Mike's Book Reviews

The Science of Happiness


Stephen Braun

Subtitle:   Unlocking the Mysteries of Mood

Click here. Classification: Nonfiction.

Summary of what it's about:   Early on in The Science of Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Mood  Stephen Braun gives a good functional definition of what day-to-day happiness is, and discusses various methods that are being tried to increase people's happiness level. He discusses the results of long-term and short-term consumption of Prozac and its chemical siblings. He asks if we would WANT to be "happy ALL the time"--and shows us why NOT. He discusses the value of depression or being sad as indicators that something's wrong, and as motivation to change the things in our lives that are causing that sadness. He reviews the commercial pressures that drive the creation of Prozac and similar drugs. And he discusses coming drugs that will both be more effective and have fewer side-effects.

My description of the contents:   The author doesn't just stick to discussing what I'd call "interesting chemicals you can ingest and what they'll do to you." He spends fully half of this 180-page book asking the questions one should ask before going down the path of chemical nurological aids.

One of the first things he does is to give functionally-useful definitions of what he means by "happiness" and related issues.

He brings up the concept of a person's "happiness set point." The level of happiness around which a person will wobble, absent any disturbing factors -- positive or negative -- from the outside world. To increase one's happiness over the long term, that set point must be raised.

He discusses "the lottery winner effect": People have a "set point" level of happiness that applies if their basic needs are taken care of -- food, clothing, love, security, etc. Winning a lottery -- or experiencing any similar windfall -- will make anyone happy for awhile. But people eventually get used to their new situation in life, and their happiness level returns to its normal set point level once again. Sad, but true: money doesn't buy happiness.

Throughout the book he discusses various drugs--he seems to have researched them all--such as Prozac, Redux, Effexor, Imipramine, Paxil, Sepracor, Ritalin, Synthroid, Remeron, Valium, Viagra (in its impact on neural blood flow), Sepracor, Yohimbine, Zantac, fen/phen, Zyprexa, Celexa, etc. The list is longer, but you get the idea. Many are members of the SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) family. All of these have significant side-effects. None are "universal" in that they work to raise happiness levels in everyone.

He also discusses the relationships between amphetamines, antidepressants, stimulants such as Ritalin, and the problems they're often applied to - dysthymia, depression, attention deficit disorder, schizophrenia and so on. If you're taking any of these types of drugs now, I expect you'll find data of interest to you here. The book is well-indexed, so finding the information that you want is straightforward.

He often returns to the issue of "what makes you, YOU?" And how much of who you are would you be willing to change. He discusses why Darwinian evolution gave us emotions such as sadness, depression, and the like. And why we would eliminate all sadness at great risk to ourselves.

The main facts or viewpoints I retained from reading this book:   We all have a basic "setpoint" level of happiness. It's not significantly affected, over the long term, by external events. This set point can, perhaps, be changed by meditation/psychotherapy, or by medication approaches. The "meditation/psychotherapy" approaches work slowly, but perhaps give more durable results. The "medication" approaches will give more rapid results, at the cost of side-effects and perhaps declining effectiveness over time. Better drugs are certainly coming, but they're not here yet.

My overall evaluation of The Science of Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Mood   I found it quite valuable. For me the value was not in the Stephen Braun's discussions of various drugs and what they do. Rather, I found satisfaction in understanding the concept of having a Happiness Setpoint; in knowing that my sometimes feeling unhappiness and sadness has a value and a purpose in life; and in understanding the options presented by the "Prozacs" of the world.

To give you a better feel for its contents, here are the book's chapter titles:
To understand why no one can be happy ALL the time,
and to understand the choices--psychological and medical--that may help you feel happier,
I recommend that you read The Science of Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Mood.

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