. According to James, emotions feel different from other states of mind because they have these bodily responses that give rise to internal sensations, and different emotions feel different from one another because they are accompanied by different bodily responses and sensations. For example, when we see James’s bear, we run away. During this act of escape, the body goes through a physiological upheaval: blood pressure rises, heart rate increases, pupils dilate, palms sweat, muscles contract in certain ways (evolutionary, innate defense mechanisms). Other kinds of emotional situations will result in different bodily upheavals. In each case, the physiological responses return to the brain in the form of bodily sensations, and the unique pattern of sensory feedback gives each emotion its unique quality. Fear feels different from anger or love because it has a different physiological signature (the parasympathetic nervous system for love). The mental aspect of emotion, the feeling, is a slave to its physiology, not vice versa: we do not tremble because we are afraid or cry because we feel sad; we are afraid because we tremble and are sad because we cry.

Philosophy of history[edit]

One of the long-standing schisms in the philosophy of history concerns the role of individuals in social change.

One faction sees individuals (as seen in Dickens‘ A Tale of Two Cities and Thomas Carlyle‘s The French Revolution, A History) as the motive power of history, and the broader society as the page on which they write their acts. The other sees society as moving according to holistic principles or laws, and sees individuals as its more-or-less willing pawns. In 1880, James waded into this controversy with “Great Men, Great Thoughts, and the Environment,” an essay published in the Atlantic Monthly. He took Carlyle’s side, but without Carlyle’s one-sided emphasis on the political/military sphere, upon heroes as the founders or overthrowers of states and empires.

A philosopher, according to James, must accept geniuses as a given entity the same way as a biologist accepts as an entity Darwin’s ‘spontaneous variations.’ The role of an individual will depend on the degree of its conformity with the social environment, epoch, moment, etc.[56]

James introduces a notion of receptivities of the moment. The societies‘ mutations from generation to generation are determined (directly or indirectly) mainly by the acts or examples of individuals whose genius was so adapted to the receptivities of the moment or whose accidental position of authority was so critical that they became ferments, initiators of movements, setters of precedent or fashion, centers of corruption, or destroyers of other persons, whose gifts, had they had free play, would have led society in another direction.[57]

View on spiritualism and associationism[edit]

William James in a séance with a spiritualist medium

James studied closely the schools of thought known as associationism and spiritualism. The view of an associationist is that each experience that one has leads to another, creating a chain of events. The association does not tie together two ideas, but rather physical objects.[58] This association occurs on an atomic level. Small physical changes occur in the brain which eventually form complex ideas or associations. Thoughts are formed as these complex ideas work together and lead to new experiences. Isaac Newton and David Hartley both were precursors to this school of thought, proposing such ideas as “physical vibrations in the brain, spinal cord, and nerves are the basis of all sensations, all ideas, and all motions…”[59] James disagreed with associationism in that he believed it to be too simple. He referred to associationism as “psychology without a soul”[60] because there is nothing from within creating ideas; they just arise by associating objects with one another.

On the other hand, a spiritualist believes that mental events are attributed to the soul. Whereas in associationism, ideas and behaviors are separate, in spiritualism, they are connected. Spiritualism encompasses the term innatism, which suggests that ideas cause behavior. Ideas of past behavior influence the way a person will act in the future; these ideas are all tied together by the soul. Therefore, an inner soul causes one to have a thought, which leads them to perform a behavior, and memory of past behaviors determine how one will act in the future.[60]

James had a strong opinion about these schools of thought. He was, by nature, a pragmatist and thus took the view that one should use whatever parts of theories make the most sense and can be proven.[61] Therefore, he recommended breaking apart spiritualism and associationism and using the parts of them that make the most sense. James believed that each person has a soul, which exists in a spiritual universe, and leads a person to perform the behaviors they do in the physical world.[61] James was influenced by Emanuel Swedenborg, who first introduced him to this idea. James stated that, although it does appear that humans use associations to move from one event to the next, this cannot be done without this soul tying everything together. For, after an association has been made, it is the person who decides which part of it to focus on, and therefore determines in which direction following associations will lead.[58] Associationism is too simple in that it does not account for decision-making of future behaviors, and memory of what worked well and what did not. Spiritualism, however, does not demonstrate actual physical representations for how associations occur. James combined the views of spiritualism and associationism to create his own way of thinking.

James was a founding member and vice president of the American Society for Psychical Research.[62] The lending of his name made Leonora Piper a famous medium. In 1885, the year after the death of his young son, James had his first sitting with Piper at the suggestion of his mother-in-law.[63] James was soon convinced that Piper knew things she could only have discovered by supernatural means. He expressed his belief in Piper by saying, “If you wish to upset the law that all crows are black, it is enough if you prove that one crow is white. My white crow is Mrs. Piper.”[64] However, James did not believe that Piper was in contact with spirits. After evaluating sixty-nine reports of Piper’s mediumship he considered the hypothesis of telepathy as well as Piper obtaining information about her sitters by natural means such as her memory recalling information. According to James the “spirit-control” hypothesis of her mediumship was incoherent, irrelevant and in cases demonstrably false.[65]

