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Happiness: The Science behind Your Smile 1st Edition

4.5 out of 5 stars 22 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0192805591
ISBN-10: 0192805592
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Editorial Reviews

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)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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 satisfaction—which he says is what most people are seeking. Paradoxically, although many of the great European ponderers of the human condition—he quotes Freud, Sartre, Schopenhauer and others—agree 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 and—most important—stop 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 I’ve always wanted!"

Jonathan Beard --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


Product Details

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1 edition (September 7, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0192805592
  • ISBN-13: 978-0192805591
  • Product Dimensions: 6.7 x 0.7 x 4.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #626,585 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Grady Harp HALL OF FAMETOP 100 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on August 8, 2005
Format: Hardcover
This brief but scholarly and entertaining little book is not the expected 'self-help book' - or is it? Daniel Nettle explores studies collecting data on people's views of whether or not they are happy (polls), on brain systems (biology), on anti-depressants, hallucinogens, and dopamine (biochemistry), and on the media/marketing blitz of recipes for achieving happiness. It is all very concise, non-biased, and informative.

But by far the most helpful and sensible information contained in this book is Nettle's quiet explanation of how we as humans are geared to determine 'happiness' on comparisons with our fellow beings: is my income as big as theirs, my car/house/lifestyle, business success and yes, even sexual achievement as gratifying as my neighbors'? It often boils down to a polarity between 'wanting' and 'liking' - the decision is ultimately ours. Nettle contends that in constantly pursuing happiness (or questioning why our levels don't meet expectations), the most we can hope for is 'what psychologists call subjective well-being'. He then closes with rays of hope that with increased scientific and biochemical investigation, the goal of happiness just may be closer at hand.

Nettle quotes Hawthorne: "Happiness is like a butterfly which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you." A well-written, necessary book for today's society. Grady Harp, August 05
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Format: Hardcover
Drugs such as nicotine "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 you don't actually enjoy." And if you don't smoke? Well, there's nothing really to take solace in since you too are afflicted similarly, but solely by a genetic bug to outperform others (or at least try to); programmed by evolution. Evolution, the author reasons, "hasn't set us up for the attainment of happiness, merely its pursuit." We consequently strive for better pay, a nicer home, newer cars; conquests of all sorts---elevations of our status in some regard, all; even if little of it makes us marginally more happy." Thus our biggest enemy if we decide we want to be happy beings, is the very psychology we have to use to do it."

That is not to say most folks aren't happy. As studies around the world (cited by the author) have shown, from poor and more well-off countries alike, we are happy, generally speaking---most folks rating their happiness between 6-8 on a ten point scale---but more because most of us are genetically predisposed not to wallow in despair (which explains why we are still here; reproductive success being the proof herein). The author doesn't specifically address the issue but it seems implied to conclude that most folks anywhere---from time immemorial to now, in most any country, whether rich or poor---will rationalize that what they have isn't bad (& while it certainly could be better---and perhaps will, with hope), they'd acknowledge being generally happy (ie., the 6, 7, or 8 of 10, above). The point of this book, to summarize then, is that by doing more of what one does, hoping to reach, say, a 9, 9.3, 9.
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Format: Paperback
Nettle has produced a terse gem of a book. The writing is all beef no fat. The theory and studies presented are poignant and relevant. This is one of the best books on 'Happiness' I have read.

Nettle's main thesis is that humans are notoriously bad at knowing what will make them happy. This is because evolution has programmed us to maximize reproductive success, not to maximize our felicitous feelings. He points out that most of the things people think will make them happy do not. These include having money/material goods, having a hot wife/husband, eating great food, drinking, doing drugs, short term indulgence in TV, or other media, etc.

The things that really determine our happiness level are genes, satisfaction, autonomy, and challenges.

Nettle breaks down our happiness system into many components. one is a dopamine system that prods us to want. This is what tricks us into thinking that lighting another cigarrette will make us happy as we get more and more miserable and our health fades. Another system is the reward system consisting of opioids. These neurotransmitters blunt our pain and heighten our pleasure. This is what is released during copulation, eating, drinking, etc. The fact that we have seperate brain systems for wanting and having is interesting and highly explanatory.

Nettle adds many details that I shan't get into. If you want to know more, read the book. Heck, it only takes about five hours.

One thing that I find fascinating is the concept of the hedonic treadmill. This is the idea that if we get status and other worldy goods, we adapt to them so quickly that our happiness level returns to what it was before we got them.
I always had an inkling that this was the case from personal experience.
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Format: Paperback
Nettle summarises the various studies and statistics available on the subject of what make people happy. Importantly, he has a useful discussion on the types of happiness; feelings of joy, judging oneself to be happy, and realising one's potential. He focuses on the second, and crunches through the studies, also provding useful scientific explanations of how the brain works. Three of the most interesting things that stood out for me were that most people are actually happy, control within one's job is more important than income, and there is a distinct (biological) difference between wanting and liking. The latter is the root of addiction (and advertising), and also shows how getting what one wants may not lead to happiness.

I would have been interested in seeing a greater discussion on why the rates of depression are on the rise, yet most people are happy. Is it the case that the extremes of society are getting more pronounced? Or simply, we are more aware of depression than before. I also thought that his view that those who are neurotic (tendency to negative emotions) and introverted (closed to experiences) tend to be less happy was somewhat circular. This is the crux of the issue, that is, what causes what! Does being happy lead one to be less neurotic or the other way around?!

On balance, the book was informative, concise and life-enhancing
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