Skip to main content

Happiness – Daniel Nettle ****

At first glance this could be one of those infuriatingly smug books of uplifting sayings. It’s small (just 18cm by 13, smaller than a normal paperback [This refers to the original hardback edition - Ed.]), bright yellow and has a fun balloon on the front.
But resist the urge to yell “lead me to the sick bag” – this is not what it seems (though one has to wonder slightly why the highly respected academic publisher OUP has packaged it like this – hoping for some accidental crossover sales, perhaps?). The subtitle “the science behind your smile” is the first clue that this is, in fact, a serious scientific study of the nature of happiness.
As the author admits, this is quite a difficult concept to pin down, which has led many scientific studies to ignore it – but that’s a mistake. Happiness in its different forms plays a major part in our life, one way or another. Daniel Nettle identifies three kinds of happiness – the immediate, short-lived buzz of joy, the feeling of well being and satisfaction, and the least directly expressed but long term feeling of achieving your potential.
Once Nettle dives into to the surprisingly detailed information available it’s a delight. Important thought it is, happiness is something we rarely think about, and it’s both interesting and entertaining to see how the various epithets on the subject of happiness (like money not being able to buy it) match up to reality. What is particularly fascinating is how easily influenced our sense of happiness is. Although most people in most countries (with a few miserable exceptions) would agree that only the whole they’re more happy than not, an immediate response is strongly flavoured by everything from what the weather’s like to recent success in a game. And bizarrely, this small immediate stimulus tends to colour our imagined picture to our whole life’s happiness. When a teenage character on TV screams “my whole life is ruined” when they aren’t allowed to see the latest movie, it’s not so much an over-reaction as a more honest expression of the way we all feel in response to trivial issues. There’s plenty more too (for such a small book) on the influence of personality, illness, desires and more.
A couple of small gripes. Although Nettle mostly writes well and engagingly, he can occasionally slip into jargon without noticing. It’s a little unnerving to the general reader when he suddenly comments “each negative emotion is evoked by a particular situation type or schema, and each one potentiaties a particular class of remedy.” Potentiates? Pretentious much. But then he doesn’t raise a literary eyebrow at the existence of a trade publication called The Journal of Happiness Studies – UK readers may think this a contender for Have I Got News For You’s guest publication slot. And I was a little surprised by his apparent acceptance of the statement from some psychologists that, given the way happiness levels drop back down however they’re pushed up, nothing really matters much. This totally ignores the impact of memory, and the recollection of a happy moment that can be reused (admittedly at less extreme levels) time and again.
Overall, though, a very interesting little book.
Paperback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Jo Reed

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Great Silence – Milan Cirkovic ****

The great 20th century physicist Enrico Fermi didn’t say a lot about extraterrestrial life, but his one utterance on the subject has gone down in legend. He said ‘Where is everybody?’ Given the enormous size and age of the universe, and the basic Copernican principle that there’s nothing special about planet Earth, space should be teeming with aliens. Yet we see no evidence of them. That, in a nutshell, is Fermi’s paradox.

Not everyone agrees that Fermi’s paradox is a paradox. To some people, it’s far from obvious that ‘space should be teeming with aliens’, while UFO believers would scoff at the suggestion that ‘we see no evidence of them’. Even people who accept that both statements are true – including  a lot of professional scientists – don’t always lose sleep over Fermi’s paradox. That’s something that makes Milan Cirkovic see red, because he takes it very seriously indeed. In his own words, ‘it is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science’.

He points out th…

The Happy Brain - Dean Burnett ****

This book was sitting on my desk for some time, and every time I saw it, I read the title as 'The Happy Brian'. The pleasure this gave me was one aspect of the science of happiness that Dean Burnett does not cover in this engaging book.

Burnett's writing style is breezy and sometimes (particularly in footnotes) verging on the whimsical. His approach works best in the parts of the narrative where he is interviewing everyone from Charlotte Church to a stand-up comedian and various professors on aspects of happiness. We get to see the relevance of home and familiarity, other people, love (and sex), humour and more, always tying the observations back to the brain.

In a way, Burnett sets himself up to fail, pointing out fairly early on that everything is far too complex in the brain to really pin down the causes of something as diffuse as happiness. He starts off with the idea of cheekily trying to get time on an MRI scanner to study what his own brain does when he's happy, b…

The Order of Time - Carlo Rovelli ***

There's good news and bad news. The good news is that The Order of Time does what A Brief History of Timeseemed to promise but didn't cover: it attempts to explore what time itself is. The bad news is that Carlo Rovelli does this in such a flowery and hand-waving fashion that, though the reader may get a brief feeling that they understand what he's writing about, any understanding rapidly disappears like the scent of a passing flower (the style is catching).

It doesn't help either that the book is in translation so some scientific terms are mangled, or that Rovelli has a habit of self-contradiction. Time and again (pun intended) he tells us time doesn't exist, then makes use of it. For example, at one point within a page of telling us of time's absence Rovelli writes of events that have duration and a 'when' - both meaningless terms without time. At one point he speaks of a world without time, elsewhere he says 'Time and space are real phenomena.'…