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A Scientific Journey
Reviewed by Bill Streett, MA on Sept. 1, 2007
Economics professor and science media producer Eduardo Punset begins his diverse exploration of the pursuit of happiness with a noteworthy insight: Since the Scientific Revolution, humans have more than doubled their life expectancy. From a biological standpoint these additional years are redundant, as they aren’t spent reproducing the species or consumed in a fight for survival. However, rather than spend this extra time on earth suffering from ennui or twiddling their thumbs waiting for death, the author argues that humans will increasingly be drawn to the attainment of happiness. At the same time, Punset suggests that while we now have more time than ever to pursue enduring contentment, little is understood about such a journey. And though we may assume that happiness is an unexpected by-product of modern life—a welcomed yet fleeting guest that visits us from time to time—Punset argues that we can consciously achieve this state of being if we better understand what it really takes to get there.
Punset’s investigation of the chase for happiness combines a review of current scientific studies, keen observations on human behavior, and a sprinkling of personal anecdotes. Such diversity reflects the numerous vantage points he uses to analyze happiness, from the intimate world of brain physiology and neurochemical firings to the integrity of political systems and international global dynamics. All interweave to create the delicate conditions that either support or sabotage the achievement of a happy life.
Punset also debunks some of the major myths about happiness that we have culturally metabolized. Money (in most circumstances), child rearing, education, and even health do not, suggests the overwhelming evidence, ensure sustainable happiness. Due to the brain’s insatiable desire for novelty and excitement, we tend to adapt quickly to conditions that may have once produced well-being and pleasure. For the author, this explains the disturbing irony that while first-world nations have much greater material abundance than a century ago, there is no evidence that we have collectively become any happier. Other studies have shown that people really do compare themselves to—and compete with—the Joneses, and thus remain stuck on a treadmill of dissatisfaction. But rather than linger over the evidence that traditional roads to happiness lead to dead-ends, Punset reveals other means of pursuing and acquiring this Holy Grail. For instance, he cites numerous studies proposing that anticipation for a desired outcome creates greater happiness than its actual achievement. Of this phenomenon, Punset wryly states, “Happiness is hidden in the waiting room to happiness.”
While the clinical and rational approach taken by the author may be off-putting to those yearning for romantic musings on life’s greatest intangible, his scientific stance leads to two of the book’s strengths: One, happiness is treated as a multifaceted process not easily reduced to a handful of easy steps, and two, the diversity of studies cited leads to a considerable number of revelations on happiness that go against popular opinion. If, as Punset argues, novelty and surprise are necessary ingredients for happiness, then the book should provide ample spikes in well-being, as the clinical data discussed reveals surprising and amusing insights.
The complexity of the material presented may at first be difficult to absorb, but the ultimate result is satisfying since Punset avoids the pitfall of superficial investigation. A typical self-help book this is not. Although the pursuit of happiness may be an inalienable right, its achievement is a challenging affair. Fortunately, Punset’s tour of “happiness science” provides a useful and thought-provoking guide for helping us to create that elusive state.