Happiness by Design – Paul Dolan
In the midst of a debilitating global pandemic, which is bringing untold health and economic trauma for a generation, I wanted to lift the mood (momentarily) and re-frame energies on something purposeful. I decided to re-read Paul Dolan’s ‘Happiness by Design’. Dolan, a professor at the London School of Economics and self-described “sentimental hedonist”, published Happiness by Design in 2014 which challenged and supercharged the happiness debate. Dolan combine’s his background in economics and behavioural science to re-shape and improve our perception and pursuit of well-being.
Previous monitoring of wellbeing has depended on snapshots of people’s lives with prescribed questions such as; how happy are you right now on a measure of one to ten? Dolan points out that many people summarise their lives differently from how they actually experience them hour-by-hour.
Refreshingly, Dolan’s findings are informed by large-scale international studies of happiness. His research was motivated by his experience growing up in a working-class family in London, where many people had lots of pleasure and not much purpose. Later as an academic, he observed that his colleagues had plenty of purpose but not much fun. “If you could take the best of those worlds, you would have the perfect happiness-maximising machine.”
Based on this premise, Dolan offers a broad definition of happiness as ‘our experience of pleasure and purpose over time’.
Dolan’s Pleasure-Purpose Principle encourages us to measure something deeper than fleeting highs. Television is a key example of an activity that’s more pleasurable than purposeful, while raising children is exactly the opposite. Indeed, the data suggests children’s impact on their parents’ wellbeing is “neutral”. So why, in the age of efficient contraception, do we keep having them? Dolan concludes of his offspring: “They bring us a bit of pleasure, a lot of misery, and a massive dose of purpose… They might even have made me happier overall, as the relative shift from pleasure to purpose quite suits me as I get older.”
Once the basic constituents of happiness are clear, the challenge shifts to one of attention – whereby attention is a limited resource, so we tend to squander it on everyday monotony, such as social media, petty worries and unprofitable goals. Dolan suggests we must urgently refocus it and drive forward on objectives and activities that yield pleasure and purpose over time.
Once we accept how attention shapes experience, we can learn to shift our focus to what brings us the most joy. “What you attend to drives your behaviour and it determines your happiness. Attention is the glue that holds your life together.”
In conclusion, Dolan presents a refreshingly unpatronising overview of the science of happiness with useful tips to achieve it. “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.”