Entertaining exploration of the neurophysiological basis for Aristotle’s most prized state of being: happiness.
To give a human a happy brain, give him or her lots of dopamine or some of the other chemicals we secrete in dosages far above what morphine can deliver. By the account of neuroscientist and stand-up comic Burnett (Medical Education/Cardiff Univ.; Idiot Brain: What Your Head Is Really Up To, 2016, etc.), setting those natural endorphins into motion is the trick. The author sometimes tries too hard to unburden heavy scientific exposition with some gee-whiz efforts at lightheartedness. Still, he delivers meaty, even weighty observations on the gray-matter gymnastics that, for instance, make us fall in love with awful people and, to all appearances to the outside world, allow us to content ourselves with that choice by blinding us to the reality. Burnett’s description of the neurochemistry of love and its affiliated emotions (“it may not be as pleasurable as sex, but it’s a lot less effort too”) is worth the price of admission. So, too, is his depiction of the emotional workings of the adolescent and then, later, the aging brain, when the reward pathways mature in such a way that some of the things that formerly brought us pleasure seem quaint and silly—a process that we share with rats and other primates. Burnett is at his funniest when he is subtle: “older people voting en masse to recreate the quasi-fictional romanticised world of the past doesn’t really do much good for anyone (see ‘Brexit’).” The book is at its best when the author points to obvious conclusions without being too obvious about it: If what makes us happiest in the end is the approval of others, it’s plain to see, on that account, why those who are widely disapproved of are so miserable.
There’s nothing earthshaking in Burnett’s observations, but he offers a pleasing tour of the brain and its feel-good longings.