Sent To Me By Faber & Faber In Exchange For An Honest Review
03.05.2018 / Faber & Faber / Non-Fiction (Neuroscience) / Paperback / 352pp / 978-1783351299
Target Audience: Readers who are interested in neuroscience and how the brain works. Detailed, informative and fascinating.
About The Happy Brain
Do you want to be happy?
If so – read on. This book has all the answers.*
In The Happy Brain, neuroscientist Dean Burnett delves deep into the inner workings of our minds to explore some fundamental questions about happiness. For starters: what does it actually mean to be happy? Where does it come from? And is there a secret to making it last forever?
In his research into these questions – and many more besides – Burnett unravels our complex internal lives to reveal the often surprising truth behind what makes us tick. From whether happiness really begins at home (spoiler alert: yes – sort of) to what love, sex, friendship, wealth, laughter and success actually do to our brains, this book offers a uniquely entertaining insight into what it means to be human.
* Not really. Sorry. But it does have some very interesting questions, and at least the occasional answer.
Could you give us your own personal overview of what we should expect in within?
The book is an investigation into what makes us happy and why, at the most explicit, fundamental level. Many things make us happy in many different ways, but why these things in particular? What is it about them that makes our brains respond to them so vividly in such a positive way? You could say it also contains information on how to be happy, but that isn’t the aim or point. Many books, self-help books and the like, claim to provide the ‘key tips’ or secrets for achieving happiness, but I make no such promises with mine. Even at the very start of my research it was clear that happiness is such an intensely subjective, variable experience that short cuts and easy tips that are equally effective for everyone are a ridiculously unlikely premise, and it has instilled in me a healthy scepticism for anyone or anything that argues otherwise. I’ve seen my book described as a self-help book a few times already, and at first I was annoyed, but then I figured that if it lets people know just how complex and diverse happiness is and that there are no easy answers for obtaining it, then that arguably that IS helpful, so it’s a fair point 🙂
What made you focus on Happiness over other possible emotional states?
The story of how I came to write this book is itself quite a ludicrous one, but then so is my writing career as a whole. I feel really awkward talking about it at times, because I know so many great, talented and hard-working writers desperate to break through, yet I essentially accidentally stumbled into a career as an author. I got the chance to write my first book, The Idiot Brain, via my Guardian science blog Brain Flapping, which itself arose from a series of ridiculous happenings and decisions. The idea of me writing a book seemed far fetched and laughable at the time, but people (agents, publishers) seemed serious so I went with it. Assuming it would be my only ever chance, I basically splurged all my stored-up knowledge into The Idiot Brain. I figured it might get a few sales from my regular readers, a bit of interest in the psych communities, and then everyone would promptly forget about it and get on with their lives.
23 international versions, best-seller status and Hollywood endorsements later, it seemed I had underestimated my chances. Therefore, it wasn’t long before the publishers started asking what the second book was going to be. I was like… second book? I’d literally emptied the tank on the first one, had nothing left to offer. In a panic, I asked many friends and colleagues for ideas and suggestions, which they provided, but they were all wildly different and nothing felt right. But one thing people kept saying, largely as an afterthought, was ‘Just write about whatever makes you happy’. Turns out I’m a more literal person than many expect, because I started to think about that as a suggestion at absolute face value. What does make me happy? And why? And it just sort of snowballed from there really. There’s plenty more to be said about it than I could ever hope to cover in a single book, let alone the other emotions, but I’ve learned not to use everything up in one go now, so maybe I’ll get round to them later?
Can you give us a few details about some of the interesting ideas that you explore within your book?
I started writing the book completely ‘cold’, so to speak. I’m a neuroscientist of many years experience yes, but I’d never specifically focused on happiness or its properties before, so didn’t really know anything about it beyond the bare minimum that would probably be described as common knowledge. I actively avoided the more well-known books and articles about happiness, because I wanted to approach it from the ground up, see what the published literature and evidence says about how the workings of the brain build up in layers of complexity and end up creating what we consider to be happiness. Then, once done, I could compare my findings with the more established claims, and see what, if anything, matched up. I felt this was a more ‘scientific’ approach, you know?