James held séances with Piper and was impressed by some of the details he was given; however, according to Massimo Polidoro a maid in the household of James was friendly with a maid in Piper’s house and this may have been a source of information that Piper used for private details about James.[66] Bibliographers Frederick Burkhardt and Fredson Bowers who compiled the works of James wrote “It is thus possible that Mrs. Piper’s knowledge of the James family was acquired from the gossip of servants and that the whole mystery rests on the failure of the people upstairs to realize that servants [downstairs] also have ears.”[67]

James was convinced that the “future will corroborate” the existence of telepathy.[68] Psychologists such as James McKeen Cattell and Edward B. Titchener took issue with James’s support for psychical research and considered his statements unscientific.[69][70] Cattell in a letter to James wrote that the “Society for Psychical Research is doing much to injure psychology”.[71]

Jamesian theory of self[edit]

William James’ theory of self divided a person’s mental picture of self into two categories: the “Me” and the “I”. The “Me” can be thought of as a separate object or individual a person refers to when describing their personal experiences; while the “I” is the self that knows who they are and what they have done in their life.[72] Both concepts are depicted in the statement; “I know it was me who ate the cookie.” He called the “Me” part of self the “empirical me” and the “I” part “the pure Ego”.[73] For James, the “I” part of self was the thinking self, which could not be further divided. He linked this part of the self to the soul of a person, or what is now thought of as the mind.[74] Educational theorists have been inspired in various ways by James’s theory of self, and have developed various applications of these theories to curricular and pedagogical theory and practice.[51]

James further divided the “Me” part of self into: the material self, the social self, and the spiritual self, as below.[73]

Material self[edit]

The material self consists of things that belong to a person or entities that a person belongs to. Thus, things like the body, family, clothes, money, and such make up the material self.[72] For James, the core of the material self was the body.[74] Second to the body, James felt a person’s clothes were important to the material self. He believed a person’s clothes were one way they expressed who they felt they were; or clothes were a way to show status, thus contributing to forming and maintaining one’s self-image.[74] Money and family are critical parts of the material self. James felt that if one lost a family member, a part of who they are was lost also. Money figured in one’s material self in a similar way. If once a person had significant money then lost it, who they were as a person changed as well.[74]

Social self[edit]

Our social selves are who we are in a given social situation. For James, people change how they act depending on the social situation that they are in. James believed that people had as many social selves as they did social situations they participated in.[74] For example, a person may act in a different way at work when compared to how that same person may act when they are out with a group of friends. James also believed that in a given social group, an individual’s social self may be divided even further.[74] An example of this would be, in the social context of an individual’s work environment, the difference in behavior when that individual is interacting with their boss versus their behavior when interacting with a co-worker.

Spiritual self[edit]

For James, the spiritual self was who we are at our core. The spiritual self is more concrete or permanent than the other two selves. The spiritual self is our subjective and most intimate self. Aspects of an individual’s spiritual self include things like their personality, core values, and conscience that do not typically change throughout their lifetime. The spiritual self involves introspection, or looking inward to deeper spiritual, moral, or intellectual questions without the influence of objective thoughts.[74] For James, achieving a high level of understanding of who we are at our core, or understanding our spiritual selves is more rewarding than satisfying the needs of the social and material selves.

Pure ego[edit]

The pure ego is what James refers to as the “I” self. For James, the pure ego is what provides the thread of continuity between our past, present, and future selves. The pure ego’s perception of consistent individual identity arises from a continual stream of consciousness.[75] James believed that the pure ego was similar to what we think of as the soul, or the mind. The pure ego was not a substance and therefore could not be examined by science.[72]

Happiness comes from between

Haidt discusses “the meaning of life”, making the distinction between a purpose for life and a purpose within life. Love and work give a sense of meaning to life. A study by Mihaly CsikszentmihalyiHoward Gardner and William Damon[5] established the concept of “vital engagement” which characterises work with the most sense of purpose. “Cross-level coherence” within one’s self and life is also vital, coherence between the physical, psychological and socio-cultural levels. Religion is an evolved mechanism for creating this coherence.

Ch.11: On balance

Haidt concludes by arguing that the ancient idea of Yin and Yang turns out to be the wisest idea of all. We need, he writes, the perspectives of ancient religion and modern science; of east and west; even of liberal and conservative. “Words of wisdom really do flood over us, but only by drawing from many sources can we become wise.”


The Happiness Hypothesis received positive reviews. Daniel Nettle, reviewing the book in Nature, accepted its central premise of a “striking similarity between the advice of the ancients on how to live, and the thoughts of modern psychologists on how to have a healthy mind”. He was impressed by the breadth of Haidt’s grasp of modern behavioural science, and found the book “by some margin the most intellectually substantial book to arise from the ‘positive psychology’ movement”.[6] James Flint concluded his review of the book in The Guardian saying, “I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that laid out the contemporary understanding of the human condition with such simple clarity and sense.”[7] Christopher Hart writing in The Times described the book as “humane, witty and comforting… brilliantly synthesising ancient cultural insights with modern psychology”.[8]

☛ Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, by William Deresiewicz. Argues that Ivy League schools instill the wrong values in students.

☛ Oh, the Places You’ll Go!, by Dr. Seuss. Children’s classic about boundless horizons; on the reading list for the final class.