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 AI Delusion - Gary Smith *****

This is a very important little book ('little' isn't derogatory - it's just quite short and in a small format) - it gets to the heart of the problem with applying artificial intelligence techniques to large amounts of data and thinking that somehow this will result in wisdom.

Gary Smith as an economics professor who teaches statistics, understands numbers and, despite being a self-confessed computer addict, is well aware of the limitations of computer algorithms and big data. What he makes clear here is that we forget at our peril that computers do not understand the data that they process, and as a result are very susceptible to GIGO - garbage in, garbage out. Yet we are increasingly dependent on computer-made decisions coming out of black box algorithms which mine vast quantities of data to find correlations and use these to make predictions. What's wrong with this? We don't know how the algorithms are making their predictions - and the algorithms don't kn…

Infinity in the Palm of your Hand - Marcus Chown *****

A new Marcus Chown book is always a treat - and this is like a box of chocolates: a collection of bite-sized delights as Chown presents us with 50 science facts that are strange and wonderful.

The title is a quote from William Blake's Auguries of Innocence: 'To see a World in a Grain of Sand, / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, / And Eternity in an hour.' It would seem particularly appropriate if this book were read on a mobile phone (so it would be literally in the palm), which could well be true for ebook users, as the short essays make excellent reading for a commute, or at bedtime. I found them distinctly moreish - making it difficult to put the book down as I read just one more. And perhaps another. Oh, and that next one looks really interesting...

Each of the 50 pieces has a title and a short introductory heading, which mostly give a feel for the topic. The very first of these, however, briefly baffled me: 'You are a third mus…

How to Invent Everything - Ryan North ****

Occasionally you read a book and think 'I wish I'd thought of that.' This was my immediate reaction to Ryan North's How to Invent Everything. The central conceit manages to be both funny and inspiring as a framework for writing an 'everything you ever wanted to know about everything (and particularly science)' book.

What How to Invent Everything claims to be is a manual for users of a time machine (from some point in the future). Specifically it's a manual for dealing with the situation of the time machine going wrong and stranding the user in the past. At first it appears that it's going to tell you how to fix the broken time machine - but then admits this is impossible. Since you're stuck in the past, you might as well make the best of your surroundings, so the aim of the rest of the book is to give you the knowledge you need to build your own civilisation from scratch.

We start with a fun flow chart for working out just how far back in time you are…