Happiness by Design – Paul Dolan (2014)

When we think about our ‘happiness’ we may think about the goals we have achieved, how much money we have in the bank, or how prestigious our job is. We may not think about our commute to work, our dreary co-workers or the fact that days at the office seem to drag along, uninspiringly. In doing so, Dolan argues, we privilege our evaluative self over the experiential self (Kahneman & Riis, 2005). And this goes a long way in making us less happy than we could be.

The tension between these two selves – the evaluative and the experiential – lies at the heart of Happiness by Design. In these pages, Dolan, a self-described ‘sentimental hedonist’, steps up to advocate for the experiential self. A self, he argues, that often does not have a voice.

In 2004–2005 Dolan took up an invitation from Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman to be a Visiting Research Scholar at Princeton; a decision, he says, that set him on the path of subjective wellbeing research. Originally trained as an economist, Dolan has worked in the UK office for National Statistics and the UK Government’s Behavioural Insights team – also known as the ‘nudge’ unit – and currently holds a Chair in Behavioural Science at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

In Happiness by Design, Dolan synthesizes the two research areas of subjective wellbeing and behavioural economics. First, he points out that the research literature on subjective wellbeing suffers from methodological limitations (e.g. Dolan, Peasgood, & White, 2008). We do not have an accurate picture of how people feel moment-to-moment because we generally only ask global questions of individuals’ evaluative selves, and we fail to monitor experiential selves ( Kahneman & Riis, 2005). We also fail to recognize the production processes which transform inputs (such as money, marriage, more sex) into outputs (such as happiness). This production process, Dolan argues, is the process of what we pay attention to.

The first half of Happiness by Design describes how in the past two decades, research across multiple disciplines has shown us that automatic processes guide our behaviour (e.g. Kahneman, 2011, Ouellette and Wood, 1998 and Webb and Sheeran, 2006). In this context it should not be surprising that most glib self-help advice such as “be positive” almost always fails to work. The simple observation of behavioural economics that to encourage behaviour one ought to make that behaviour easier guides Dolan’s book. Making simple changes to one’s environment (such as eating on smaller plates in order to eat less, or installing music apps on one’s computer) do not require the brain to use extra resources. Dolan’s theory is that if attention is allocated efficiently, our mental energy will not be tied up with making difficult choices – and can focus on the pleasurable instead. By designing our environments in a certain ways we can allocate more attention to that which makes us feel good, and less attention to making hard choices which bring about worry, guilt, shame and remorse.

The second half of Happiness By Design departs from the first in that it is much less theoretical and much more practical. Dolan explains ways in which pleasure and purpose can be maximized using data from controlled experiments as well as personal anecdotes and stories. The second half is more proscriptive, but in general, Dolan avoids telling his audience what they should be doing. Instead, he simply offers an open-ended and rather flexible evidence-based toolkit.

Dolan’s proposal is that shifting our attention away from constructed narratives to actual experiences is likely to make us a lot happier. For some people this might sound a lot like mindfulness and Dolan concedes that there is a certain level of overlap between his observations and the gentler, “fourth wave” editions of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (e.g. Hayes, 2004). But while the empirical differences between the proscriptions of Happiness by Design and fourth wave CBT approaches may be relatively minor, it is important to note that Dolan does not propose ‘shoving’ the mind into certain states. There is no recommendation to sit for 20 min a day just ‘paying attention’. He says that attention is allocated efficiently by switching off one’s phone when at dinner with friends, and turning off email notifications when working.

Modern technology seduces us with the promise that it will make our lives more expedient. Yet research from neuroscience is showing us that multi-tasking, including surfing the Internet and constantly checking our phones can lead to mental fog and fragmented thinking (e.g. Levitin, 2015 and Zhou et al., 2011). When we multi-task, we assume we are engaging in multiple tasks at the same time, but in actuality we shift attention from each task rapidly. Each shift in attention drains our mental resources. Even more ominous, multi-tasking has been associated with addictive dopaminergic feedback loops (Levitin, 2015). So distraction can make us feel good in the short-term, but in the long term it robs us of our cognitive performance. Dolan makes the point that mental fog and fragmented thinking also robs us of our happiness.

