When social psychologist University of Virginia in 1995, he prepared by reading Thomas Jefferson’s writings and making the requisite pilgrimage to Monticello. Little did he realize the impact this Jeffersonian indoctrination would have on his own research.
Haidt’s area of specialization is moral emotions, but before coming to U.Va., he focused his studies on cross-cultural experiences of disgust. He read ancient Buddhist texts and spent time in India, exploring how the beneficial biological aspects of disgust became codified as religious imperatives and keys to social order.
Then he came across Thomas Jefferson’s letter to Robert Skipwith, in which Jefferson describes how “witnessing acts of beauty and moral goodness — whether in literature or reality — swells the chest and inspires a desire to lead a better life.” Suddenly Haidt began thinking about the antithesis of disgust, the psychological effect of uplifting experiences, an emotion he termed “elevation.” Haidt said,“That letter fundamentally changed the course of my research.”
In a moment of zeitgeist, Haidt’s inquiry into elevation coincided with the burgeoning of the academic field, positive psychology, which studies how people find meaning and happiness in life. His research into what prompts elevation and the resulting physical and motivational effects won him psychology’s largest monetary award, the John Templeton Prize for Positive Psychology, in 2001.
While researching elevation, Haidt continued teaching a large undergraduate survey course introducing the study of psychology. In the classroom, he has found it useful to cite quotations and examples from ancient philosophy and world religion to make his points more memorable. Haidt’s colleague, psychology professor Gerald Clore stated, “This penchant for asking what it all means makes him very appealing as an undergraduate lecturer in Introductory Psychology.”
Having received several university and state awards for teaching, Haidt decided to apply his ancient wisdom approach to a study of happiness. Looking at the relationship between what religious and philosophical traditions say about fulfillment and what scientists have discovered about the biological processes involved in the brain’s response to stimuli, Haidt gleaned 10 psychological truths from ancient religious and philosophical texts, which he examines in the 10 chapters of his 2006 book, The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom.
Throughout the work, Haidt analogizes the conscious mind to a rider straddling the elephant of the unconscious mind, trying to guide the giant beast where the rider wants it to go. He cited numerous psychological experiments that demonstrate how at odds the conscious and unconscious minds often are, despite the conscious mind’s skill at rationalizing choices and behavior. His book suggests that by understanding ancient wisdom’s insights into our divided nature, we have a chance of establishing a more harmonious relationship between the conscious and unconscious, gently training our elephants to do as we wish.
Haidt, who has also established an accompanying website, Happinesshypothesis.com , said, “every good idea I’ve ever had in my life is in this book, the book is really a gateway to everything I want to work on for the rest of my life.” Although Haidt spent 2005-2006 at Princeton University as the Laurence S. Rockefeller Visiting Professor of Ethics at the Center for Human Values, his heart remains in Charlottesville. Haidt said,“it really was because of U.Va., because of Jefferson, that I came to study this completely neglected area of emotion.”
Haidt is currently studying the foundations of moral judgment in liberals and conservatives in order to understand how political appeals might be better crafted. In addition, he’s researching how the application of elevation can be used to increase trust in relationships, especially among married couples.
To learn more about his work and this area of study, visit www.happinesshypothesis.com.