March 15, 2015

Happiness by Design by Paul Dolan

Happiness by Design by Paul Dolan
Change what you do, not how you think.

Happiness is experiences of pleasure and purpose over time. Psychologists often categorize feelings according to a two-by-two model -”positive and negative as one category and ‘aroused and non-aroused’ as the other.  Positive and negative speak for themselves. You can think of aroused and non-aroused as feelings that are awakened or sleepy respectively. So joy is positive and aroused a; contentment is positive and non-aroused. Anxiety is negative and aroused and sadness is negative and non-aroused.

Emotions    Non-aroused        Aroused
Positive    Content, calm        joyful, excited
Negative    Sad, depressed      Anxious,angry

To be truly happy, then, you need to feel both pleasure and purpose.

When economists and others talk about delayed gratification, they are implicitly to sacrificing pleasure now for pleasure later. When happiness is defined as experience of both pleasure and purpose, the circumstances under which it is sacrificed for the pursuit of achievement are potentially much more limited. My research and my experiences tell me that life is less about trading off happiness now for happiness later (and vice versa) and more about trading off pleasure and purpose at different rates at different times.

To assess purpose, three adjectives were added - focused, engaged, competent/able -.

A few years ago, I led a comprehensive review with Tessa Peasgood and mat White, and our conclusions were that life satisfaction ratings are higher for those who:

a.      Are wealthier (ESP, when compared to people who are like them)
b.      Are young or old (being in your forties and fifties is a bad time for life satisfaction)
c.      Are healthier
d.      Have lots of social contacts
e.      Are married
f.      Are a little more educated (having a degree is good, but you probably shouldn’t get a PhD if you want to maximize your life satisfaction)
g.      Are religious
h.      Have a job
i.      Commute a short distance to work

For some factors associated with happiness, the effect is similar for evaluation and experiences: people who are tall, for example, report more positive life evaluations and better emotional experiences. Some of this effect is because taller people tend to be better educated and earn more money, which is often attributed to the fact that taller people may have received good nutrition and care during childhood,thus enabling them to reach their full cognitive and physical potential in adulthood.

Attention holds together our lives - as well as this book. It converts stimuli into happiness and it drives our behavior. We are often unaware  of the effects of attention on our happiness and our behavior, just as many people are unaware that background music affects their choice of wine. Yet this precious and scarce resource is responsible for all of what we do and how we feel. Attention explains why we adapt to weight gain and not too noisy and stammering. It also explains why we might not be as happy as we could be.

Deciding happiness:

One important and useful way to deal with the various mistakes you might make about your happiness is to pay attention to direct feedback about what brings you pleasure and / or purpose and what doesn't and then to use this information in your anticipation of future happiness

Don’t try too hard:

It is important to try too hard to be happy. I think this could go some way toward explaining why I hate taking part in ‘organized happiness’. All these events - pub trivia, weddings, birthdays - are supposed to be enjoyable, but the pressure to have fun can sometimes ruin the experience. So don’t think about it too hard.

Based on earlier attempts to develop a checklist by Rob Metcalfe, Ivo Vlave and me, Mindspace is deliberately  in the form of a checklist so that policy makers can work through the elements, ensuring that they properly account for situational factors that they might otherwise be blind to. Here are the nine elements.

Messenger - we are heavily influenced by who communicated the information
Incentives - Our response to incentives are shaped by mental short cuts
Norms - we are strongly influenced by what others do
Defaults - we ‘go with the flow’ of preset options
Salience - Our attention is drawn to what is novel and seems relevant to us
Priming - our acts are often influenced by conscious cues
Affect - our emotional associations can powerfully shape our actions
Commitment - we seek to be consistent with our public promises
Ego - we act in ways that make us feel better about ourselves.

By using priming, defaults, commitments and norms in your own life, you can become a whole lot happier without actually having to think very hard at all about becoming happier. You will be happier by design. You can then save your attentional energy for those occasions where you really do want to pay attention to a decision or to what you are doing.

Would you be happier if your house were clean or your children tidied up after themselves? You might also think about how you use light to design your happiness landscape. Light is responsible for setting our circadian rhythm, the 24 hour sleep-wake cycle marked by changes in body temperature and levels of hormones like cortisol (related to stress) and melatonin (related to sleepiness). Blue light, the sort emitted by electronics and energy-efficient light bulbs has a particularly powerful effect on our circadian rhythms and enhances alertness by suppressing the release of melatonin, I know it might sound obvious, but by increasing your exposure to light in the morning and throughout the day, esp. blue light, you will optimize your alertness. By reducing your exposure at night, you prepare yourself for sleep. So charge your electronics outside of the bedroom and set up plenty of lights where you work.

