A Review of Jonathan Haidt’s “The Happiness Hypothesis”

The experience of conflict is central to the human condition. Conflict with our environment, conflict with others, conflict within ourselves. It’s likely that a large chunk of this conflict arises from a fundamental misunderstanding of who we are and, by extension, who others are. A different understanding makes possible a different set of outcomes.


The source of our intrapsychic conflict has been the subject of much speculation. Perhaps the most famous originator of such theories was Sigmund Freud. In his theory of psychic structure, he suggested that our hedonistic drives (arising from the id) are in perpetual conflict with moral imperatives (emanating from the superego). The ego has the difficult job of attempting to mediate between the two. 

Freud used the image of a charioteer with a team of frisky horses to describe the relationship between the ego and the id: the ego-charioteer fighting to control and direct the id-drives. Many of us (in the West, at least) identify with this ego. When we say “I”, we most often are referring to this ego-in-charge.

While many of Freud’s ideas have proved remarkably persistent, time has revealed that he got quite a few things wrong. Maybe his view of our psychic structure was not quite right either.


Freud’s image has received an important update from Jonathan Haidt, professor of psychology at NYU’s Stern School of Business, in his book, The Happiness Hypothesis. Haidt traces the evolution of the human brain to come to a startling conclusion. 

As pre-verbal hominids our brains were a clump of neurons that coordinated a vast number of automatic processes. With the advent of language, which occurred relatively recently in human history, the structure of our brains was embellished by the development of the prefrontal cortex. 

This newer grey matter was a significant addition to our processing capabilities. Now humans were also able to engage in controlled processing, such as deliberate thought. This additional processing power enabled our ancestors to do better, and it was an accelerant for the evolution of our species.

The image that Haidt uses to depict our psychic structure is that of an elephant with a rider. The elephant is able to automatically attend to immediate needs, while the rider is able to think about the future, to plan, to coordinate with others. This doesn’t seem to be terribly different to Freud’s image.

Haidt’s radical thought is that, because the rider developed after the elephant, the rider evolved to serve the elephant. The elephant can do way better when it has a rider. Or more accurately, they can collectively do better when the two act in harmony. 

But the elephant and the rider do not always agree with each other. Sometimes the immediate needs of the elephant are in direct conflict with the plans of the rider. What then? The elephant is bigger and stronger than the rider and it has its own motivations, even though the rider holds the reins. In a contest of wills, the elephant will win. The rider will be left depleted and exhausted with nothing to show for the strenuous effort of fighting the elephant.

So What?

Haidt inverts the Freudian imagery of the charioteer controlling the horses. The ego-in-charge is demoted to the position of a humble servant. If we identify with the ego-in-charge, the demotion will be highly unpleasant. It might feel like our power is being undermined by the image, but perhaps quite the opposite is true.

Haidt makes it clear that we are not the ego-in-charge, but he also emphasises that neither are we just the rider. The self is both rider and elephant. Accepting this has the potential to significantly enhance our power. The rider that serves the elephant is really serving the unit, the whole self. When rider and elephant are working well together as a unit, they make available sources of energy and power that would otherwise be squandered through futile intra-unit conflict.

Haidt’s image also challenges us to make more space in our original conception of self for something that feels other. The rider is relatively easy to accept, the elephant not so much. But when we accept and integrate this apparently other presence we become more whole, more fully ourselves, more powerful. This integration process can be initiated as a biological undertaking at first, by attending to the elephant’s needs for sufficient sleep, sufficient exercise, decent nutrition. Simple stuff but seriously important to the elephant and therefore to our total selves.

We can extend this into the interpersonal domain. If we also make more space in our conception of us for someone who seems other, we make available to our teams and organisations the power that comes with deep diversity and stronger relationships. 

Virtually everything that we achieve is with or through other people. The stronger our relationships, the bigger our contribution. All of this potential power becomes available to us, paradoxically, through an act of conscious humility, by accepting that the ego-in-charge is not who we really are. 


  • What might happen to your levels of inner conflict if you were to adopt the rider-and-elephant as your model of self?
  • What might happen to your levels of energy and power if your rider initiated action to better satisfy the needs of your elephant?
  • What might happen to your team’s levels of trust and cooperation if you were to make more space for someone who seems other?