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Happiness By Design

Change What You Do, Not How You Think

Paul Dolan

(Scientific American)

Are people happier in the Midwest or in southern California? Most folks point to the difference in weather and guess the latter. But in fact, the populations of these regions report roughly the same level of overall life satisfaction. That is because people quickly acclimate to weather, turning their attention to other aspects of their lives.

In Happiness by Design, behavioral economist Dolan suggests that once we accept how attention shapes experience, we can learn to shift our focus to what brings us the most joy. Dolan defines happiness as our experience of pleasure and purpose over time. He then draws on happiness data from the U.S. and Europe to reveal several general trends. Volunteering, for instance, tends to correlate with greater feelings of purpose in life and television with greater pleasure.

But one size does not fit all when it comes to happiness. Dolan proposes that monitoring our personal pleasure and purpose can tune us into what brings us contentment. From there, he offers ways to maximize those stimuli. For example, if you want more quality time with loved ones, simply turning off your computer or phone may help you be more present.

Although many of Dolan's suggestions may sound familiar - don't expect too much, surround yourself with people who make you happy, invest in experiences, not objects - he goes a step further by supporting these claims with recent research in behavioral and brain science. For example, before making a big decision, we are often told to sleep on it. Neuroimaging research suggests that when we take a mental break, our brain continues to evaluate the situation and that this unconscious reflection often provides us with more clarity than if we overthink. One study found that subjects who made a decision after solving a puzzle were more content with their choice than people given extra time to actively pore over their options.

Overall Dolan gives a comprehensive overview of the science of happiness and useful tips to achieve it. In his quest to explain what makes us happy, Dolan touches on a powerful idea: happiness need not be pursued, simply rediscovered. In other words, sources of pleasure and purpose are all around us, if only one knows where to look.

More books on Happiness

(London Times)

PAUL DOLAN, a renowned behavioural scientist, a professor at the London School of Economics and a happiness expert, has a friend who works at a prestigious media company. At a recent lunch the friend spent the entire time talking obsessively about her unhappy working life: her difficult boss, her commute, the tense environment. As lunch ended, she wrapped up by telling Dolan, without a trace of irony: 'Of course, I love working there.'

Dolan intends his book to rescue us all from the miserable consequences of muddled thinking of this sort. His friend overlooks her disheartening daily experience because she is transfixed by the status and desirability of her job. He wants us to see clearly what actually makes us happy. He argues that this is the aim of human existence. Everything we choose to do, from creating great art to climbing mountains, from rearing children to curling up and reading books, is ultimately about maximising our individual happiness.

Dolan feels justified in making this claim because he has a new definition of happiness, one that he says is wider and more satisfactory than those that have been used in the field before. As a disciple of Daniel Kahneman, the founder of behavioural economics, and an adviser to the government on behavioural change, he has been thinking about this for years. Happiness has typically been measured by asking people how well they think life is going overall. That is an evaluative question: it asks us to stand back and view our lives almost as an outsider might. It doesn't ask us about the lived experience of it.

The evidence is that when we answer this question we are highly influenced by what we think should make us happy (wealth, success, children, cars) and much less aware of what gives us joy or satisfaction (weightlifting, discussing crises with friends, or visiting the old lady next door).

Dolan is equally critical of the happiness surveys that simply ask us how much we are enjoying what we are doing at a particular moment. On that measure, the happiest times in a working day show up as the lunch break and the hours spent watching television in the evening. Those questions don't capture the sense of achievement we might get from activities that may be tiresome or difficult but ultimately worthwhile.

His novel definition is that hap-piness is the experience of both pleasure and purpose over time. It encompasses the range of things we do, from the purely pleasurable - watching The Great British Bake Off - to the purely purposeful: completing expenses claims or changing the clothes, nappies and sheets of a child that has been sick in the night. Some activities tend to score highly for both, like working alongside friends. But some are low on either, like the guilty late-night internet surfing we engage in when we know that we ought to be asleep, talking to our partner, or writing the emails we have been avoiding.

The individual differences in what we find joyful or fulfilling are what Dolan suggests we should concentrate on. That is how we will discover how to maximise our own happiness. It is a worthwhile aim, for individuals and for policy makers, because Dolan says the evidence shows that people who experience better emotions 'live longer, are in better health, recover from viruses more quickly, take more time off work, are more successful in their careers and have happier marriages'.

There is no one path to happiness. Dolan argues that what makes us happy is chiefly determined by how much attention we pay to it. If we care about money, making none makes us miserable; we must either get rich or learn the skill of focusing our thoughts and satisfactions on something else. We can choose our goals, but realism is important; it is the gap between expectations and reality that can shrivel us up.

Human beings are, as Dolan says, creatures of habit, driven by unconscious impulses, shaped by our environments and always looking to take the path of least resistance. He wants to make greater happiness easier for us, so that it's less about willpower - I must be happy! I should be positive! - and more about reshaping our lives and routines to maximise fulfilment without having to think about it.

He suggests we keep a diary of our experiences, analysing our daily activities and scoring each for pleasure and purpose on a 10-point scale. The results will be a guide to how best to lead our lives. We need a balance of both pleasure and purpose, but analysis of this kind can be revelatory. It replaces our uneasy sense of 'ought' and 'should' with greater clarity about why we are spending our time as we do. It tells us what matters to us.

Few books change one's life; in 48 hours this has improved mine. I scored my activities and realised that the most joyful, purposeful parts of the previous day were cycling across London and breakfasting with my children. The most wearisome and unsatisfying were the 90 minutes in the hairdresser and the five hours I spent on a voluntary project that is eating up time and energy and no longer achieving much. I can't do much about the hair but I am going to resign from the project, join the London bike scheme, and spend more time eating and talking with the people I like most.

Dolan hopes many of us will be inspired to make such simple, practical changes, whether it be leaving a sterile relationship, making the television or biscuit tin harder to reach, or trying new music, new experiences or new friends. Anyone who wonders if they are living their lives as fully as they might will find ideas worth thinking about in this engaging, persuasive book.

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