Long story short, a lot of what you read in the book may look like I’m surprised by the finding or revelation, and that’s invariably because that’s exactly the case. I was finding things out as I progressed. There are plenty of things in there that should surprise and intrigue and I don’t want to give too many spoilers, but I particularly enjoyed filtering the facts from the noise with regards to how wealth and fame affect your happiness. Despite the cliches, it turns out that, according to the evidence, money can make you happy, but only up to a point. Our powerful brains recognise it as essential for survival, like food and safety, but once we get past a certain point and have amassed enough wealth, we’re more confident of our basic biological survival so it takes more and more money to achieve ever-smaller increases in happiness, which would explain why billionaires are so often still pursuing ever more wealth. It was also intriguing to discover that happy employees may not be as good and productive as corporate wisdom insists. Also, fame has many deep and potent affects on the brains, as we’re social animals and the need to be liked by others runs very deep, and is very rewarding when it happened. I may also have stumbled upon a neurological explanation for why child superstars so often go ‘off the rails’ when they’re older, which I don’t think has ever been done before.
Why did you decide to become a neuroscientist?
I’m not from a traditional academic background. The small isolated South Wales mining valley where I grew up wasn’t somewhere that produced a lot of Oxbridge students, to say the least. I grew up in a pub, owned by my parents, so was constantly surrounded by bustle and celebrations and, yes, drunkenness. Not sure if this caused me to retreat into my shell or I was always bound to be like that, but I was a shy, quiet, retiring child from a very young age, preferring to read his books than go out playing sport or similar. The rest of the Burnett’s are outgoing, bombastic types by and large, and I couldn’t have been more different. I started wondering why, what was it about me that made me so different to my peers and my family? I managed to get hold of some basic brain books in my early teens, thinking the answer might be in there. It wasn’t. Still haven’t found one, to be honest, but that was essentially what sparked my interest in all things brain related, and it’s all progressed from there, really.
What sort of challenges did you face when writing The Happy Brain?
Oh God, where to start with this one? Writing the Happy Brain was, in many ways, actually my first time writing a book. The Idiot Brain, I look back at it now and can see what I was doing. It’s clearly a book written by someone who’s main output is blogging, as it is in many ways just a series of blogs (or ‘essays’ if they’re in print, I guess?) written by someone who’s very comfortable and familiar with what he’s discussing. There’s no overarching theme beyond ‘the brain’s a bit rubbish in many ways’, and it’s all just me talking ‘at’ the reader, if you look at it that way. Much as I love it and feel it still holds up fine, my first book now reads exactly like someone unwilling to go beyond his comfort zone. It’s me, talking about what I already know, in a format I’m extensively familiar with. Also, as previously stated, I didn’t expect the book to go anywhere, ergo there was no real sense of pressure or related stress, beyond those caused by deadlines.
Writing the Happy Brain was a whole new experience. I essentially had to figure out how to write a book ‘for real’ now, and do all the research and travel around and actually speak to people for it, and construct a narrative and through-line, and not repeat myself or get bogged down in tangents (always a risk I’m running, believe me). It was a dual process, simultaneously learning how happiness works, and re-learning how book writing works.
And that’s not even considering the personal and logistical details I was dealing with the second time around. I had two children now, not one, my daughter being born a couple months before The Idiot Brain was published, so I had a lot more parenting responsibilities than before, and my cozy little study was now her bedroom, so I had to figure out a new comfortable writing environment. I’d gone down to half-time hours in my lecturing day job to fit more writing in, but it eventually became clear my workload hadn’t dropped, just the time I had to do it in, so that was an added stress. On top of this, I wasn’t just ‘random weird bogger tries his hand at a book’ this time; I’d (accidentally) written a bestseller on my first attempt, that was the whole reason I was doing The Happy Brain in the first place. But a successful book does’t just go away because you’ve got a follow up planned, I was still being asked to talk about it at festivals or do interviews etc. All very appreciated, but when you’re desperately trying to finish a new book, being persistently dragged out of the required headspace to talk about your last one isn’t especially productive. All things considered, the writing of The Happy Brain very nearly broke me in the end. It didn’t, but it was an incredibly intense and steep learning curve. I like to think I’m a lot wiser and knowledgeable about the process now though. Of course, if news emerges that I’ve spontaneously combusted while writing a third book, we’ll know I was wrong about this.
