Book Review: “Happiness: The science behind your smile”

I just finished what will probably be the last book I read on the subject of happiness. It was a thorough treatment of the subject and wrapped all the ideas in to a package that made sense to me. The book was “Happiness: The Science behind your smile”, by Daniel Nettle. However I’m not necessarily recommending you read the book because I recommended it to my wife and she found it agonizingly boring and “happily” decided not to finish it.

So here’s my disclaimer, if you don’t care about the results of studies, don’t want to see graphs or charts, and just want to know the conclusions, then this review should be perfect. Otherwise grab a copy from the library and dig in.

The book focuses on the topic of happiness from the perspective of feeling good, contented, and satisfied. The bases of the observations and arguments are scientific. There was a head nod to the idea of happiness as fulfilling one’s potential, but not much more since that is more of a philosophical or moral judgment.

Evolutionary psychology

The touchstone for the book is evolutionary psychology. Most of the findings and results of the studies discussed are checked against this theme to see if they make sense in the larger picture.

Evolutionary psychology looks at the brain in light of the problems it was formed to solve. The brain hasn’t changed that much from the brain of our ancestors, and the main problem it evolved to solve was how to avoid being eaten long enough to mate and produce offspring.

A crucial point of the book that flows from this is that if our brains evolved to primarily keep us alive, and not specifically to keep us as happy as possible, we may need to manage them some to be happy rather than to just stay alive. Our brains may actually try to trick us at points to try to help keep us alive, assuming that “miserable and mating” is better than “happy but dead”. [1]

Long-term vs. short-term

The brain has to balance the long-term goals against the short-term goals. In doing so the short-term goals of staying alive and avoiding danger are given preference. So he explains that negative feelings, such as fear and worry, don’t die off and can actually trigger more feelings of fear and worry.

If you’re worried about a specific social faux pas you made, you might lay awake that night and turn that into a worry that no one likes you. I think the idea here is that the brain wants to keep you alive to mate, and so from it’s perspective, better safe than sorry. If you have to worry a little more than needed, but that keeps you out of danger, the brain has done its job even if that keeps you from being happy.

The opposite side of this is the positive or good feelings like pleasure from getting a raise, eating, sex, and so on. These feelings tend to wear off a short while after the appetite has been satisfied. This is so that we will go on to do the other things we need to do. If sex felt so good that you never wanted to do anything else, eventually you would starve to death.

So in the battle of joy versus fear, joy will die off to let us do other things, but fear will hang around to make sure we keep running just in case something is still chasing us.

Tricky brain

So if our brain is willing to let us be tricked into being more fearful than we need to be. How else is it willing to trick us?

One of the most interesting parts of the book for me was the discussion of wanting versus liking. Our brain tells us that we want something like a raise, or an increase in living standards, and that thing does make us happier when we get it. But the happiness is extremely short-lived, like on the order of a few weeks to a few months. So you strive to get a raise all year long, and then when you do get it, you are only happier for a few weeks.

He goes into great detail about how we would have evolved brain mechanisms that would continually trick us into striving to do better because our ancestors that did better were the ones that survived to mate and produce us. Which means that we are programmed to want more and more stuff, even if we don’t need that stuff. And no matter how much we get, we always want just a little more because if we were ever satisfied for too long we would stop striving.

So he spends a lot of time talking about adaptation. The idea that we are happy that we got something (new toy, new raise, etc.), but only for a very short time before we start wanting a new thing or more of that thing than we have. This is the same idea above with wanting versus liking. You keep wanting these things, but you won’t actually like them when you get them. But you’ll still want more even though you don’t really like it.

He also mentions a few other ways that our brains trick us.

Framing is the idea that our most recent thoughts are going to color how we feel about our entire life. So if we are asked about how happy our entire lives have been on a gloomy day then we would be more likely to give a lower happiness rating. But the thought is really used as a comparison point. So if you were asked to think of a time in the distant past when something bad happened to you, and then asked how happy your life is, you would rate it higher because life has gotten better than that bad thing way in the past.