While the distinctions between the evaluative and experiential selves, and pleasure and purpose in Happiness by Design are useful and easy to grasp, one is still left with some unanswered questions. For example, the activities which Dolan says he finds purposeful – such as working and exercising at the gym – no doubt have long term payoffs which are going to be pleasing to Dolan’s future evaluative self. So it’s hard not to see these two ‘selves’ as having significant overlap. It also seems plausible that what we find purposeful is simply that which we know will give us pleasure in the long term. Despite this, Dolan warns against putting off pleasure today in the hopes of securing it tomorrow. “Time is our most precious resource”, he says. “Happiness is not a fungible commodity”, he warns. When opportunities to enjoy life today are gone, they are gone forever.

Overall Dolan’s prose is clear and relaxed. Happiness by Design is brimming with ideas that can breathe, without being weighed down with unnecessary detail. Footnotes of the hundreds of studies used for the book are provided in the appendix, but the main text does not get sidetracked. It will be interesting to see how research in this area unfolds over the next few years, and how subjective wellbeing measures will start to include the experiential self.

Despite Dolan’s cheerful optimism, Happiness by Design is not unrealistic. It points out that having a sunny disposition relies in part on our genes ( Lykken & Tellegen, 1996) and that individual differences are likely to play a large role in how we balance our attention. Nevertheless, he makes the case well that pleasure – whether it is aesthetic, hedonic or eudemonic – is a human need that requires sating and ought to be treated as such. Happiness by Design is persuasive in arguing that small, bite-size changes to one’s environment and can go a long way in maximizing quality of life. Most importantly, Happiness by Design is also pleasure to read.

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References

Dolan, P., Peasgood, T., & White, M. (2008). Do we really know what makes us happy? A review of the economic literature on the factors associated with subjective well-being. Journal of Economic Psychology, 29(1), 94-122.

Hayes, S. C. (2004). Acceptance and commitment therapy, relational frame theory, and the third wave of behavioral and cognitive therapies. Behavior Therapy, 35(4), 639-665.

Kahneman, D., & Riis, J. (2005). Living, and thinking about it: Two perspectives on life. The science of well-being, 285-304.

Kahneman, D., & Deaton, A. (2010). High income improves evaluation of life but not emotional well-being. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(38), 16489-16493.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Macmillan.

Levitin, D. (2015). The organized mind: Thinking straight in the age of information overload. Penguin UK.

Lykken, D., & Tellegen, A. (1996). Happiness is a stochastic phenomenon. Psychological Science, 7(3), 186-189.

Ouellette, J. A., & Wood, W. (1998). Habit and intention in everyday life: the multiple processes by which past behavior predicts future behavior. Psychological bulletin, 124(1), 54.

Webb, T. L., & Sheeran, P. (2006). Does changing behavioral intentions engender behavior change? A meta-analysis of the experimental evidence. Psychological Bulletin, 132(2), 249.

Zhou, Y., Lin, F. C., Du, Y. S., Zhao, Z. M., Xu, J. R., & Lei, H. (2011). Gray matter abnormalities in Internet addiction: a voxel-based morphometry study. European Journal of Radiology, 79(1), 92-95.

 

One Comment

  1. Staffan

    Interesting. Although I can’t help being a bit suspicious. Is this an antidote to self-help or just self-help that wishes to detach itself from a genre with a bad reputation – like Obama insisting he is such an unlikely politician?

    Still, it certainly sounds interesting. Happiness is an elusive concept and I’m guessing that’s why research has focused on the evaluative aspect, as that would be easier to define and measure. But in doing so they may end up with something leaning heavily towards social status and image – even in questionnaires people unconsciously keep up appearances. A second nature I guess.

    Another thing is the idea that efficient use of attention and energy would give us an opportunity to enjoy life. This sounds speculative, especially when it refers to the experential side of happiness which the author concludes researchers aren’t tapping into very well. I’m thinking someone prone to guilt who has a lot of time and energy to spare would find something to validate that feeling rather than to abandon it. That would be the type of person who psychiatrists will insist have an autistic child or some other problem. They have an eye for people in need of problems. But that’s of course me speculating.

    That said, efficiency as such is never a bad thing, and if it’s based on hundreds of studies of the type mentioned here, then the book may be an interesting review of the happiness research.

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