How did you approach writing such a comprehensive and informative book?
It’s tricky to answer this with specifics. My approach to writing isn’t really reliant on a great deal of forward planning and meticulous design, I’m more stream-of-consciousness than anything, I start looking into things, find something I find intriguing and applicable, work out how it will inform the narrative, start writing it, double check a point I make, find out it’s not as certain as I assumed, find an alternative finding, follow that thread, do that multiple times, then realise I’ve got this mishmash of findings and interesting effects, and try to sculpt something coherent from it.
However, a lot of my motivation comes from the fact that I’m not a highly acclaimed academic or researcher in my field, which is how you usually become well known as a science person. This has actually been an advantage in a few counter-intuitive ways. Firstly, it means I’ve no body of work or significant findings that my reputation rests on, so I can afford to be more ‘objective’ than most scientists perhaps could when discussing new findings or insights. But it also means my credibility is more fragile, or tenuous; I can’t afford to be blase with my references or interpretations. In truth, that should apply to everyone, but if you’ve a body of successful research behind you you can probably get away with it more. As a result, I tend to be more painstaking with my views and conclusions, always trying to present alternative arguments and findings. It does mean I tend to be pretty comprehensive, or at least try to be as much as I can.
In truth though, I think my main approach stems from my attitude to the reader, or anyone who’s being exposed to my work. My rule of thumb when writing is, always assume the reader is at least as smart as you, but doesn’t know anything you know. It means I try to never dumb down or patronise, because I’m as big an idiot as anyone and what right have I to do that? But if someone doesn’t know the terminology or principles of your field, they won’t be able to understand what you’re saying regardless of how smart they are. This approach means I don’t stint on the detail, because my assumed readers are easily smart enough to cope with it, but I avoid all jargon I can, because if you need extensive neuroscience experience to understand what I’m saying then I’m clearly saying it wrong. Maybe this stems from my experience as a stand up comic, where the audience’s respect has to be earned, not assumed, do that and you’re practically guaranteed to fail. Or maybe it’s from my working class valley’s background, where I was surrounded by people who rarely made it to A-levels but were still clearly smart and capable. Probably a mix of these things, and more. But there it is, it’s what I do 🙂
Have you got a hobby/activity you do to wind down from all your work and writing?
To be honest, these days with the kids and promotional schedule, the writing is what I do to wind down. Probably won’t be saying that if I get to write another book, but for now the writing is still an enjoyable, rewarding part of my day (not that my kids aren’t, but they’re still kids and take a lot of work and energy). If I just cant face the laptop at the end of a day, I’ll probably read an old sci-fi novel, watch a film with my wife, or go out and catch up with my usual circle of friends in the pub. I still do the occasional stand-up gig, but only when specifically asked these days, as I’m usually to busy with other things. I also recently joined a gym after going freelance, but that’s not something I do to unwind, it’s more a subconscious effort to punish myself for my audacity.
Finally, have you read a book/article recently that you would personally recommend to the readers of this post?
I’ve read a great many things in the process of writing this book that I’d like to recommend, but the first thing that came to mind was the new book ‘Cringeworthy’ by Melissa Dahl. So much of what we do and think and experience, especially happiness, involves the approval of other people, either by experiencing it or working to obtain it. Cringeworthy really gets into the nitty gritty of how significantly the opinions of others effects us, to the core of our very being. It focuses largely on embarrassment, but encompasses so much more about how others influence our own minds and wellbeing.
