The Happy Brain

Does The Happy Brain  by Dean Burnett, hold the answers we so desperately seek?            

The notion of happiness seems to be on everybody’s mind. From known psychologists to self-development gurus, people are giving us their recipe for happiness.

            Dean Burnett promises the key to happiness through his suggestive title “The Happy Brain”. Given the fact that he is a neuroscientist, his intention was to find a scientific explanation to happiness to discover, through the brain, what, in fact, makes us happy.

            He wanted to use an fMRI machine to pick the brain and get the information from the source itself. The fMRI machine stands for functional magnetic resonance imaging, which is a fancy word for saying it’s, in fact, a more sophisticated X-Ray of the brain in its happy state, to gather data and form a theory regarding happiness, to put it in layman terms.


The beginning sounded promising!

Using an fMRI is a useful tool because you get the results in real-time rather than having to use classical methods to find information.  

After having met with Professor Chris Chambers, Dean Burnett understood the futility of his premise.

Professor Chambers talked about an example they used themselves to discover the misinterpretation of the results provided by the machine.

The moment a chess player’s brain was studied through the fMRI machine, they watched the part of the brain glowing at the thought of chess.

On the other hand, that didn’t mean that only a part of the brain was thinking about chess while others were simply resting. It means that, as scientists, they could only focus on that particular part of the brain at any given time. This meant they ignored the activity the rest of the brain was performing.

The problem couldn’t have been treated as a lonely island but as a chain of reactions. However, it makes it difficult to pinpoint which parts are stronger and lead to our being happy and which ones aren’t.  

Even if Dean Barnett still insisted in his attempt to use the fMRI, there was still a small issue, that was money. Using an fMRI machine at an hourly rate can be quite costing and Dean Barnett wasn’t about to spend that much money to be able to formulate a theory.  


What about the happy brain?

            Being stopped in his tracks of getting an fMRI representation of the brain, Dean Barnett tried another approach.

            It’s funny how the book took a different turn right from the beginning. In the preface, he wants to set things straight about what happiness and how a human being can achieve this state while trying to protest against all the psychologists and self-development gurus out there.

It’s not that he’s stating that everybody else is wrong while he is the only one who’s right. He just seems disturbed by those using neuroscientific terms to serve a point they seem to have no idea about.


            Theories, articles, courses…

all that information out there seems to hold the key, yet, the more information there is, the less we get closer to the essence.

            Dean’s method of reaching the answers is different.

He starts asking specialists around and regular people while explaining the conclusion from a neuroscientific perspective, which is a funny way of saying: drink a glass of cold water on a sunny day. If you feel good about it, there’s a neuroscientific explanation of what happens inside your brain and the justification of reaching that particular state.

The funny thing about that method is that without the state first, we cannot clearly define what happens. The brain, in a neutral position, shows us nothing. 

If neuroscience had all the answers, if, in fact, it helped us explain, to the most minute detail, what occurs in our brains that makes us happy, why do we start with people first?

With all the information we have about the brain, we could have expected a perfect theory, steps to follow, explained to the most minute scientific detail, to reach the state of happiness…


When are we the happiest?

In the comfort of our home

The most important aspect of having our own home is the feeling of safety that comes with it. That is one of the reasons why people who were victims of a break-in feel so violated. It’s not about somebody breaking in as it is about the feeling of safety being shattered.

We would think that having a home to come back to in the evening would be sufficient.

However, sharing a home with somebody else besides our family can be quite inconvenient and a stress factor in our lives. That’s what happens when children, after finishing school, still live with their parents. Instead of being a safe and protective environment, the home turns into a stress factor, causing exactly the opposite sensation.


Space plays also a crucial role


We fear that we don’t have enough space to live our lives the way we want.  This means the home has to be of a certain size, spacious enough to fit all the things we need to feel comfortable and live a certain lifestyle.

Having a spacious home means having intimacy, and that’s what makes our brains happy.

Our home is more than a building, it’s an extension of our personalities.


  • the place where we manifest ourselves, where we gather memories, where we live emotions and develop over time
  • a part of who we are as individuals, and, most importantly, it’s where we recover ourselves after coming into contact with other people
  • time for recovery, necessary for the brain.


The same happens with work


We go to work to earn money, to build the life we dream of. Some become addicted to work, being devastated the moment they go into retirement.  Others start by wanting to earn money, but once they have it, they want more. The fear of losing it becomes so great that it’s impossible for them to stop.

The more they have, the more they want. Paradoxically, this means they can never be happy enough to enjoy their money. They will always feel they don’t have enough.

Being happy at work is important. However, being happy all the time turns into a problem.

Happy people feel the need of being praised, having constant gratification, and the moment they don’t get it, they turn into insecure human beings. 

As Chris Voss in “Never Split the Difference” says: everything revolves around negotiating. Since everything revolves around negotiating, are happy people good negotiators? Research has shown that happy people make bad negotiators. 

Being angry helps the process much better than happiness ever will.


Do we need others to be happy?


More than we could ever realize. Even persons, who state they are not interested in what other people feel towards them, care about other people’s opinions. Sometimes even more than they’re willing to admit.

Subconsciously, we seek the approval of other people in our lives. That can lead to alterations of personality and behavior, which requires effort.

