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Happiness and Moral Awareness

Publication date: 23 January 2012

This week I finished reading 'The Happiness Hypothesis' by Jonathan Haidt which I would rate as excellent. Though it can be positioned in the Positive Psychology genre, this book is much more than another rehash of happiness research. Haidt is a researcher in what you could summarise as the psychology of morality. I think his experience has given him some pretty unique insights that mean we can all draw some important learnings relating to a theme that is missing from the majority of self-help books and which the psychotherapy world has shied away from. That theme is the idea that "moral character" is core to our well-being.

One of Haidt's first insights is that much of social interaction revolves around the principle of reciprocity. If you help me I'll feel a strong impulse to help you in return. If you wrong me, or even if I simply see you doing wrong by someone else, I'll feel a desire to see you “punished”.

Next insight: instances of pure evil are relatively rare. Rather, most people who do wrong actually think they are doing right. Typically they are retaliating against a perceived wrong to them. In the Australian tennis open this week, one player, Tomas Berdych, was booed because he refused to shake hands with his opponent at the end of the match. Turns out he was feeling badly done by after the other guy hit a shot straight towards his face.

Next: we have quite a strong self-bias in our moral awareness. We've probably all heard the old chestnut about 90% of drivers thinking they're above average. Well it turns out we're all a bit like this in respect of our moral and ethical judgements. In research, people who play games in which they can choose to be either cooperative and fair or selfish and greedy at the expense of others, tend to predict they themselves will be fair and then prove themselves not to be. And yet we're so quick to impute negative motives to others. Even when told explicitly about this tendency, most people attribute it to others but not themselves. (I really am one of the above average drivers, even though I know most others who think so are wrong.) No wonder conflict is so common.

Religions and traditional philosophies exhort us to be virtuous, but does science offer any support? Haidt's answer is yes: the reward is greater happiness, well-being and engagement in life. Happy people tend to be kinder and more helpful – but which way does the causal link point? There is evidence that it is both.

In the west we tend to see virtue in terms of altruism: putting others' interests before out own. What I like about Haidt's book is that he sees it is so much more. For example working hard is virtuous but not necessarily altruistic. Living a simple life is virtuous but not necessarily altruistic.

Concepts like character, strengths and virtues are at the heart of Positive Psychology. That's why I think it's future is bright. It's also one of the reasons why I think there's such a need for a Positive Psychotherapy.

Mindfulness training is like most of therapy approaches in that it doesn't really grasp this particular nettle. Yet the traditions from which mindfulness derives most certainly do. The Buddhist path is seen in terms of the threefold way of ethics, meditation and wisdom. Mindfulness is most obviously connected to the second stage, meditation. In Buddhism, meditation is classed as either concentrative or insight (vipassana). Insight is about seeing into the true nature of mind and reality. Concentration (the ability to hold the mind steady in its focus) is a necessary preparation for insight. The first stage of the path, ethics, is also in one sense a necessary preparation. That's why it's first (and not because we'll ever reach the end of it). We can see it as a process of purifying the mind. This ethically loaded term is perhaps not popular in our culture but it is part of the tradition.

Many people in mindfulness classes find that their mind is anything but steady in its focus, anything but still. Often it's conflicts and emotionally-laden memories that bubble up into mind. Maybe it's something to do with how we live the rest of our lives. Maybe what we really need is to simplify our lives and live ethically and virtuously.

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