Happiness by Design

Happiness by Design

As readers of my blog will know, I do like a book on happiness (see my previous blogs on: Happier at Home, Can you learn to be happier from a book, Why start a reading project? and Flow). The latest Happiness by Design: finding pleasure and purpose in everyday life by Paul Dolan came out last year to many rapturous reviews, and warnings in the press that reading it was leading to people quitting their jobs overnight. Intrigued, I therefore finally settled into reading it whilst travelling in Australia over the New Year. Dolan defines happiness as experiences of pleasure and purpose over time, and argues that the key to happiness is finding pleasure and purpose in everyday life. He talks about the pleasure-purpose principle and points out that you may require different degrees of pleasure versus purpose at different times. The book argues that some of us are pleasure engines and some are purpose engines but that its important to get the balance right. It made me realise I am definitely a purpose engine, so writing this blog on my early morning commute gives me more happiness than reading a good book, because it gives me a sense of purpose rather than just pleasure. Like the book on confidence I read around the same time, the importance of deciding, designing, and doing is also emphasised. So, what are some tips of things we should all be doing to make us happier? Some things we could all be doing are:

  • spending time with family – this may give you less pleasure but when you add in purpose you are happier overall
  • spending time with people whose company you enjoy -
    • this will increase both the pleasure and purpose of your experience, as well as improve the decisions you make (as the experiences of other people like you are a useful guide to the impact of an event on you, more so than your own predictions)
    • do some Facebook culling and prioritise the people that you really care about
    • choose to work with people whose company you enjoy (many people motivated out of a desire for achievement work with those most likely to further their career, rather than those whose company they enjoy)
    • even introverts feel happier when they are around people they like
  • help others more – the best way to cheer yourself up is to try and cheer someone else up
  • work – this brings happiness in ways we would ignore if we just looked at pleasure
  • expose yourself to blue light – this increases your alertness, which is good news for me as I have a blue light box on my desk at work which I use every morning
  • get out in nature – doing so improves your health
  • spend your money on good experiences not things – their impact persists for longer
    • memories of the past are important to experiencing happiness in the present (which is why my trip to Australia is continuing to make me happy)
    • talk about what you have done or plan to do, rather than what own or plan to buy
    • try some new experiences – these keep intrusive thoughts at bay as they require more attention
  • do some mindfulness training – developing a constant sense of awareness and ability to remain in present moment is good for you, so you can focus on what you are doing right now, rather than looking for a mental escape route to somewhere else
  • withdraw your attention from the negative and attend to the positive – your happiness is determined by how you allocate your attention

And, what are some tips of things we should not be doing?

  • paying too much attention to time or money
  • worrying about things that are not happening right now
  • getting unnecessarily anger – being stressed by small annoyances
  • having a long commute – Oh dear… (though presumably that depends in part on what you use your long commutes for)
  • getting a PhD – apparently not a good idea if you want to maximise your life satisfaction. Oh dear again…

Two really key points for me were the difference between how we experience things versus how we evaluate them, and the importance of not thinking too much. In terms of the first, we can experience our work or relationship in one way but evaluate them in another. There is a powerful example in the book of someone who clearly hated her job but evaluated it as being full of achievement and status. This is a common mistake to make, as we often act upon the idea of something rather than our actual experience of it – like when you pose for the camera in a way that doesn’t reflect what you are actually feeling. It’s important to pay more attention to things that do make us happy rather than the things that we think should make us happy. Secondly, some people are inclined to think too much. Again, this is about the importance of action. You are more likely to regret not doing something than having done it. And it’s important not to give up too much happiness for too long, for instance by staying in a job or relationship that isn’t right for you. Lost happiness is lost forever – Dolan points out that time is a scarce resource and you should not waste it on remaining miserable. But if you are thinking too hard about being happier and aren’t feeling any happier, you’re likely to become less happy as you get frustrated with yourself. We actually make better decisions when we only briefly consider a choice, step away and go back to it later. This unconscious contemplation is much better than agonising. So overall, I can see why this book has been changing people’s lives I really liked its basis in the research evidence (of course) and there are also some fun exercises to complete at the start and the end of the book, including seeing how good you are at predicting what will make you happy, versus what actually will. Dolan finishes by saying: I hope this book has convinced you to listen more to your real feelings of happiness than to your reflections on how happy you think you are or ought to be. For me the biggest takeaway is the fact that your are what you do, and your happiness is what you attend to.