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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.

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Review by Jo Reed

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