The science of happiness: six books to brighten up your January © Getty Images

The science of happiness: six books to brighten up your January

Stay positive, January doesn’t have to be so gloomy - these science books have more than a few tips on how to be happy.

Just because everyone else thinks January is grey and miserable, it doesn’t have to be (and don’t get us started on Blue Monday!). Whether you want to read about what’s going on in the brain, what makes people happy, or just how to be happy, we’ve gathered six science books that are sure to bring a smile to your face.

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Happy Ever After

Happy Ever After Paul Dolan £20, Penguin

Marriage, children, a successful career, your health – this is all we need to be happy, right? In Happy Ever After, Paul Dolan encourages us to reject these narratives and choose our own path. Some of these might make us happy, or none at all, but it’s up to us to work out which for ourselves.

Dolan uses his expertise in behavioural science to deconstruct these ideas and get to the bottom of where happiness really comes from. With reference to contemporary research, he explores the themes of status, empathy, monogamy, and many more. After all, there is no one type of person, so why should happiness be one-size-fits-all?

Notes on a Nervous Planet

Notes on a Nervous Planet Matt Haig £12.99, Canongate

Take one look at the news and you’d be more than forgiven in thinking the world is a scary place, especially with its split screens and news tickers bombarding us with information. With constant access to more information than we could ever process, how are we supposed to relax? Social media, originally intended as a place to connect with people, is filled with politics, division and anger. We are stressed, nervous, and busy.

Matt Haig’s book Notes on a Nervous Planet draws on his personal experience to explore the effect that this world has on us. He explores the sources of anxiety in the modern world that surround us, the very modern challenges we face, and how we can remove ourselves from them to stay happy and calm.

Why does chocolate make us happy? © iStock

The Happy Brain

The Happy Brain Dean Burnett £12.99 Faber & Faber

Where does happiness come from, scientifically speaking? From chemicals like dopamine and serotonin? From pulses of electricity travelling down neurons? And what causes these reactions in the first place? In The Happy Brain, neuroscientist Dean Burnett explains the cutting-edge research and the neuroscience behind happiness.

So, if we can spot what goes on in our brains when we’re happy, surely that means that we’ve found the answer. Just release these chemicals and send these signals, and then we’ll be happy, no? Unfortunately, the truth isn’t quite so simple. For starters, there isn’t just one kind of happiness. Euphoria and contentment, while both under the umbrella of ‘happiness’, are vastly different feelings.

Burnett is keen to point out that this is not an instruction manual or a self-help book, but an exploration of what it means to be happy. Happiness is subjective: what makes one person joyful may do nothing at all for another. To understand happiness, we need lots of different perspectives, so Burnett interviews people from all walks of life, including pop stars, comedians, businessmen, and, of course, neuroscientists.

The Little Book of Hygge

The Little Book of Hygge Meik Wiking £9.99, Penguin

The Danish concept of hygge (pronounced ‘hooga’) exploded into our cultural consciousness in 2016, thanks in part to this book and others on the same theme — so much so that the Collins English Dictionary named hygge as one of its top ten words of the year in 2016. Its success is no doubt related to the fact that Denmark consistently scores highly on the World Happiness report, making its people among the happiest in the world.

This untranslatable word is often described as cosiness, but its nuance is easier to understand through examples: hygge is curling up with a book in front of a fire, or relaxing with your family and friends with candles and good food. Who better to introduce us to hygge than Meik Wiking, CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen? In The Little Book of Hygge, Wiking mixes his personal perspective as a Dane with his own studies to delve into why the Danish are so happy. His conclusion – hygge.

More science book suggestions:

The Other Side of Happiness

The Other Side of Happiness Brock Bastian £9.99, Penguin

For more surprising advice, try psychologist Brock Bastian’s The Other Side of Happiness: perhaps happiness and pain aren’t so far removed as we might think. In fact, Bastian argues that pain and sadness are necessary parts of a happy life. How much better does good food taste after a difficult hike? How much more do we enjoy a holiday when we worked hard to save up for it? How much happier are we to pass an exam when there was a risk we would fail?

Pain is something we try to avoid, both physical and emotional. Bastian argues that the pressure we place on ourselves to be constantly happy actually makes us less happy in the long run. Maybe it’s time for us to allow ourselves to be miserable sometimes and appreciate the happy times even more when they come around.

Solve for Happy

Solve for Happy Mo Gawdat £14.99, Macmillan

Mo Gawdat’s Solve for Happy is a personal and optimistic account of the pursuit of happiness. Gawdat, former Chief Business Officer for Google X, recounts his gradual realisation that money and possessions would never make him happy, and his determination to find out what would. After a period of intense, analytical study, he developed an equation for happiness: your total happiness is greater than or equal to your perception of the events of your life, minus your expectation of how life should behave.

Gawdat’s happiness equation faced its biggest challenge after the tragic and preventable death of his son, Ali. Solve for Happy is Gawdat’s tribute to Ali, and his attempt to spread his hard-earned wisdom in the hope of making global happiness a reality.

Science Focus Podcast: The neuroscience of happiness © Getty Images

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