Book: “The Happy Brain” by Dean Burnett

The Happy Brain book
The Happy Brain

I enjoyed Dean Burnett’s first book, The Idiot Brain, which I reviewed here, so I was very pleased when The Happy Brain was announced.

I loved it.  This second book is, I think, even better than the first.

The Happy Brain is the result of Dean Burnett’s attempts to discover exactly what makes us happy.  Is there a ‘secret’ to happiness, and what is it?  Many people claim to know the ultimate key to being happy (and it’s always something different).  So what can a neuroscientist tell us?

What Burnett discovered is that the things which make us happy vary hugely person to person.  Some of the reasons are evolutionary, some are social, and a lot of it is still unclear.  The key point to come away with is that brains are incredibly complicated – it just isn’t realistic to simplify it down to one action or item that is guaranteed to bring us happiness.  In some ways this might seem frustrating or dispiriting – after all, we all want to be happy and ideally as easily as possible.  On the other hand, it is reassuring to realise that your brain is doing amazing things every day and there’s no need to rely on other people to tell you what you ‘have’ to do to be happy.

Burnett carefully explains the various structures and parts of the brain, what we know about them and how we think they work.  The descriptions are clear and helpful, linking brain activity to thoughts and actions we all experience.  He also talked to various people about their happiness (or lack of it), and reflected on his own work and experiences.  I found myself nodding along to so much of what he said, noting how many experiences are universal.

Much like his previous book, The Happy Brain has a lovely chatty style.  I laughed out loud at several points – Burnett’s style is breezy and fun, classically self-deprecating and enjoyable.

This isn’t a self help book.  It won’t give you all the answers, and Burnett explains why.  What it will do is ask a lot of questions, and get you thinking.  The main point I came away with is that our happiness depends primarily on other people – our interactions, our relationships, our internal model of how the world works.  Sartre may have said “hell is other people”, but perhaps heaven is too?