Happiness: The Science Behind Your Smile

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Oxford University Press, 2005 - Psychology - 216 pages
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Bringing together the latest insights from psychiatry, psychology, and philosophy, Daniel Nettle sheds light on happiness, the most basic of human desires. Nettle examines whether people are basically happy or unhappy, whether success can make us happy, what sort of remedies to unhappiness work, why some people are happier than others, and much more.
The book is packed with fascinating observations. We discover the evolutionary reason why negative thoughts are more powerful than positive ones. We read that happiness varies from country to country, for example, the Swiss are much more happy than Bulgarians. And we learn that, in a poll among people aged 42 years old--peak mid-life crisis time--more than half rated their happiness an 8, 9, or 10 out of 10, and 90% rated it above 5. Nettle, a psychologist, is particularly insightful in discussing the brain systems underlying emotions and moods, ranging from serotonin, to mood enhancing drugs such as D-fenfluramine, which reduces negative thinking in less than an hour; to the part of the brain that, when electrically stimulated, provides feelings of benevolent calm and even euphoria. In the end, Nettle suggests that we would all probably be happier by trading income or material goods for time with people or hobbies, though most people do not do so.
Happiness offers a remarkable portrait of the feeling that poets, politicians, and philosophers all agree truly makes the world go round.

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User Review  - name99 - LibraryThing

Remarkably good. There's an understandable fear, on seeing a book like this, that one is in for something like self-help homilies or, perhaps, religious mumbo-jumbo, but the book lives up to its sub ... Read full review

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The first chapter “Comfort and Joy” takes a serious look at happiness. It tries to identify and describe where it is among human emotions which are universal and recognized by different people. Natives of Papua New Guinea can tell what kind of an emotion is shown in a photograph of an American face. More than 3000 studies have appeared on the study of happiness (hedonics) since 1960. Origins of the interest in happiness go to Aristotle. Jeremy Bentham’s well-known eighteenth century interest in “greatest happiness for the greatest number” phrase is actually borrowed from Francis Hutcherson. The Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan is perhaps living up to the Shangri La ideal of Shangri-La with a guiding philosophy and goal of the country should be “Gross National Happiness” not GNP.
Nettle describes three levels of happiness in our lives but the book will deal only with the first two:
1. momentary feeling of joy and pleasure
2. well being and satisfaction
3. fulfilling one’s potential
Nettle says “people believe they will be more happy in the future than they are now, but in fact seldom are…people are consistently wrong about the impact of future life events on their happiness”. (p.15)
The Positive Psychology movement of the last several years takes a different approach from traditional psychology’s interest in disorders like depression, anxiety, addictions, and more serious problems. It attempts to describe a state of “flow” or total absorption in an activity that an individual is devoted to and has the still that gives more satisfaction than passive entertainment. (p27)
Chapter 2 “Bread and Circus” talks about studies done during the past 50 years that surveyed peoples’ opinions of how happy they are in life bring back results predominantly that they are above average on the happiness scale. The Swiss and Scandinavians are top, Americans near the top, and Bulgarians, Russians, and East Europeans near a 5 or 6 scale (out of 10).
Why then do we have so many happiness pessimists among the great names from Freud to Wittgenstein and Sartre? Nettles states outright that intellectuals are highly neurotic.
Studying different personality types shows that happiness comes from how people address the world and from the world itself. It’s easier and cheaper to change yourself than to change all you external circumstances. (P 113)
Personality types from neurotic to extroverted to introverted weight heavily on emotions. Wanting something is a whole lot different than liking it once you have it. Nicotine brings far too little pleasure to justify the strong wanting of it. Smoking is not something enjoyable yet a smoker is duped into thinking it is.
Nettle says that practicing religion, meditation, doing cognitive behavioral therapy, and writing all have beneficial effects on well-being. The therapeutic effect of writing on us is by making us aware of our thoughts and feelings which allows us to distance ourselves from these thoughts.
An excess of negative emotions like fear, worry, sadness, anger, guilt, shame that we’ve inherited from our ancestral world where physical danger was more real, there was high mortality, causes our present unhappiness. People lived in small social groups then so shame and ostracism were more important.
A gene (5HTT), which regulates serotonin levels in the brain, was identified. It has two forms, long and short. People with two short copies score higher on neuroticism than people with at least one long form of the gene. People who are more neurotic are less happy. Are we determined genetically by chemical reactions how happy we are?
The last forty years has seen growth of materialism, which bred discontent and depression. In the 1950’s social scientists predicted that by the turn of the century people would be working 16 hours a week. But the drive to want things drove people to work more not less. What for? To acquire more material goods which did nothing to increase happiness. The work hours

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About the author (2005)

Daniel Nettle is Lecturer in Psychology at University of Newcastle. His publications include iVanishing Voices /i(with Suzanne Romaine), iLinguistic Diversity/i, and iStrong Imagination: Madness, Creativity, and Human Nature/i. He runs the psychological research website www.psychresearch.org.uk. iVanishing Voices/i was winner of the BAAL prize for 2001, and was described by The New Yorker as 'a superb study of endangered languages'. iStrong Imagination/i was described as 'a fascinating,pithy little book' (Sunday Times), giving 'a critical survey of current psychiatric knowledge that is as good an overview as is available from any source' (Times Literary Supplement).

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