I really enjoyed Jonathan Haidt’s book The Happiness Hypothesis, but there’s an idea in the last chapter I find amazing, and not in a good way. It’s the idea that ultimate happiness and meaning come from coherence between our senses, our thoughts, and the society we live in.
Haidt gives the example of a Hindu Brahmin relishing food that’s been offered to the gods, purifying himself in the
I wrote about this in an article about Haidt’s book and two other recent books on happiness, but my dissatisfaction grew (if possible) when I read Rohinton Mistry’s book A Fine Balance recently. The book tells the excruciating tale of what life is like for two “untouchables” trying to survive and make something of their lives. (I blogged about it here.)
Had Haidt read this novel first, I believe he could not have written the final chapter of his book as he did. Mistry gives us the caste system “up close and personal” leaving us no more able to idealize the Brahmin than we could idealize a slaver-owner in the American south. Haidt would surely not make an exemplar out of the master sipping a cool mint julep on his veranda while watching his slaves pick cotton!
Maybe because India is far away and culturally different from his own country, Haidt perceives its social customs as, well, untouchable. But the more you learn about caste, the more compassion you feel (for the victims of the system) and the less deference.
I sent Haidt my mostly appreciative article, which he kindly read and commented on. At first he didn’t respond to my criticism of what he said about the Brahmin. When I wrote back—ahem, do you really regard the Brahmin as an ideal?—he said he did have mixed feelings about the Brahmin and negative feelings about the caste system in general. Nevertheless, we could learn something from the example because of the way "they feel deeply connected to God, history, and each other."
In the world according to Haidt, there's not much of a reason to fight against injustice. As long as I’m the Brahmin, not the outcast, the master and not the slave, I don’t have a problem. My life can be not only happy but meaningful.
If that’s what happiness and meaning are, surely we should want much more!