One further environmental trigger you might consider is the natural environment. Nature (even through a window) grabs and retains your attention in positive ways because it’s constantly changing, even in subtle ways, which prevents adaptation.


If your homepage is Facebook, it is inevitable that you will spend more time networking and less time working. Most of us ‘go with the flow’. In general, humans are pretty lazy and are usually content to do whatever is the preset option. Defaults are passive commitments and you rarely notice them. So it become happier you need to make small adjustments to your life so that going with the flow is consistent with being happier.

Setting a default to be with people whose company you enjoy is likely to increase the pleasure and purpose you experience, as well as improve some of the decisions you make. You may have withdrawn attention from your house but having an old friend around provides a fresh perspective on your dining room. Another way to default to being with others is to set up meetings on a particular work project or exercise program. Not only are you more likely to spend time on the activity if you have to actively ‘opt out’ of your commitments, you will also work harder once you are there it you have someone encouraging you.


We like to be consistent with our public promises. We are more likely to enroll in a curbside recycling program if we have to make a written commitment to do so than if we learn about the program in another way such as on a flyer or by telephone. What ever form the commitment takes, start with small changes and don’t put yourself under too much pressure. Bite-size commitments are more effective than mouthfuls.

Economists are fond of saying that people respond to incentives and you will recall that is one of the nine elements of mindspace.

Experience expenditure

if we are happier by attending to our experiences, then it makes sense that we should spend our money on good experiences. Indeed, most of us will say that spending money on an experience, such a helicopter ride, makes us happier than spending it on a material possession= like flat-screen TV. In general, we adapt less quickly to happiness brought about by experiences, which means that their impact persists for longer. Not only does the impact of a new possession wane more quickly as an input into the production of happiness, but alternative choices can remain salient for long as we think about what other material goods we could have bought.

So to enjoy your conversations more, talk about what you have done or plan to do rather than what you own or plan to buy. People will also like you more if you do this: pairs of participants who discussed experiential purchases reported having more favorable impressions of their conversation partners than those perils who discussed material purchases.

Good vibrations

One of the most important is listening to music. This is a primal stimulus that has been a part of all cultures for thousands of years, bringing people together at weddings, funerals, music festivals, and flash mobs. As the philosopher Nietzsche pointed out, we listen to music with our entire bodies, moving muscles automatically in response to it by dancing, tapping our feet, or just bobbing along. It is a powerful way to open up the mind, and it most strongly affects the brain region associated with positive emotions and memory in a way that no other input to our happiness production process can.

Don’t underestimate the effects of humor, either. 20 minutes of watching a comedy reduce stress levels by about the same amount as 20 minutes on treadmill. One hour of watching a funny video is enough to increase infection-fighting antibodies in the bloodstream for 12 hours as well as activate ‘natural killer cells’, which selectively target infected and tumorous cells. Laughter also promotes muscle relaxation: You might consider having a quick laugh before an injection or a job interview.

Mindfulness training:

It is about developing a constant sense of awareness and an ability to remain in the present moment. Mindfulness under the larger umbrella of therapies that build upon traditional cognitive behavioral therapy. Mindfulness adds novel psychological methods, such as mediation to CBT techniques. It involves greater focus on one’s breathing and body as well as a deeper awareness and acceptance of thoughts and feelings.

One of the most effective aspects of mindfulness training is the conscious reorientation of attention.  Open monitoring involves attending to everything in your environment that you might not otherwise notice such as the wind or a ticking clock. Focused attention and open monitoring strategies have been shown to help people regulate their emotions and prevent the relapse into depression.

It should come as no great surprise to anyone that we are happier when we pay attention to good experiences and to people we like being with. Make a commitment to spend a little more time each day talking to people you like. And look to spend a little less time each day glued to your computer or phone. Distraction drains you and leave you feeling tired and less happy, so stay focused on one thing at a time- stop continually checking those darn emails and Facebook updates.

You are now armed with the three pillars of the production process of happiness. Producing happiness involves deciding, designing and doing, and the most effective ways to be happier involve joining up these various components.

‘Decide’ will help you answer whatever question it is you have about your happiness, ‘Design’ will make it easier to implement the answer, and ‘Do’ will ensure your attentional resources are running smoothly. These are flexible principle that can be applied to all of your experiences in life.


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