So you want to be happier. Who doesn’t? But is your daily life set up to maximize happy moments?
Happiness is not simply a matter of adopting a sunny outlook, says Paul Dolan, a renowned happiness expert and professor of behavioural science at the London School of Economics and Political Science. It’s about paying attention to the things that give you joy.
In his new book, Happiness by Design: Change What You Do, Not How You Think, Dolan draws on a wealth of psychology and economics research to shed light on what causes happiness, and what prevents us from being happier. With amusing anecdotes, hard data and a delightful delivery, he explains how to engineer joy into your life by reallocating your attention to pleasurable and meaningful experiences.
It may be the most important thing you do. After all, as Dolan explains to The Globe, happiness is all that matters in the end.
You mention you want to bring out the “sentimental hedonist” in your readers. What does that mean?
It is to say that happiness is the final consequence. That’s what ultimately matters to us in our lives. But those experiences have a richness to them that contain pleasure on one hand, and purpose on the other.
When I hear my kids read the same story for the fifth time, it’s not that much fun, to be honest, but it does feel fulfilling. So purpose is important – especially when you look at the negative side of purpose, which is pointlessness and futility. I don’t know that there’s anything worse than doing something that has no point to it.
We all know a Gloomy Gus or Sad Sally. Is it possible some people are happiest when they’re miserable?
When you add purpose into the set of experiences that we have, then I think you can see there is a point to some of what might appear to be negative emotion. Anger is a great example. If we’re having a discussion and we’re getting angry and we want to find a way through to a conclusion, then the negative emotion has a point to it. So for some people who are curmudgeonly, maybe part of their experiences of purpose comes from finding the misery in what they do.
How is it possible for someone to think they’re happy but not actually feel happy?
I tell a story about my friend that, I think, kind of captures how many of us live our lives: My friend literally spent a whole evening complaining about her boss, her commute. Her day-to-day experiences at work were miserable. But then she said, without any hint of irony at the end of dinner, ‘Of course, I love working at my job.’ And I think that’s the story she tells herself – that we tell ourselves all the time about the things we think ought to make us happy, but come from stories that are told to us by society, by our parents, by the media. So feeling and thinking can sit in contrast to one another. It happens in jobs, it happens in partners. You know, people will often be with someone for years because they think they’re the kind of person that makes them happy, rather than paying attention to the day-to-day experiences, which might be quite different.
Our expectations of what will make us happy, like finding the perfect partner or getting that plum job, don’t always end up giving us as much joy as we’d like. Why are we so bad at predicting our own happiness?
If you were to get a pay rise, and you were to pay attention to the pay rise all of the time, it would make you happy. But what you’re not particularly good at anticipating is that many things that are attention-seeking to begin with cease to be so after a short time.
We can imagine what becoming rich might be like, or what it’s like to become married. But it’s much harder to imagine being rich, or being married – to experience those events not just for a few hours or days, but for months or years. We’re not particularly well-wired to be able to understand the things we will stop paying attention to.
But strangely, you say our friends and family might be better at predicting what will make us happy.
I think I’m right in saying that our friends and family may be better guides to our own happiness than we might be ourselves sometimes, but we have to be careful in picking who to give us that advice because we can’t – all of us – help but get caught up in stories.
The story of achievement is a critical one. Some people are really driven by the idea of achievement, in whatever way that’s measured, without really thinking about whether reaching the summit is going to make them happy. And also, much more fundamentally, they don’t really think, is the journey to the summit worth it?
I live in a very middle-class part of Brighton and the parents there are just kind of consumed by the idea that their kids need to get into the right schools and get the right grades and get the right jobs.
And I don’t think it’s because they’re sadists. I don’t think any parent wants their kids to be miserable. But I think they’ve probably got a mistaken desire about what they think will make their kids happy.
Can your work apply to people who suffer from depression?
We tend to think if you’ve got a big problem, then the solution also has to be big. And I think that’s wrong, actually. I think you can have very big effects with very small changes.
And if you are depressed – this is really important not to trivialize it – but if you can remind yourself to go outside into the fresh air, ideally around some trees and nature for 10 minutes every day, spend 20 minutes every day or more talking to someone you enjoy talking to, anyone, whether they’re feeling depressed or totally happy, you would be happier from doing that.
What is interesting is we don’t remind ourselves that these are things that make ourselves happy. And then we don’t try to design into our lives making those things happen more often or more likely to happen.
How can trying too hard to be happy be counterproductive?
Trying too hard sometimes acts as a barrier. We think, “I can’t do this. I must do this or I have to do this.”
We try to beat ourselves into being different.
I read quite a few happiness books and they all tell you by and large to be positive and whatever. And well, yeah, I kind of worked that out, but how do I actually do that? And of course, you buy those books, there’s no design features in there that can change your environments to make it easier to do so. You get even more miserable that you failed. And then you go out and buy another self-help book.
This interview has been condensed and edited.