There’s a lot of advice out there about how to be happy – websites, videos, newsletters – and many pedal a recipe for happiness backed by science.
But neuroscientist Dean Burnett started to notice that a lot of it wasn’t very scientific at all. It bugged him so much that he decided to write a book about it, Happy Brain: Where Happiness Comes From and Why.
Burnett is a lecturer at Cardiff University and author of The Guardian’s Brain Flapping blog, as well as a previous book called Idiot Brain.
“Happiness is really complicated, like anything to do with the brain,” Burnett said. “These quick-fix solutions, these simple ideas that it’s all a matter of doing just two or three things, making this one minor change to your life, that’s very wrong.”
That’s a problem because it gives people false hope. Despite the complications, Burnett said there are things that tend to produce happy feelings. For example, people are often happy when they are home. That has to do with a lack of stress and perceived threats, he said.
“I’ve been here many times. At no point have I died,” he imagined the brain saying. “This place is safe and I can relax now.”
Work can also be a place of happiness if certain conditions are met.
“Autonomy,” Burnett said. “The brain loves a sense of control, so if you’ve got a job that lets you… make your own decisions and effect things around you, that’s often noted as a rewarding job.”
Social media has accelerated an already-existing phenomenon of comparing one’s life to others’ and coming up short, Burnett said.
“It does give a sense that we should be happy and if we’re not, there must be something wrong,” he said. “Which isn’t the case, really. It’s perfectly normal to not be happy.”