The author explores the nature of happiness, its properties and sources, with the end-goal of teaching the reader HOW to be happy. He searches for commonalities across ancient writings (Buddha, Confucius, the Bible, Torah, Aristotle, etc) to support his ideas, though in truth these felt superfluous to me. Haidt mostly relies on psychology and philosophy to back his assertions.
The Happiness Hypothesis's big recurring metaphor is that the mind is a rider on an elephant. The rider represents reason and makes conscious decisions. The elephant is instinct, approach-retreat reflexes, and automatic responses to stimuli. The rider has limited control over what the elephant does, which explains why it's so hard to do things we know we should do (eg exercise portion control). Pitting the rider against the elephant in a contest of wills is doomed to eventual failure. To develop good happy-making habits, one must train the elephant over time.
Some interesting concepts:
--Negativity bias--We're wired to assign greater value to loss than equivalent gain.
--The cortical lottery--We're born with a baseline level of happiness.
--The adaptation principle--Events may temporarily raise or lower one's baseline happiness (winning the lottery, losing a limb) but people eventually return to their baseline level.
--Reciprocity--We're built to reward those who are good to us and punish those that harm us, which incentivizes cooperative, mutually beneficial behavior. Sales techniques are designed to exploit this instinct.
--Motivated reasoning--If we can find evidence that supports the conclusion we want, we tend at that point to stop thinking critically.
--External factors--A few external factors that are shown to systematically affect happiness are noise (especially variable or intermittent), commute (shorter commutes increase happiness even when this means having a smaller home), lack of control (even the illusion of control increases happiness), shame (eg, body image), and especially relationships (strength and number).
--Conspicuous consumption--Evolutionarily advantageous (attracts more/better mates) but it demonstrably reduces happiness.
--The two types of love--As defined by the author. Passionate and companionate. The latter correlates to greater long-term happiness.
At this point the book kind of lost me, as it veered into an examination of divinity, transcendence, religion and purity and virtues that vary from culture to culture. Squishy, ill-defined, and often undesirable stuff. I found the earlier psychology studies and experiments to be more interesting and relevant.
The Happiness Hypothesis, boiled down: strong, numerous relationships create happiness; acknowledging one's own flaws and hypocrisies leads to growth and improved relationships; meditation can help; and dispense with conspicuous consumption.
But it's damned smart, challenging writing. Alison is a young retired Superman-esque superhero, a sophomore in college, and a frustrated idealist. She wrestles with life as a reluctant celebrity, her failure to have any lasting impact on the world, her fluctuating sense of identity, her nebulous responsibilities to family, friends, and the world at large. Different opinions are proffered about what precisely are the world's problems and which strategies stand a chance at improving things. There are no easy answers. It rings wonderfully true.
One powerful plotline involves a regenerating hero who gives up crimefighting to become an organ donor. In perpetuity. 24-7. This is utterly horrifying when you think about it. It's a beautiful and painful sequence, pitting her need to change the world against her friends' need to see her healthy and whole and not in unending torment, and their skepticism that it will make any difference. Neither side is wrong.
The cast of characters is diverse in a way that I've rarely seen in graphic stuff. Gay and straight, white and not-white, disabled and/or disfigured (...otherly figured?), fat and skinny and nerdy... It slathers on another layer of delicious verisimilitude.
At a couple points I feared SFP was going to veer off to the Loopy Left (like when a president who looks remarkably like W gives a frightening speech full of paranoid nut-jobbiness and incipient Big Brotherism) but it never goes off the rails.
--It was a slog.
--Terrible Star-Trek-alienitis. The non-human half of the hero duo was just a human with a--gasp--beetle for a head. Perhaps this silly, lazy morphology makes more sense by the end but I'd be surprised.
--Miéville brandished his politics like a club, they were thuddingly obvious and unsophisticated. Government is gosh-darned corrupt, counterculture is heroic, the rich are evil and selfish. Not that these ideas aren't worth some screentime, but it was just so...simple.
--The hyper-taboo, socially repugnant interspecies sexual relationship was the best part of the book. The danger of discovery felt real. The artistic subculture that exhibited varying degrees of acceptance and laissez-faire was the only thing that made me want to keep reading.
EDIT: A friend who is good at reviewing reviews pointed out that thus far my rating is not in alignment with my "scathing" criticism. So I should add that:
--Miéville writes real purty.
--His world-building was actually quite good.
Had the library not been whanging me with onerous 25-cents-per-day fines I would have finished reading it. It's just not worth it to me to check it out again I guess.
One thing that struck me was the fact that the only universal attitude--seemingly held by pretty much every Marine in the company--was contempt for weakness and incompetence. The hyper-masculine mindlessness I expected to read about was missing. One Marine announced his intention to open a gay bar. Another preached Marxism and socialism. A third--who went by the name Fruity Rudy--was known for his physical beauty. Many of the soldiers philosophized or waxed poetic about war, America, leadership, brotherhood, death, their mission in Iraq...
Beyond painting a portrait of life in combat, the whole book seemed to be leading up to this quote in the afterword:
"It’s the American public for whom the Iraq War is often no more real than a video game. Five years into this war, I am not always confident most Americans fully appreciate the caliber of the people fighting for them, the sacrifices they have made, and the sacrifices they continue to make. After the Vietnam War ended, the onus of shame largely fell on the veterans. This time around, if shame is to be had when the Iraq conflict ends--and all indications are there will be plenty of it--the veterans are the last people in America to deserve it. When it comes to apportioning shame, my vote goes to the American people who sent them to war in a surge of emotion but quickly lost the will to either win it or end it. The young troops I profiled in Generation Kill, as well as the other men and women in uniform I’ve encountered in combat zones throughout Iraq and Afghanistan, are among the finest people of their generation. We misuse them at our own peril."