From Publishers Weekly
What is happiness—is it an unpredictable emotion like joy? A rational construct like personal fulfillment? Or is it some subtle, elusive combination of both? In this enjoyable, thought-provoking book, Nettle digs into the subject with great insight and just a bit of cheeky irreverence. In clear, succinct prose, he argues "that what we are programmed for by evolution is not happiness itself, but a set of beliefs about the kinds of things that will bring happiness, and a disposition to pursue them." He cites survey after survey that report that people's sense of their own happiness outstrips their actual material well-being. Nettle, a biological psychologist at Britain's Open University, describes the pursuit of happiness in stark binary terms—fear and attraction, fight and flight, need and desire. Hard-wired to survive in a world of immediate physical danger, human beings are left to muddle through in today's world of relative safety. Nettle traces the modern epidemic of anxiety and depression to these vestigial aspects of our brain and hormonal structure. Ending on an optimistic note, the author sees a population buoyed by advances in both psychotherapy and medication. With absolute clarity and admirable brevity, Nettle explores the pursuit of happiness and, happily, makes good sense of it all. 15 b&w illus. (July)
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From Scientific American
The right to "the pursuit of happiness" is enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, and Americans are obviously hot on the trail: they pop pills, go to therapy, and spend millions of dollars on self-help tapes. Daniel Nettle, a British psychologist, tries to explain what happiness is and critiques the methods people are using to achieve it. And although Happiness is far from a how-to book, Nettle does conclude with a bit of advice on finding it. Nettle begins by defining the kind of happiness that interests him. Joy, the simple pleasure from finding lost money, is too trivial, and the "good life" is too much of a moralization. Instead his work focuses on "subjective wellbeing" or life satisfactionwhich he says is what most people are seeking. Paradoxically, although many of the great European ponderers of the human conditionhe quotes Freud, Sartre, Schopenhauer and othersagree with Western religions that life is a somewhat grim journey toward death, opinion surveys consistently show that people everywhere consider themselves fairly happy. They plan to be happier in the future, too. In light of this penchant, Nettle believes evolution has endowed us with a "happiness system" that allows us to feel satisfied with life yet remain convinced that if only we had another child, made more money or lost 10 pounds we would be truly happy. Not all our pursuits are equally effective, he says. Americans today have far more money than their grandparents did; still, there is no sign they are happier. Having more social connections and good marriages, on the other hand, does promote satisfaction, and Nettle essentially equates happiness with satisfaction. He enlivens this discussion with some odd facts: people believe they can overcome almost any adversity, but living in constantly noisy places reduces happiness. And although most things money can buy quickly fade in value, breast implants seem to create a lasting high. The book includes one chapter on the interactions of Prozac, opiates, ecstasy, and the serotonin and dopamine systems and how these compounds work in our brains to fight depression or induce feelings of pleasure. Yet Nettle does not consider biochemistry a source of happiness, and he moves on. He concludes this pleasant, jargon-free book with some advice: total happiness is not attainable, but you can manipulate your mind and life to reduce the impact of negative emotion, increase positive emotion andmost importantstop consciously seeking happiness at all. He quotes an old joke about the Dalai Lama, who is visited by a rich acolyte bearing a huge, gift-wrapped box. The Dalai Lama opens the box to find it empty and exclaims, "Exactly what Ive always wanted!"