7 min read

What Makes Us Happy?

If you are in passionate love and want to celebrate your passion, read poetry. If your ardor has calmed and you want to understand your evolving relationship, read psychology. But if you have just ended a relationship and would like to believe you are better off without love, read philosophy.
Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis

If fulfilment is the central pillar of our ideal future vision, we ought to explore what it means and how we achieve it. This is the domain of Positive Psychology - or, my preferred name, happiness science. The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt was reviewed in Nature as "by some margin the most intellectually substantial book to arise from the 'positive psychology' movement". He combines modern psychology and neuroscience with ancient wisdom and philosophy to lay out a "contemporary understanding of the human condition with such simple clarity and sense", as The Guardian put it. It's the ideal introduction to the topic.

The book is a guide on how to be happy. It will certainly inform our strategy but more so our ideal future vision. What can happiness science teach us about how our ideal future world should look? What ideals might we strive for today that can be the foundation of our ideal future? What things make humans universally happy? How does the science interact with our defined technology frontier for our ideal future, that of a post-work world enabled by ubiquitous human level AI? I'll explore all of these questions, and more, in the following reflection.

After exploring whether happiness comes from within, as Buddha and many ancient philosophers argued, or from outside, as our modern, western culture would have you believe, Haidt settles on his final 'happiness hypothesis'; "happiness comes from between". He agrees with much ancient wisdom of living virtuously as a path to happiness but stops short of proposing the buddhist ideal of "full detachment". He suggests that it is an inhuman idea - that we are social creatures that need love and relationships to be truly fulfilled. "Happiness requires changing yourself and changing your world. It requires pursuing your own goals and fitting in with others." A lot of big ideas contribute to this conclusion; here I will summarise and reflect on the most relevant of them.


'Being good' must surely play a large role in our ideal future vision. Many people through history have argued that morality is 'ideal' by definition - in fact, 'ideals' is often a synonym for 'virtues'. Haidt suggests that morality is ideal in that it conveys a positive emotion, one he calls elevation. Thomas Jefferson - who else? - breaks down the components of elevation as: "an eliciting or triggering condition (displays of charity, gratitude, or other virtues); physical changes in the body (“dilation” in the chest); a motivation (a desire of “doing charitable and grateful acts also”); and a characteristic feeling beyond bodily sensations (elevated sentiments)." This "characteristic feeling" is one description of fulfilment and comes from what is believed to be an innate sense of sacredness and divinity. It is felt not only through elevation but also disgust (when someone violates our code of ethics) and awe (fear of and submission to something bigger than ourselves). Haidt argues that liberals and secular thinkers often ignore or misunderstand this sense of sacredness despite it being just as relevant to the non-religious.

To help us understand how to 'be good' Haidt introduces a framework of three ethics: autonomy, community, and divinity. "Autonomy is about protecting people from harm and giving them freedom to pursue their own goals. Community is then about protecting groups, families, companies, or nations with values such as obedience, loyalty and leadership. Divinity is about protecting the inner divinity of a person to live in a way free from moral pollutants". This seems to be a helpful framework for us in determining a set of universal values and virtues in our ideal future world, however there are clear tradeoffs between these dimensions that we should try to overcome. To do this, Haidt turns to the work of Peterson and Seligman on 'virtues and strengths'. They suggest that there are twenty-four principle character strengths grouped into six virtues. They are:

Wisdom: • Curiosity • Love of learning • Judgment • Ingenuity • Emotional intelligence • Perspective
Courage: • Valor • Perseverance • Integrity
Humanity: • Kindness • Loving
Justice: • Citizenship • Fairness • Leadership
Temperance: • Self-control • Prudence • Humility
Transcendence: • Appreciation of beauty and excellence • Gratitude • Hope • Spirituality • Forgiveness • Humour • Zest

We should continue to assess where these values are in conflict but it seems safe to use this as a starting point to identify how to achieve fulfilment through morality.


We have seen the importance of purpose in living a fulfilled life and I have argued that there are plenty of purposeful activities beyond work, given that all work will be done by machines in our ideal future world. As he is focused on the present day, Haidt defaults to work as the primary form of purposeful activity but, as we have seen, the research that underpins this is simply a set of principles that can be applied to any number of activities.

