In an earlier post, I described the most important constructs that Daniel Nettle, in Happiness: The Science Behind Your Smile, used to analyze our efforts to achieve happiness.  Compared with many of the psychologists who write about happiness, Nettle is more optimistic that happiness can be intentionally increased.  In this post, I’ll discuss the three avenues he points to for increasing one’s happiness.  They are: To reduce the impact of negative emotion, to increase the amount of positive emotion, and to stop thinking so much about happiness.


If, as Nettle maintains, our evolutionary heritage saddles us with overly intense and persistent negative emotions, what can we do about this?  We can override our “negative emotion programs” using “information from context, planning, logic, further reflection, and so on.”  (p. 149)  In particular, Nettle advocates the methods of cognitive-behavior therapy (CBT) to identify and replace irrational thoughts.  Ever since the Greeks, one line of philosophical thought has promoted using reason to control the passions; the current ascendance of CBT among therapeutic approaches seems a continuation of the rationalist trend.  As Nettle admits, though, simply decreasing negative thoughts doesn’t make one more happy, just less unhappy.


Nettle’s second suggestion is aimed at increasing the amount of positive emotion experienced.  He advocates “happiness training programmes” consisting mainly of “pleasant activity training.”  In brief, the person determines what activities he or she finds pleasant and deliberately engages in them more often.  Nettle holds that we are so busy chasing after the things we desire—the bigger salary, faster car, and the like—that we neglect doing what we enjoy.  Maybe so, but it seems to me that listening to my Dylan boxed set or drinking chocolate milk more often may increase my level of pleasure, but won’t make me happy.  Nettle reads like a hedonist here.


He moves away from hedonism in his last prescription, though.  He recommends that people get away from thinking about their emotional state and think instead about something other than themselves.  He suggests thinking about nature or religion, and also mentions favorably the Stoic emphasis on relinquishing desires.  In the end, he concludes that it probably isn’t such a good idea to devote oneself solely to pursuing happiness:


With important but limited returns from happiness, we may as well attempt to broaden our holding in the other stocks that make up good human life, such as purpose, community, solidarity, truth, justice, and beauty.  (p. 175)


By pursuing these other goods, we may arrive at a sense of fulfillment and completeness, and thereby paradoxically gain happiness.  Though it detracts from the main emphasis of his book, Nettle eventually concludes that we are most likely to be happy if we treat it like an escaped puppy, i.e. stop chasing it and wait for it to come to us.