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X + Y + Z: Do We Need Divinity?

An analysis of Johnathan Haidt's Happiness Hypothesis

The axis of divinity 

Hanging by a wire 400 feet above the Gulf of Mexico, I saw the horizon on either side of me. The coast was on the right side while the vastness of the water was on the left. The water turned from green to dark blue as we went further away from the shore. The once large and intimidating waves seemed small and benign from this height, and the tall apartments near the shore transformed into tiny toy buildings. From the sky, all the man-made objects looked smaller than they appeared, mirroring how small we are in the world compared to the vastness of the ocean. I felt a sense of connection with something higher than myself and the world around me. In the book, The Happiness Hypothesis, Johnathan Haidt introduces the idea of the axis of divinity as an explanation for why we experience a feeling of elevation when we see something vast. Parasailing gave me the experience of awe in nature that Haidt describes in the book, and I was able to understand the concept of divinity on a deeper level. The axis of divinity is not needed in order to have a good life, but it provides experiences, such as unity and elevation, that allows one to have a fulfilling life.

Haidt says there are three dimensions of social space: closeness (the x-axis), hierarchy (the y-axis), and divinity (the z-axis). He uses the story, Flatland, to describe the meaning of the axis of divinity. In this short story, there is a two-dimensional world in which geometric figures reside. The protagonist of the story is a square who encounters a sphere; however, in the two-dimensional world all the square sees is a circle. The sphere tries to explain to the square about the third dimension, but it is too complex for the square to grasp. Then the sphere takes the square out of the two-dimensional world and the square is in awe. He is uplifted and he finally understands that the world isn’t two dimensional and there is something higher. This story exemplifies the third axis, divinity. The experience that the square felt when he was yanked out of the two-dimensional world is him moving up on the axis of divinity. Haidt claims that we experience divinity when we are in awe. He expresses that we feel a larger feeling of awe or transcendence when we see something larger than ourselves in nature or complex ideas, and when we witness acts of moral beauty.

I was further able to understand Haidt’s concept of the vertical axis of divinity by applying it to my parasailing experience. Divinity adds a new perspective to our lives, similar to how parasailing gave me a different perspective about myself and the world around me. For me, parasailing came to represent movement on the vertical axis of divinity itself. The movement of going closer and further away from the shore, which represents people, is the x-axis of closeness. Moving up and down the high-rise apartments on the shore comes to represent the y-axis of hierarchy. The higher floors in the apartment represent the status and wealth. However, when one parasail, the angle that he or she moves in is completely different, almost as if it’s a different dimension (z-axis of divinity) on Haidt’s graph. It opens up a whole new world that enables one to experience unity and elevation. When all three aspects come together, they form Haidt’s graph of the vertical axis of divinity; therefore, parasailing comes to represent the feeling one gets when he or she experiences something divine.

In The Happiness Hypothesis, Haidt says that divinity, whether or not one believes in God, adds emotional experiences to our lives. Haidt expresses that in essence, experiencing the vastness and beauty of nature is a spiritual experience because it feels as if the soul and body are separated. He suggests that nature can give a taste of freedom to the soul. Divinity also gives a sense of universal connectedness whether or not you are religious. If one is religious, divinity from within connects him or her to God. If one isn’t religious, divinity connects us to each other through the emotion we feel when we experience something divine. The emotions that the axis of divinity brings into our lives is hard to pinpoint. It is a mix of love, gratitude, reverence, and belonging. These emotions can be found without the axis of divinity, but I think the feelings are much more intense when it is found in the axis of divinity. When you move up the axis of divinity, life seems to be perfect, and you have a deep sense of unity and positivity. If we lived in Flatland, where life is two dimensional, we could still find these emotions but they wouldn’t be amplified. In addition to finding divinity in nature and moral beauty, I think it could be found in music and in large groups. For me personally, listening to certain songs gives me a mild sense of the separation of soul and body that we express when we are in nature. Divinity can also be found in mankind, especially when you are in a large group of people who share a common goal. I think both music and groups of people can bring out some of the emotions that the axis of divinity brings out in us.

I believe that a person can live a good life without the axis of divinity; however, in order to have a fulfilling life, they would have to experience some kind of higher power. Divinity is important for each of us because it shows us that there is a much greater power than us as individuals. It brings out emotions, such as gratitude and reverence, in us and fades out negative thoughts and emotions.

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