We all need human contact. The extroverts need human interaction more than introverts. However, extroverts will need a break from people while introverts, even though they don’t like to admit it, crave human interaction.


Love makes us completely blind


Our brain is in a state of happiness, so happy that it is not capable to process threat, stress, and worry.

Our ability to think logically is severely diminished, which leads to the expression “love is blind”. We cannot see the flaws since our brain is too busy being concentrated on processing and praising the qualities of the other person.

That is a valid explanation of why our friends cannot understand why we can’t see the flaws and concentrate only on qualities. It’s not that we don’t want to see it, it’s that we’re incapable of seeing it.

“Martin Eden” by Jack London is the perfect example of a young man, who’s so blind, that he fails to see his partner for what she was. 

The moment our brain starts concentrating on one aspect of reality, it fails to observe other aspects. This, in return, brings us more happiness.

In the pursuit of happiness, we don’t know if what we think makes us happy is real or just a flaw of our brains.  


Laughter is another happiness trigger

Our brain feels happy when we laugh.

In fact, it feels so happy because being ironic, sarcastic, telling a joke, things that provoke our laughter are, in fact, unknowns that our brain needs to fix. The moment the answer is discovered, our brain is happy.

Laughter is also a socializing tool. We feel good when we laugh with other people, thinking that, indirectly, they enjoy our company. There’s nothing more than our brains need to be happy than social acceptance.

The reverse is also possible. That’s when the outcome is fear and stress.

Being rejected by other people, being labeled as not a fun person to be around can have a detrimental impact on our mental state. Ironically, the chapter about laughter is depressing. Sure, the author comes and tips the balance, but, for a moment, a brief moment, you stop and ask yourself whether this is meant as a cathartic experience or is simply applying a reversed psychology trick to reach a “happy” conclusion.


Social acceptance makes us happy

The reason why we do what we do and behave the way we do has only one simple explanation and that is our desire to make people like us. 

It’s for this reason that we seem interested in the people that are interested in us. As “One sentence persuasion” teaches us: people will do anything for those who support their dreams, ideas, desires, and interests. 

However, that doesn’t stop us from being happy when we see other people fail.

human beings are social animals and the same hierarchy seems to apply in the case of the almighty human.

Our society is built on a hierarchy of power, influence, and money.

Maybe we are aware of it or not. The point is the moment somebody higher up on the hierarchy falls down the ladder it makes us all tingly inside.

It’s a part of us and we’re not even aware of it.

The thing is we are not as happy that the person higher up the hierarchy fell. We are happy because now we have a better chance of climbing up the social ladder. Remember: having social acceptance, which, in this case, comes from money and power, is what makes our brain the happiest.


Is there such a thing as too much happiness?

We seek happiness our entire lives thinking that there comes a time when we are happy and that feeling will last forever.

In reality, being happy all the time is exhausting. Our brain needs balance. Instead of being happy about having too much, we need a break from it all in order to regain that sense of happiness.

Having too much of something can tip the scale towards exactly the opposite feeling. It’s the reverse of the scarcity principle, Robert Cialdini talks about in his “Influence: the psychology of persuasion”


Strike a balance between happy and unhappy 

We feel happy among people. Yet, too much human interaction can make us exhausted. That’s when the break time comes in.

We need a home to make us happy, but it’s not just any home. It’s the intimate space that we need, where we can feel safe and live our lives.

Love brings us happiness. Yet when we are happy, we cannot be objective, which makes us wonder if what we see in the other person is true or simply a fantasy.

There is no permanent happy state we can reach.

Even if that would be possible, reaching that permanent state would not bring us happiness.

Our brain would become tired and we would need a break from the very things we were attracted to. It’s the only way to regain balance and be happy again.

Think of it this way: music makes us happy. Too much music, at an insanely high level, makes us happy. However, if we listen to it all the time at the same level. We would need a break to recover.

On the other hand, listening to music at a very low level means we would have to struggle to make sense of it.

Striking a balance between too loud and not loud enough is exactly the state that would make us happy.

We would be wrong to think that too much of something can bring us happiness.

Not too much, not too little.

Just about right is exactly the level we want to reach if we want our brain to be happy.


Takeaways from “The happy brain”

“The happy brain” seems to have the answers you were looking for, when, in fact, is a search for the answers in itself.

We get:

  • neuroscientific explanations
  • a human reaction
  • stories and experiences

which leads us to explanations that are translated into brain activity.

Do we really get the answer to what makes us happy? How about how can we reach that state and keep it as a rule of thumb?

Paradoxically, solving the mystery would take the fun out of living.

If we knew the answers in the first place, doesn’t that take the fun out of finding out by ourselves, through trial and error?

In a sense, the neuroscientific explanation is closer than other theories, but cannot and will not be the final answer. At least not for everyone. 

Even from a neuroscientific perspective, there is no perfect answer for us all. Happiness is about time, place, individual and so many factors.

The real mystery, as the solution, lies for each one of us within ourselves.


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The happy brain


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Overall impression



  • A detailed explanation about the workings of our brain in a happy state
  • It answers a lot of questions
  • It helps us better understand our choices and behavior


  • Happiness through the eyes of neuroscience
  • It might have been better in some cases to start first with the examples and then with the theoretical explanation


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