A happy gathering

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Happiness: Lessons From a New Science

Allen Lane/Penguin: 2005. 320 pp. £17.99/$25.95 1594200394 0713997699 | ISBN: 1-594-20039-4

Making Happy People: The Nature of Happiness and its Origins in Childhood

Fourth Estate: 2005. 306 pp. £15.99 0-007-12706-5 0007127065 | ISBN: 0-007-12706-5

Happiness: The Science Behind Your Smile

Oxford University Press: 2005. 224 pp. £9.99, $21 0192805584 | ISBN: 0-192-80558-4

Books about the scientific study of happiness, it seems, are rather like buses: you spend ages waiting for one, and then three come along at once. The same trend is evident in the science itself, as researchers rush to remedy a long-standing deficit. For much of the twentieth century, psychologists paid scant attention to happiness and related notions, but in the past decade it has suddenly become a hot topic. In this respect, psychology seems to be returning to its roots, as happiness was a central concern for many of the field's founding fathers, such as William James and Sigmund Freud.

The smiling faces of children in Baghdad suggest that wealth is not directly related to happiness. Credit: SHEHZAD NOORANI/STILL PICTURES

The three latest books on the subject have several things in common. They are all popular summaries of the field, aimed at the general public, rather than scientific monographs aimed at specialists. They are all well written, accurate and engaging. And they all cover broadly similar ground. For example, they all start by discussing the various different meanings of happiness and the ways in which happiness can be measured. They all go on to discuss the main factors that make people more or less happy, including money, life events, personality and genes. All explore the increasing evidence for the idea that being happy is good for your health. And they all make the point that scientific research often contradicts our commonsense intuitions about how best to obtain happiness.

That said, there are also differences in the general approach. In Happiness: Lessons From a New Science, Richard Layard examines how research can inform social policy, and argues that happiness is a more sensible goal for society than economic growth. In Making Happy People, Paul Martin is more concerned with the implications of the research for parenting and education. Daniel Nettle, in his book Happiness: The Science Behind Your Smile, prefers to stick to the science itself, and is less concerned with its applications to practical contexts; this makes him — rightly, I think — more sceptical of the idea that happiness is the ultimate goal of human life. In their rush to apply the scientific research to practical matters, Layard and Martin both champion a rather crude version of utilitarianism, although neither provides much in the way of an argument for this. Nettle's position is more sophisticated, as he allows room for a range of other human goods alongside happiness, such as “purpose, community, solidarity, truth, justice, and beauty”, which cannot simply be converted into some imaginary universal currency called utility.

Layard is the best guide to the complex relationship between happiness and money, although this is also well analysed by Martin and Nettle. Drawing on recent work by economists such as Robert Frank, Layard presents an array of graphs and tables showing that rising affluence in the developed world has not increased average levels of happiness. Indeed, there is some evidence that people in the developed world have actually become less happy as they have got richer, at least in some respects. All three books explore the reasons for this apparent paradox, but only Nettle provides something approaching a deep explanation. He proposes that natural selection has endowed us with an implicit theory about what makes us happy that is false by design. In other words, unhappiness is not always a sign that our psychological mechanisms have gone wrong. On the contrary, “the wanting system is supposed to enslave you, to make you maximise your reproductive success”. Our tendency to be mistaken in our beliefs about what will make us happy is, Nettle explains, “a particularly cruel trick played by our evolved mind to keep us competing”.

Martin is at his best when discussing how the education system so often fails to equip children to lead happy lives, and how it might be changed to remedy this deficit. He makes a powerful case for happiness to feature prominently on the educational agenda, and this is a welcome antidote to the narrow view of education as a preparation for the workplace that is becoming prevalent in many Western countries. His book should be required reading for anyone working in education policy.

None of these three authors can resist the temptation to offer practical tips on how to be happy. But it is a great relief that they all avoid the more messianic tones that have blighted some of the offerings of the ‘positive psychology’ movement launched by the psychologist-turned-guru Martin Seligman.

If I had to recommend just one of these books, it would be Nettle's, because it conveys about the same amount of information as the other two books in about half the number of words. Yet the conciseness is achieved with a lightness of touch that makes it a delight to read. And Nettle is more aware than Layard and Martin of the paradoxes inherent in the pursuit of happiness — paradoxes that so often make happiness such an elusive goal.

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Evans, D. A happy gathering. Nature 436, 26–27 (2005) doi:10.1038/436026a

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