Sep 18

“Happiness by Design” (And Via Actions): By Paul Dolan

[We] generally pay more attention to what we think should make us happy rather than focusing on what actually does. Paul Dolan, Happiness by Design

From the book description of British professor Paul Dolan‘s new Happiness by Design: Change What You Do, Not How You Think: “In Happiness by Design, happiness and behavior expert Paul Dolan combines the latest insights from economics and psychology to illustrate that in order to be happy we must behave happy. Our happiness is experiences of both pleasure and purpose over time and it depends on what we actually pay attention to. Using what Dolan calls deciding, designing, and doing, we can overcome the biases that make us miserable and redesign our environments to make it easier to experience happiness, fulfilment, and even health.

Richard Godwin, Standard, describes Dolan’s “Pleasure Purpose Principle”: “We need to balance both pleasure and purpose to experience happiness. It explains why we ‘solve’ a crappy day at work (purpose) with an evening in front of the TV (pleasure). However, when pleasure has no purpose, that doesn’t make us happy either — which is why we’ll often choose to watch some worthy documentary over a silly romcom. Likewise, if there is no pleasure in our purpose — for example, if we’re working on something that we know is a pointless waste of time — it makes us unhappy.”

So how exactly do we get happiness? What we need to do is put our attention on it, says Dolan. As quoted by Oliver Burkeman, The Guardian, attention “acts as a production process that converts stimuli into happiness.”

“What you attend to drives your behaviour and it determines your happiness. Attention is the glue that holds your life together,” is another quote, courtesy of Rowan Pelling, Telegraph. Unfortunately, says Pelling, “we tend to squander it on social media, petty worries and unprofitable goals.”

Burkeman explains this attention theory further:

…(I)t explains how the ‘tram-tracks’ of habit and ingrained thinking, along with various cognitive biases, sabotage us, by directing our attention to the wrong things. We eat unhealthy food because it’s there. (The proximity of a school to a fast-food restaurant is correlated with obesity among pupils.) Or we lose touch with valued friends because it’s easier to watch the TV. We focus on the happiness we’d get from a bigger house – only to find, once we’ve moved, that the misery of the increased commute outweighs the benefits. Students choosing between universities subconsciously notice whether it is rainy or sunny on open days, and let it influence their decisions. More generally, we pay attention to what we think ought to make us happy – to our lofty judgments about a ‘meaningful life’ – instead of moment-to-moment feedback about which activities actually bring us feelings of pleasure or purpose.

A summary of ten lessons from the book, as reported by Godwin:

  1. Your attention is a scarce resource. Use it wisely.
  2. All work and no play leads to regret.
  3. Future happiness does not compensate for present misery…
  4. …But do consider the present benefits of future decisions.
  5. Change your environment. “For example, if you really want to leave your job, change the password on your office computer to ‘getthehelloutofhere’.”
  6. Making decisions is difficult. Seek help.
  7. Don’t think about the weather. “Weather doesn’t have that much effect in itself if you don’t think it does.”
  8. Minimise distractions.
  9. Surround yourself with people who increase your happiness…
  10. …But do not compare yourself too much with people around you.