“One thing that is abundantly clear from the sheer variety of supposed ‘secrets’ to happiness is that it has an undeniably strong subjective element. We all have different ideas of what makes, or will make, us happy, be it wealth, fame, love, sex, power, laughter, and so on. And yet we can only ever truly know what works for us. So, I wanted to include insights from a wide range of people from different walks of life, to see what makes them happy (or not). As a result, I ended up talking with stars of stage and screen, millionaires, leading scientists, journalists, ghost-hunters and one person who… well, let’s just say that in no other research I’ve done did I ever hear the term ‘sex-dungeon’ used so freely and so often.”
The Happy Brain is an insightful, informative and self-aware look into the neurological, sociological and environmental cause and affect surrounding our experience of Happiness. This is not a self-help book; there is no guidance or tips to be more jolly. Dean Burnett does not have any concrete answers about our pursuit of happiness but he does a fine job of explaining and investigating how happiness works inside our brains. From brain chemistry, psychological fallacies and coping mechanisms to innate desires, reward systems, biological interventions and environmental stimulus. The Happy Brain is jam-packed with fascinating information about how happiness manifests within our minds and how truly frail the emotional state really is. Dean Burnett explains why happiness is not a permanent state; how money and fame can make you happy within precise limits; how your brain facilitates positive thinking just as easily as it takes it away.
I found Dean’s exploration of both sides of happiness to be worth a read as he delves right into all aspects of life and how happiness can make or break our experiences as human beings. The amount of information is daunting at times as Dean goes into many areas of life from age, means, species, jobs, sex, security, emotions and so much more. Talking to an array of people from different walks of life such as singer Charlotte Church and comedian Rhod Gilbert. Scientists, millionaires, sexperts, comedians and writers share their own experiences with happiness and how they view it from an objective stance. The sheer amount of information that Dean Burnett has put into play here is overwhelming. He is a self confessed studious and thorough writer and it definitely shows.
There is a wide range of approachability in DB’s writing from neuroscience noobs to hardcore brain buffs but even I struggled a bit when Dean really hit his stride. I kept up for most of the read but terms like ‘mesocorticolimbic dopaminergic areas’ had me stumped on occasion. The Happy Brain is for readers who want to immerse themselves in knowledge. DB is a fantastic writer but he may be a bit much for the neurocurious. There are quite a few familiar case studies and theories present but DB has also incorporated a ton of new research and other relevant information that refines the perimeters of happiness and while I revelled in this, I could see how other readers maybe left slightly bewildered.
I have to say that DB has a superb sense of humour and while The Happy Brain is informative and thorough, it is really funny too. I laughed so much at anecdotes, off-hand comments and alternatives views. I also loved Dean Burnett’s fantastic use of analogy and elaborate metaphors which made The Happy Brain so much more digestible and worthwhile. I admit that DB is prone to a ramble at times but I actually think it was more fluid than other neuroscience books I have read recently. If you are interested in how the human brain processes emotion and information; how it reacts, develops and re-organises itself over our lifetime then The Happy Brain is for you.
DB is clearly adept in his craft as a neuroscientist as he explains actions/influences such as empathy, human contact, laughter, facial expressions, chemical reactions and biological responses (did you know the body responds to rejection the same way it does physical pain?). Also sparing the time to battle certain misconceptions and the many idiosyncrasies that we all experience. DB is also immensely relatable as a human being and that helps make his writing much more accessible and enjoyable. I have read many textbook snorefests and I would much prefer The Happy Brain over those any day. I have left this book with many little insights that will make me think twice about how I see the world and the people in it and that is all I really want from non-fiction books like The Happy Brain.
About Dean Burnett
Dean Burnett is a neuroscientist, blogger, sometimes-comedian and author. He is 35 and lives in Cardiff. He is currently a lecturer/tutor at the Cardiff University Centre for Medical Education. His first book, The Idiot Brain, was an international bestseller published in over 20 countries. His ‘Brain Flapping’ blog is the most read on the Guardian science network, with over 15 million views since 2012.