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Book Review: “Happiness, the science behind your smile”

written by Jason Lewis

I thought that the book was fascinating, insightful, and well written. It’s fairly concisely written at 184 pages (excluding notes, references, index, etc…), though as a consequence, it can be a little dry at times. If you think that a book about the science of happiness would be interesting, you’ll likely enjoy this book. It doesn’t read like a typical pop-psychology or self help book because it isn’t. It’s about the science of happiness and it’s written in a somewhat technical style. There are no catchy “systems” to improve yourself. The author, Daniel Nettle, gives an overview of the latest scientific understanding of the human system of happiness, and reviews relevant statistical and biological data to back those claims.

I thought that the hardest part of the book to get through was the first (and longest) chapter which reviews early studies of happiness and discusses the difficult (and somewhat tedious) task of defining happiness. However, the book quickly recovers by the end of the chapter.  I thought that the rest of the book read fairly easily.

One of the more interesting topics was how “the purpose of the happiness program in the human mind is not to increase human happiness; it is to keep us striving” (p. 43). The book tends to relate it’s conclusions about happiness in the context of an evolutionary advantage. For instance, negative emotions tend to be long lived, while positive emotions tend to be short lived.  If you were frightened by a snake as a child, you will likely still be frightened by snakes as an adult. However, the thrill from that big raise you received two years ago has probably worn off by now. You keep striving for more if don’t stay satisfied with your accomplishments.  By continuing to strive, you’ll have an evolutionary advantage.

Another interesting discussion in this book is how the brain’s system for desire is separate from the system for pleasure. As a consequence, we don’t always want or do the things that we like. We also tend to over estimate the happiness that something will bring us. “Nicotine, for example, produces for too little pleasure for this to be a satisfactory account of why people are addicted to it. These drugs stimulate the wanting system, making them the perfect self-marketing products. If you are a smoker, you have been duped by chemistry into spending a lot of time and money on doing something that you don’t actually enjoy” (p. 126).

Read this book if you’d like an overview of the latest theories of happiness, and why scientists have come to believe them.

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