In his latest book, The Happy Brain, neuroscientist Dean Burnett investigates the inner workings of the brain to try and fathom out the secrets of happiness - what is happiness, how can we become happier and can we stay that way? Below, Dean tells us how he came to write his second book (and indeed his first) and what he's learned along the way.
In pursuit of the happy brain
One of the most common questions I’m asked about my second book The Happy Brain is, why? Why happiness? Why did I want to write a book about the workings and neurology of what makes us happy?
The answer is not one many expect to hear, because the truth is it was never my plan to write a second book about happiness. I didn’t plan to write a second book about anything. I’d never planned to write a first book. I’d never planned to write books at all. And yet, here we are. What happened?
My own entry into the writing world is an odd one, stemming as it does from my passions for neuroscience, but also my keen interest in comedy and humour. I started performing stand up back in 2004, as I was studying for my neuroscience PhD. Largely as a churlish reaction to people who said it couldn’t be done (or it was foolish to do so), I started writing jokes and material about my research and science in general. Weirdly enough, it proved quite popular, so I started doing it more and more. And the more I did it, the more I enjoyed it. The challenge of conveying accurate scientific information in amusing and engaging ways, I found that very stimulating. It made me happy.
Trouble is, I live in Cardiff, a very small city by anyone’s standards, with a correspondingly miniscule comedy scene. You perform at the five or six comedy gigs available, you have to wait several weeks for another turn while every other act has their go. Our of impatience and boredom, I turned to the internet, and started a blog to put my efforts on there. It turns out, the writing was the part I always preferred, and the 20 minutes of stage time a month were just a means of getting it out there.
My blog developed a decent following and eventually joined the Guardian’s science blog network, where it remains one of the most popular pages to this day. But then, out of the blue, I got contacted by a literary agent who said he liked my work and had I ever thought about writing a book?
At this point, I sort of had, but only in the same way that I’d thought about going to Mars, or being a movie star; something that would probably be cool but not actually something that’s ever going to happen. So, I said sure, why not. Thinking my first book would be my only book, I splurged all my stored up knowledge into it, thinking it would be good to get it all out there while I can. I assumed a few blog readers would pick it up, maybe a few libraries and schools, and then we’d all forget about it and moved on with our lives.
It didn’t happen that way. My first book, The Idiot Brain, is still going strong two years later, with bestseller status, many international versions, and endorsements from Hollywood (and Bollywood) superstars. That surprised me more than anyone, I won’t deny it.
Here’s the thing; when you have a book that sells really well, your publishers quickly start asking what the next one’s going to be about. And that’s when I hit a wall; I had no idea what the next one would be about.
As a result, I asked many friends, colleagues and co-workers what they thought I should write about. They all gave me ideas, but none of them felt ‘right’. But after every rejection from me, they’d all eventually say the same thing: “At the end of the day, you’ve just got to write about what makes you happy”.
Turns out I’m a very literal person. A moment of idle curiosity where I searched online ‘What makes you happy’ sent me tumbling down the proverbial rabbit hole of self-help gurus, positive psychologists, mindfulness, and thousands of ‘secrets’, ‘keys’ and ‘simple tips’ for happiness.
These things were all presented with such utter conviction, but yet none of them matched up? None said the same thing as the other equally-certain wannabe sages of happiness were saying. This suggests that a lot of the claims are made up.
So, what does the science say? What are the things that really do tickle our brains fancy and make us happy? And why these things, and not others? That was the task I set myself, to find out. It took over a year and involved millionaires, pop stars, ghost hunters and sex gurus, but I got there in the end.
I found something to write about in the end, and that’s what’s covered in my second book, The Happy Brain. I hope you’re happy with it. I know I am.
Dean Burnett is a neuroscientist, blogger, sometimes-comedian and author. He is 35 and lives in Cardiff. He is currently a lecturer/tutor at the Cardiff University Centre for Medical Education. His first book, The Idiot Brain, was an international bestseller published in over 20 countries. His 'Brain Flapping' blog is the most read on the Guardian science network, with over 15 million views since 2012.