Relative fitness is the idea that the best way for our ancestors to tell if they were doing well was to be better than the people around them. At the time we lived in small tribes and were not exposed to the best of everything like we are now through the news. So it was a good solution to the problem. Now however we always feel like we need to push harder to get more to “keep up with the Joneses” to maintain our relative fitness.

The endowment effect is the idea that we think it would be hard to get along without something, but we don’t remember that we did just fine without it before. Because of this effect, losing something you had can be worse than never having had that thing at all.

Another was how we remember and compare experiences. When judging if an experience in the past was good we mainly consider two factors. How good or bad the peak was, and how good or bad the end was. One experiment that demonstrated this was one where in the first trial participants were asked to hold their hand in 14 degree water for 60 seconds. Then in the second trial they were asked to hold their hand in 14 degree water for 60 seconds, and then the water was warmed up to 15 degrees for an additional 30 seconds. When asked which one they preferred to repeat, the majority chose the second trial, the one that lasted 90 seconds instead of 60 seconds because they said it didn’t hurt as much, even though they had the same 60 seconds of 14 degree water exposure. So duration doesn’t actually matter, only the peak and the end.

Happiness Set Point

According to the studies cited if you want to find out how happy someone will be in the future, the best predictor is how happy that person is today. This implies that we have a genetically set default level of happiness. However our current happiness level can be skewed above or below that default level.

So the first goal would be to get back to that default level.

Getting back to neutral

There are a few things that if we lack, we will be less happy than we otherwise could be. According to this book those are:
– health
– autonomy
– social embededness
– quality of environment

Health is an obvious one. If you don’t feel well, you likely aren’t going to be very happy.

Autonomy is something that I’ve talked about before in the article on maintaining control of your life. Evidently people don’t like being told what to do.

Social embededness is the idea that we like being part of a community. We were originally part of small tribes so not being part of those communities can be stressful. We need friends and communities to ease that stress.

Quality of environment refers to external stimuli that might be threatening. Noise, chronic cold, and food shortages for example are all things that we don’t adapt to. Our brains continually tell us that these mean danger and that we need to correct the problem or run away. So again we are looking at stress.

Another one to note here would be that bad feelings like fear and worry create more bad feelings. One way he discussed of breaking that downward spiraling snowball effect is to practice Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. This is basically the practice of using logic to refute the irrational and exaggerated thoughts that lead from “I shouldn’t have said that” to “Everyone is going hate me forever”.

Once you’ve removed all the hindrances to your default happiness level, it might make sense to try to keep from falling back below it.

Building defenses

There are a number of things that you can do to help protect against those downward mental spirals and keep your level of happiness resilient.

One is to have more social definitions or roles for yourself. Most people have a definition of themselves as an employee. But if you have a setback at work, then your only definition is threatened and you have no other definitions to fall back on to support your confidence. So it was suggested that you have many different definitions for yourself by doing more things like hobbies or community organizations. Some of these roles might be employee, coach, writer, husband, father, volunteer, mentor, cook, surfer, softball player, a religion member, and so on. The idea is to provide a broader context to refute the bad thoughts your mind starts generating from that one setback in that one area..

Another defense is to connect to things. Some examples were communing with nature, connecting through religion, belonging to community organizations, doing volunteer work, and having rich/deep social connections. The idea here is to give yourself again another role, but also to give you a connection to the world and make you less likely to want to voluntarily leave it. The stat he quoted was that 1 in 10 people contemplate suicide at one time or another.

Another suggested defense is mindfulness meditation. The idea here is to detach you from the bad thoughts and help you realize bad thoughts are transient and will pass. This keeps you from spiraling down until the thoughts go away or the external stimulus causing the thoughts goes away.

An alternative to meditation would be writing like journaling or keeping a diary. The idea here is to put distance between the feelings and you, which allows you to reflect on them and again realize that they are not as big as your brain makes them out to be.

Reaching a little further

So now that we are at neutral and relatively stable there, we can start thinking about how to push just a little higher.