The three components of purpose that Haidt draws out are (1) a use of strengths to gain a feeling of mastery, (2) engaging with others to feel community, and (3) engaging with something bigger than the self. Under (1) he introduces the concept of flow - the state of total immersion in a task that is challenging yet closely matched to one's abilities. Martin Seligman argues that it is the strongest form of gratification - activity that engages you fully - which will provide maximum happiness if balanced with pleasures - "delights that have clear sensory and strong emotional components" such as eating a delicious meal. It begs the question: if AI is taking care of our needs, what tasks are "challenging yet closely matched to one's abilities"? I believe that most hobbies or activities can fit this description. I can personally attest to having experienced flow as much through my hobbies of team sports, karate, and yoga as I have through my work. Hobbies also provide the second component, community, in ways that work doesn't always provide. Even individual hobbies such as archery or knitting can foster a sense of community when you engage with others that share the passion.

The third component is harder to adapt to a post-work world. We often describe the purpose in our work as 'trying to change the world for the better' and it's this engagement with the world that gets us feeling outside of or beyond ourselves. Here, Haidt provides a direct answer - religion. He says that religion is a highly evolved mechanism for feeling beyond oneself - and fostering community to boot. While religion is decreasing in popularity, I believe our post-work future will usher in a spiritual revolution as people crave this connection with something greater and the associated feeling of community. My hypothesis is that the move away from traditional religions and towards spirituality is driven by a disagreement with some of the core values of those organised religions and that we could see new religions form - even if they aren't called as such - around new sets of shared values that are born out of a search for truth.


American Psychiatrist M. Scott Peck defines 'mental health' as a "dedication to reality at all costs". It's my favourite definition of the term. Engaging with reality takes a greater mental toll than trying to live outside of it, but is vital to our mental health and ultimately our happiness. This is why I am optimistic about our future; we will have increasing ability to identify the truth and the mental bandwidth necessary to live with it. I also believe that the pursuit of truth will increasingly be seen as a spiritual journey that will provide ever more people with purpose and community.

Haidt suggests that an ideal world would combine the virtues stemming from the ethic of autonomy (freedom, inclusion, justice) with those of the ethic of community (leadership, loyalty, obedience). This middle ground seems to be based in truth - if we could align on a set of shared values grounded in truth and with a full understanding of the tradeoffs involved and implied, we could have the best of both worlds. That's what I'm trying to achieve with What Future World?; build a community of people looking to find an ideal set of shared values by seeking truth in the acquired wisdom of humanity. If this experience isn't fulfilling it should be ringing alarm bells for us.

This raises important questions for our strategy for achieving an ideal world:

How do we bring everyone onto the same page when wars have been fought between religions?
To what extent are the wars over different values vs different truths?
If truths, is it possible to do the investigation necessary to find that actual truth, and convince over time with logic?
Are we able to distill the major religions into their hierarchy of values? Would it be right to do so?
Can we then compare each religion to the 'ideal' to identify where the differences lie - either differences in a certain value (I.e., abortion) or on the hierarchy between shared values?

Even if we can determine an 'ideal' set of values it will be difficult to bring everyone around to that way of thinking. It seems worthwhile to try.


A relatively minor point in the book, Haidt mentions the studies showing the strong positive relationship between happiness and control. When humans feel out of control their happiness decreases and they do not adapt to this lower level, they remain unhappy. This is seen when people have to live with chronic sources of noise (not controlling when the cars will honk their horns) or have lengthy commutes (not controlling the traffic and behaviour of other drivers). We should be mindful of this phenomenon with respect to our AI future - if we create an artificial intelligence greater than our own then we will inevitably cede control, even if the AI is aligned to our goals and values. I am hopeful. I hypothesise that fostering a greater sense of non-attachment will make us more resilient to loss of control. That said, it's an argument in favour of slowing AI development while we figure this all out.


Haidt shares the research suggesting that we are all genetically predisposed to a set-point level of happiness, a trait he calls 'optimism'. We each have a range of happiness levels we are most likely to fall within and the voluntary actions we take - plus the environment we find ourselves within - determines whether we experience the top or bottom of our range. The bottom of one person's range might be above the top of another's range (if that person has chronic depression, for example). This adds another dimension to the 'lottery of birth' concept. Not only are our wealth and income levels driven mostly by factors outside of our control, but our happiness too! It further suggests we should strive for a fairer, equal society and do more to support those with lower happiness set points, using the proven strategies Haidt puts forth: meditation, cognitive therapy, and Prozac.

The Happiness Hypothesis contributes a lot to our ideal future vision. We have initial validation of the role of morality in individual fulfilment. We should emphasise the role of communities of shared activities, particularly when they are engaging with a sense beyond oneself such as the search for truth. We've seen that the ideal society is constrained by a set of shared values but with the freedom to also be asking whether they can be improved upon. We also have warnings on not giving up control and on ensuring an equal society. From here we'll explore the role of morality in societal cohesion beyond simply individual fulfilment and the strategies for making this all a reality.

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