Book Review: You, Happier

Book cover: You, Happier by Daniel G. Amen

You, Happier: The 7 Neuroscience Secrets of Feeling Good Based on Your Brain Type by psychiatrist Daniel G. Amen was interesting (of the raised eyebrow variety). I was vaguely aware that his first book, Change Your Brain, Change Your Life was popular, but that was all I knew as background information before I started this book.

Alarm bells started going off in my head very quickly—right at the beginning of chapter one, in fact. Dr. Amen writes that he encourages all his patients to watch a video by Dennis Prager with the message that happiness is a “moral obligation.” Excuse me? As someone with major depressive disorder, I would have zero desire to see a psychiatrist who comes out with that nonsense. Then I checked Wikipedia to find out who this Dennis Prager character is. Turns out he’s a conservative talk show host, and from some of the quotes included on the Wikipedia page, he sounds like quite the wing nut, like gay marriage being on par with incest kind of stuff.

The book begins by introducing readers to Dr. Amen’s seven secrets of happiness. These are then explored further in the book’s five parts: the neuroscience of brain types and happiness, the biology of happiness, the psychology of happiness, the social connections of happiness, and the spirituality of happiness.

Part one talks about brain types that Dr. Amen has identified based on activation patterns in brain SPECT scans. As a quick detour, SPECT stands for single-photon emission computed tomography. It involves administering radioactive isotopes that bind to specific tissues in the body, and it allows for 3D imaging. In terms of evidence-based neurological applications, it can be useful for distinguishing between Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia.

Returning to the book, Dr. Amen identifies five primary brain types: balanced, spontaneous, persistent, sensitive, and cautious. There are also eleven combination types. A “happiness prescription” was given for each type, including supplements and activities to affect different neurotransmitter systems. What I found weird about this is that it jumbled personality and illness in together, when they don’t necessarily have anything to do with one another.

Some of the advice was… different. Dr. Amen recounted some very particular advice to someone to get a persistent type female all hot and horny (my words, not his), including a rather interesting assertion about baby powder being an aphrodisiac. He wasn’t fully anti-medication, but he wasn’t especially keen on them, either. He wrote that these SPECT scans showed certain medications, like benzodiazepines and opiates, “had toxic effects on brain function, making brains look older and less healthy than they should be.” I don’t think toxic means what he wants it to, and this idea of brains looking older and less healthy is all very subjective and seems to be his own concoction, so just no. I also didn’t like that he was recommending St. John’s wort without talking about it interacting with antidepressants. I’m not at all anti-SJW, but if one is talking about it for mood, it’s only responsible to mention that interaction.

There was a chapter on “happy nutraceuticals.” Dr. Amen recommends “four basics everyone needs to be happy”: a broad-spectrum multi-vitamin/mineral, vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids, and probiotics. That’s some pretty pricey happiness. He makes a lot of other supplement recommendations, with particular recommendations for different brain types. One could very easily spend a whole lot of money on all the recommendations for things that don’t necessarily have evidence to back them up.

The part of the book devoted to the psychology of happiness talked about automatic negative thoughts and being Pollyanna-positive (Pollyanna was actually used as an example). There were also recommendations to work on “disciplining your mind” and choose to “focus your thoughts on true and noble things.” I’m not sure what to say to that besides hmm….

In the “Happy Connections” chapter, Dr. Amen promises to “give you a brain-based blueprint to more blissful connections with the important people in your life.” Maybe I’m just cynical, but really? We also get another Dennis Prager quote that ends with the line, “Obviously, we can control our moods.” Thank you for that expert opinion…

Throughout the book, there are a lot of references to and testimonials for Dr. Amen’s 30 Day Happiness Challenge, which costs $49 US. Besides that, there were a lot of references to his Amen Clinics, and a great deal of encouragement for people to get SPECT brain scans, not once, but on a regular basis. The Amen Clinics website doesn’t provide a price. A 2016 Observer article noted a price of $3950 for an exam, which involves two scans, one while resting and the other while concentrating. A 2012 Washington Post article gave a figure of $3500 for “a full initial session, including two scans.”

According to the Washington Post article and the Daniel Amen Wikipedia page, SPECT scanning for psychiatric diagnostic purposes is not generally accepted as being useful. A Google Scholar search for “SPECT scan major depressive disorder” doesn’t turn up anything in terms of diagnostic validity. So that’s a lot of cashish for something of questionable value, especially when Dr. Amen encourages people to get them done regularly.

Besides that, he plugs the podcast he and his wife do, his many other books, and his branded supplements (a 30-day supply of the “Daily Essentials Bundle” from his BrainMD site costs $114.62). I can see why one Goodreads reviewer described this book as a “long format advertisement.” It does feel rather like the written version of an infomercial.

Near the beginning of the book, Dr. Amen writes, “My prayer for young people is often, ‘Please, God, do not let them be famous before their brains are developed,'” because the brain’s dopamine control centre isn’t fully developed until around age 25. That sounds like an awfully privileged group of young people he’s working with for that to even be a thing. There’s some famous name-dropping, too, like big-name influencers that I’ve never heard of because I don’t care about influencers. There was a fair bit of my friend-ing, too, like “my friend Tony Robbins.”

So yeah, that was the book. The infomercial-ness was tacky, and given how much money Dr. Amen is making off these probably unnecessary brain scans, he’s not so hard up for cash that he needs to push the promotion angle. But he’s sold a lot of books, and I’m sure people will buy this one. I’m also fairly sure that a lot of those people aren’t going to pick up on a lot of the book’s weaknesses, and that’s fine. But just like the saying that money can’t buy you happiness, I don’t think all the money that Dr. Amen is urging you to spend is going to make your life wonderful.

You, Happier is available on Amazon (affiliate link).

I received a reviewer copy from the publisher through Netgalley.

You can find my other reviews on the MH@H book review index or on Goodreads.

23 thoughts on “Book Review: You, Happier”

  1. “I don’t think all the money that Dr. Amen is urging you to spend is going to make your life wonderful.” But I bet it’s making his life wonderful…

  2. It’s infuriating when authors not only regurgitate a lot of their rhetoric, between books, but also how they want to advertise this and that and just can’t “get enough” in terms of putting their products in your face.

  3. Peddler of cheap medicines and even cheaper words. Too bad these types of people have had an outsized voice in recent years. Good review, Ashley, thanks for bringing this to our attention.

  4. In therapy we’re still working on emotions. From what we can tell, emotions are indicators; they give information, such as to the metness of your needs. Happiness isn’t a life hack for the love of fuck, nor can it be permanent. When a book about happiness isn’t about living a purposeful life, then it probably won’t meet our needs for clarity, shared reality, or meaning. The book sounds about as well researched as a high school “research“ paper.

    We don’t like being sold bs or add-on products. Hard pass.

  5. Great review Ashley – what a charlatan! Selling 💩to exploit people’s wish to feel better. Bet he doesn’t mention social reasons for unhappiness? I really think if you are using your doctor status to sell stuff in this way then it should at least be peer reviewed or carry a “there is no medical science to back this up” warning! 💗💗

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