I’ve already mentioned that good feelings will wear off after a while even if you keep doing whatever it was that brought the good feeling. And I’ve mentioned framing, which is the idea that we compare our lives against our most recent memories. So keeping those two things in mind, one strategy is to do things that bring us joy more often. The joy will wear off but if we do the things often, then on average we can raise our happiness level. And in doing them often, we will always have a recent example to frame against so we will feel like our life is happier too.

You can keep a journal and try to figure out those things that make you happy and do them more often, but he suggests that the things that most people find joyful include, interactions with friends, food, drink, sex, success in some domain, sports, cultural activities, going out, and visiting new places.

He points out that some people don’t realize they would like these things and actually need to make themselves do them. Ideally forming habits around them to make it more likely that you would do the act and bump your happiness level up.

He also points out that you should distract yourself from trying to seek happiness. It’s something that will creep up on you when you aren’t pursuing it directly. Constantly worrying about if you are happy or not will actually take away from being happy.

And lastly, I mention this just because it was mentioned in the book; he notes that studies show there does seem to be a lasting increase in satisfaction from breast surgery. I have a hard time believing this, as it seems to me that a person would just find something else to obsess about. Similar to how we always want just a little bit more income than we currently have.

Correlations with happiness

There were a few things that were correlated to happiness, but he didn’t argue causation. Meaning that the two things seemed to be related, but it wasn’t clear if one caused the other or if there was a third thing that affected them both.

Health and longevity were correlated with happiness. He hints that there might be a causation in that higher happiness leads to a longer life, but above he noted that poor health leads to lower happiness, so there may be more interrelation there than just one causing the other.

Higher social class, but not income, was correlated with happiness. And when you control for higher social class, personal control is highly correlated with happiness. So evidently if you want to be happier just maintain more control over your life.


According to the findings discussed in this book, to reach their potential happiness, people should work part-time, take on hobbies, control their own lives, join community organizations, and get involved in active leisure like sports.

The working part-time comes from the idea that you won’t actually like the amount of stuff that you want, and that the stuff will not make you any happier for an extended period. So if you don’t need the stuff, you don’t need the income to get the stuff, and can work less time. Which is important because you need that extra time to concentrate on spending time with friends, your hobbies, community organizations, and active leisure commitments, all of which do affect your happiness.

As far as vacations go, since we only consider the peak and the end, and not the duration, you might shoot for short, intensely enjoyable vacations that end with a bang. They’ll be cheaper since they are shorter, and you’ll have just as fond memories of them afterward.

In light of our tendency to continually try to out do our neighbors; it might make sense to move to an area where you are already better off than the neighbors. So instead of stretching to barely afford the swanky house in the up scale neighborhood, you save the difference and buy the nicest house in the blue-collar neighborhood.

Another implication is that we should avoid the news. The news exposes us to the best of everything, the prettiest people, the most talented, and the richest, so we are continually being reminded that we are not the top dogs, which is a stressor because of the effect of relative fitness. Better to avoid this and spend the time on things we do enjoy. A further point about the news is that it also serves to exaggerate our fears of the world since the worst things are also thrown in our faces.

So the idea is to live more simply and to voluntarily take ourselves out of the competition. We should realize that we already have more things than we need and stop pursuing more stuff. The extra stuff is actually dragging us down in terms of money costs and psychological costs. Think about how much maintenance you have to do on the stuff you already own, like cleaning a large house, paying insurance on it, paying electricity, etc. This introduces more stressors, which will push us below our happiness set point.

Finally, we will always think we can be happier than we are now because this is how evolution keeps us striving. But above neutral and below max is probably as good as it gets. So if we’re already above neutral, we should stop worrying about being happy, and just sit back and enjoy being happy.

[1] That our brains may intentionally try to trick us was a key theme in the book “Stumbling on Happiness” from a previous article.


2 thoughts on “Book Review: “Happiness: The science behind your smile””

  1. Another good and thought provoking article. This reminds me of the adage: In the world of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. So where can I find my blind people?


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