It seems as though every few months another book is published that purports to have discovered the ultimate cure for an unhappy life. Some tout self-esteem, others Buddhism, and still others plastic surgery. Train Your Brain to Get Happy, by neuroscientist Teresa Aubele, biofeedback and meditation specialist Stan Wenck, and Susan Reynolds, seems more unique than this simple distillation of the genre. Their work summarizes the current research into the many things that make us happy, deduce what is in our control, and organize this information in an easy-to-understand ‘how-to’ format. Train Your Brain shows in a clear, entertaining way how to use the faculties at one’s disposal to create a happier (and calmer) mental world.
“The happiest people are those who have trained their brains to make them happy” (p. ix) — this is the authors’ central thesis and forms the organizing theme of the book. Chapter 1 details the history of happiness from the time of Aristotle through Freud and up to psychopharmacology. Neuroplasticity, how the brain changes and repairs its circuitry, is explained as essential to ‘learning’ happiness and compared to programming computer software in that sense. Chapter 2 delves deeper into brain anatomy and chemistry, and Chapter 3 ties together the separate notions of mind, brain, and self, again by using a computer analogy:
Your brain is what would be hard-wired, the motherboard, if you will. Your mind would be the software, programs composed of your working knowledge of the world and how those programs interact with each other. Your self would be the content that the you in you types on the screen, the words and thoughts that arise from the interaction of your software (mind) with your motherboard (brain). (p. 44)
This comparison leads to a definition of self that is responsive to efforts to become happier and also goes further to explain how emotions and memories are formed: “What’s important to remember is that the mind determines whether you view what caused the emotions as negative or positive” (p. 57).
Chapters 4 through 11 are entitled “______ (Think, Play, Eat, etc.) Your Way to Happiness” and serve to organize the book’s contents along each of these themes. “Think” concentrates on recognizing and disrupting negative thought patterns such as the ‘fight or flight’ stress response. “Meditate” continues with an explanation of mindfulness and cognitive behavioral therapy. “Feel” is focused on changing your emotional set point (the default level of happiness you experience) through positivity, gratitude, and empathy. The authors stress the value of friendships multiple times; for example, “…friendship has a much bigger effect on average on happiness than a typical person’s income” (p. 118). The importance of “Play” is discussed in Chapter 7, and the definition of play expands to include exercise, sex, new experiences, and simply laughing.
The final four chapters focus more on the physical aspects of happiness: sleeping and eating, plus “superfoods” and supplements. “Sleep” first reminds the reader why it is important, including the same reasons we’ve all heard about reducing stress, slowing the aging process, and losing weight, but also adding a powerful new one: “An extra hour of sleep per day — the equivalent of a nice, long nap — will give you a ‘happiness boost’ comparable to a $60,000 annual raise…” (p. 154). The chapter explains how the different stages of sleep work to restore and rest the brain as well as the benefits of dreaming.
In “Eat,” the authors lay out a selection of ‘brain-benefiting’ food choices and the purpose of the different food groups, discuss the effects of sugar/caffeine/alcohol, and dissect the phenomenon of food cravings. “Boost” and “Supplements” take this theme further, going in depth on which superfoods are crucial for priming your brain to get happy and which supplements accomplish the same (fish, blueberries, nuts, and even quinoa are among the former; A through E, magnesium, zinc, and herbals such as gingko biloba and St. John’s wort among the latter).
Train Your Brain concludes with a brief summary and recap of the main concepts it puts forth, exhorting the reader to “Use What You’ve Learned.”
The collaboration of a neuroscientist, psychologist, and writer has resulted in a book that manages to be both a well-researched and scientifically valid work and an enjoyable read. The authors use a combination of anecdotes and metaphors to enliven the academic explanations of anatomy and chemistry to good effect, the computer from Chapter 3 (mentioned above) being an example.
Most chapters begin with a multiple-choice quiz that, while somewhat simplistic, introduces the current theme and gets the reader to recognize where improvement could be affected. Shaded boxes appear throughout the text that provide wonderful, succinct explanations of the more specific terms and concepts such as “Why Television Turns Your Brain to Mush” (p. 39) or “Depression and Diabetes” (p. 191). These boxes also include the results of applicable research studies, as does the meat of each chapter, resulting in an enlightening summation of current scientific thought on each subject without becoming too pedantic.
The authors are very concentrated on “thinking your way” out of unhappiness, to the point where they actually define meditation as thinking (p. 17). This can be confusing to readers who are more familiar with the idea of mindfulness and meditation as letting go of thought with acceptance of negative emotion as well as with Eckhart Tolle and other leading experts’ position that one’s emotions and thoughts do not form the core of one’s identity. It could also imply that if the reader is depressed, he or she simply has not thought positively enough (granted, this is not the authors’ position at all, but could be read that way by someone suffering from depression).
The chapters that gave this reader the most pause were the final ones on food and supplements. Does the self-help world really need another diet plan organized around some sort of quasi-science-based theory? The suggestions made in Train Your Brain are sound, however, and most hew toward what is already generally accepted common sense. Basically, the conclusion is that to eat your way to happiness is the same way one would eat one’s way to a healthy heart or avoiding obesity. The discussion of food cravings also is valuable, being a fraught area for many.
With a combination of specific suggestions backed by valid science, the authors have created a useful and informative basis for what it means to be happy in today’s world and what it takes to bring about that state of mind. Train Your Brain to Get Happy will not cure depression, nor will it magically transport you to a heaven of positivity, but it will mark a proven path in that direction which is both easy to understand and pleasant to undertake.
Train Your Brain to Get Happy: The Simple Program that Primes Your Grey Cells for Joy, Optimism, and Serenity
By Teresa Aubele, PhD, Stan Wenck, PhD, and Susan Reynolds
Adams Media: June 18, 2011
Paperback, 256 pages