269 of 273 people found the following review helpful
Decent cognitive psych sampler.
, May 17, 2012
This review is from: What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite (Paperback)
This is another book in the increasingly popular genre of pop cognitive psychology. These books usually take the following approach:
1) Author reads tons of studies revealing brain quirks, failures, and surprising behavior.
2) Author attempts to tie some of these into related themes (Think Malcolm Gladwell's "Blink").
3) Author discusses the "lessons learned" from these studies.
"What Makes Your Brain Happy" is no exception. The title refers to the brains tendency to fall into common, comfortable behavior patterns, occasionally to our detriment. Subjects like confirmation bias, framing, and mental heuristics and all discussed via various studies, anecdotes, and thought experiments. He also wades into territory common to many books on the subject of happiness including habituation, buyer's remorse, narcissism, and loneliness. To fans of cognitive psych and behavioral economics, most of this material will be familiar. To the uninitiated, this is a decent introduction.
DiSalvo positions this book as a scientific alternative to the self-help genre which he regards as frequently built on false promises. He takes a couple jabs at the self-help industry early on (you're not suddenly seeing more Chanel handbags because the cosmos are responding to your "dream board" but rather because you've keyed yourself into looking for them) but this book is really about examining studies and trying to wring out some lessons that we can apply to our own life.
Does he succeed? Yes and no. At the end of the book he distills the material covered into 50 "lessons" to apply to our own lives. They range from reasonable and actionable (let others know about your goals to enhance motivation, make goals tangible and measurable) to the vague and difficult to implement (don't always trust common sense, know when to engage heuristic override) to the simply observational (it's difficult to tell what we'd do in an emotionally charged and time constrained situation). DiSalvo acknowledges that many brain failures are due to "bad wiring" which makes altering our behavior notoriously difficult. He broadly promotes metacognition, that is, thinking about our own thinking, as a means of identifying bias and irrational behavior. I definitely agree and think reading books of this type helps.
My main complaint is that the book is extremely broad and scattershot. It starts off as a nice breezy read, full of interesting, illustrative anecdotes, but it starts to drag toward the middle, with study after study and no common thread. It started to feel like reading 100 back to back magazine articles rather than a cohesive whole. The lessons may be valid, but 50 is so overwhelming that none of them are really "driven home". After closing this book I didn't feel immediately compelled to implement any changes in my life or way of thinking (and not for lack of openness).
I debated as to whether to give this 3 or 4 stars. It's not a bad book, but I didn't think it did anything well enough to warrant a higher rating, especially when there are so many other good books like Kahneman's "Thinking Fast and Slow" out there.
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