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Train your brain to get happy is written by Teresa Aubele, who holds a PhD in Neuroscience, and Stan Wenck, EdD, a clinical psychologist specializing in biofeedback, visualization and meditation. The book advertises itself as "the simple program that primes your gray cells for joy, optimism, and serenity." According to the authors, the book is based on the idea that the mind can influence the brain, and that thinking differently can change our brain and thus increase positive feelings, and more surprisingly, change reality. Although the book contains many references to research, the authors emphasize the connection with alternative approaches: "It seems that New Age gurus and their worshipping participants may have been onto something after all. There is now scientific evidence that if you envision it - thoroughly and often enough - it can come." No citation of the scientific evidence is given.
The book is divided into twelve chapters, seven of which give specific prescriptions for increasing happiness. They tell us how to think, meditate, feel, play, sleep, eat, and boost our way to happiness. Each chapter begins with a short quiz to assess to which extent we are already doing the "right" thing. Much of what is contained in the chapters will be familiar to those who have kept up with news reports about recent discoveries about the brain and the mind. For those not familiar with latest findings, the book describes several interesting results and derives prescriptions for actions from it.
My concern is that often the authors' claims represent the findings in a particular light, ignoring alternate interpretations and contradictory findings. In the chapter on thinking, they write "Being focused on negative thoughts effectively saps the brain of its positive forcefulness, slows it down, and can go as far as dimming your brains ability to function, even creating depression." I am not clear what it means to have my brain sapped of its positive forcefulness. Nevertheless, the solution is to think positive thoughts. Some of the advice on how to do this derives from standard cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), other suggestions are more eclectic, such as concentrating on a flame, visualizations or affirmations. The authors also suggest to "experiment with positive affirmations in different situations, and then sit back to watch how well your brain functions when it's been instructed to set up the ideal ending." The research on the efficacy of affirmations, however, is controversial. Some research exists which suggests that a focus on positive thoughts can have negative effects.
Similarly, the book provides a long list of the benefits of regular meditation. While there is some suggestive research, doesn't even hint at the fact that there is not yet enough research to guarantee the promised outcomes.
Another example of misinterpreted research is the claim that marriage increases happiness based on the finding that married people are happier than those who are unmarried. But the research just showed correlation, not causation and might as well be stated as 'happy people are more likely to get married than unhappy people.'
The book does not include any cautions or hesitant advice. All suggestions are 100% positive, completely in line with the author's trust in the power of positive thought. So this book is not suggested for those who want a balanced overview over recent research. However, the book could be profitably read by those who are interested in getting an optimistic introduction to a selection of recent research and want to try out some of the suggested changes to see if it makes a difference in their lives. Maybe just immersing oneself in the cheerfulness flowing through the book will have a positive effect. But I am dubious about the promise that doing any of the exercises will guarantee an improvement in joy, optimism and serenity. The science is simply too young to permit such absolute statements.
© 2012 Helga Kocurek
Helga Kocurek, PhD Candidate in Philosophy, Texas A&M University, firstname.lastname@example.org
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