Self-help sections of bookshops are probably my least frequented. Perhaps I don’t like the idea of admitting that I need help or don’t want to be seen to need help or perhaps I just don’t believe that big issues can be solved by reading a book that filters the issue into 7 (or 10 or 20…) bullet points. Thankfully, there was no one looking when I made a purchase on Amazon for Paul Dolan’s exceptional book, Happiness by Design.

Dolan’s background is in economics rather than psychology (he is now a professor of behavioural science at the London School of Economics) which brings a refreshing perspective to what we regard as happiness, how we quantify it and how we can nudge the balance between being happy and not.

The first thing he addresses is the definition of happiness. Instinctively, this should be something easy to grasp as we can list endless ‘things’ that make us happy. However, when we drill down a little deeper, we realise that the happiness derived from owning an expensive car is different from the happiness we feel at completing a marathon. Indeed the happiness from owning an expensive car may well be different to the happiness experienced driving that same car. Dolan has spotted something that, as with all clever ideas,, once revealed, is blindingly obvious; there is a happiness that derives from pleasure and there is a very different type of happiness that stems from purpose.

The pleasure-purpose principle needs to be considered over time. This is a really important way of considering the different forms of happiness: things with purpose may not give you the immediate, ecstatic feeling that those with pleasure at the core do but, over time, there can be a deep sense of happiness and contentment in achieving something. Conversely, spending an entire weekend watching the back catalogue of Game of Thrones might be pleasurable but I bet you have a sense, once the weekend is over, that you could have derived more purpose from those hours.

What makes this book very much worth reading is that we don’t always make the right choice for our overall, long-term happiness. Like eating a piece of cake might give us immediate pleasure, by constantly following that perfectly legitimate urge we may end up, a few years and a few kilogrammes down the line, considerably less happy. Dolan sees that much of our happiness decision making is managed by the unconscious and based on hard-wired impulses from millions of years of evolution that don’t necessarily fit with our modern environment. Take the example of the cake: for millions of years, sugar has been a rarity that for most was only found in honey. We are therefore naturally inclined to seize every opportunity to stock up on a rare commodity. Except it is no longer rare.

If we add purpose into the mix, we realise that there can be a longer-term strategy at play here by trying to add perspective to our decision-making. I will eat a banana rather than that slice of cake because I realise that my body will thank me for it over time. That decision is one of purpose that can provide satisfaction.
I think the struggle with anything written about something so deep an emotion such as happiness is that the changes required in order to benefit from reading the book can seem insurmountable. Nevertheless, Dolan provides sensible mini-steps to get you started on a road to increased happiness. These might be as simple as keeping a diary for a week of what you do and working out how much of it you enjoy and how much of it can be avoided or re-packaged. If you don’t enjoy something you tend to procrastinate. That means that you take even longer to do it meanwhile losing out on the time you could be having more fun. He cites countless studies that help to point the way: generally doing things with friends and family help to increase happiness (that is true even for commuting). Doing something philanthropic helps increase a sense of purpose. So, while doing the housework, get on Skype and speak to a friend you have been meaning to call; car pool to work; donate some time to mentor someone or volunteer a few hours a week of your time.

There is a finite time available to you and so in many ways there is a finite amount of happiness that can be enjoyed in your lifetime. From Dolan’s economist perspective, happiness can be regarded as a resource that, if not maximised, is being utilised inefficiently. There is no such thing as saving up happiness for later; enduring a job you hate because of the potential happiness it might bring makes no sense.

He touches on mindfulness highlighting that, while it has its benefits, is self-selecting and requires quite a lot of effort. He does concede, however, that it does have its benefits; if you give yourself time to think, you may make more sensible decisions by considering a long-term perspective as well as that you really, really want to eat cake right now! He also recognises that if every endeavour to increase your happiness was totally at odds with your old life, it is likely to fail. Instead, make small changes to environment and gradually get into a ‘habit loop’ where there is a cue to remind your brain, a routine that you brain can easily follow and a reward that makes you want to repeat the process. This could be as simple as a note on the back of your front door reminding you to take the stairs, the routine of taking the stairs and the reward of feeling a little out of breath but a bit more alert.

The book is written in a light-hearted way but rest assured it contains some heavy topics that you may need to re-read. I am not going to be spending any more time in self-help sections of bookshops as a result of having read Happiness by Design but I may check out the “customers also bought” section of Amazon, discretely.