cover image Happiness: The Science Behind Your Smile

Happiness: The Science Behind Your Smile

Daniel Nettle, . . Oxford Univ., $21 (221pp) ISBN 978-0-19-280558-4

What is happiness—is it an unpredictable emotion like joy? A rational construct like personal fulfillment? Or is it some subtle, elusive combination of both? In this enjoyable, thought-provoking book, Nettle digs into the subject with great insight and just a bit of cheeky irreverence. In clear, succinct prose, he argues "that what we are programmed for by evolution is not happiness itself, but a set of beliefs about the kinds of things that will bring happiness, and a disposition to pursue them." He cites survey after survey that report that people's sense of their own happiness outstrips their actual material well-being. Nettle, a biological psychologist at Britain's Open University, describes the pursuit of happiness in stark binary terms—fear and attraction, fight and flight, need and desire. Hard-wired to survive in a world of immediate physical danger, human beings are left to muddle through in today's world of relative safety. Nettle traces the modern epidemic of anxiety and depression to these vestigial aspects of our brain and hormonal structure. Ending on an optimistic note, the author sees a population buoyed by advances in both psychotherapy and medication. With absolute clarity and admirable brevity, Nettle explores the pursuit of happiness and, happily, makes good sense of it all. 15 b&w illus. (July)