For a start, Paul Dolan probably wouldn’t like to have his book classified as a self-help book although that is what it is, albeit with added science. Quoting some little-known research, he was dismissive of this genre and its ability to help anyone become happier, but that’s another story.
Happiness by Design is different. Refreshingly it doesn’t mention three good things, expressing gratitude, savoring, applying your strengths, or any of the staple positive psychology exercises. It does make some basic recommendations, such as spend more time with the people you like and less time watching TV and on the internet, but I’m pretty confident that none of these will be new to regular Positive Psychology News readers. Instead the book starts by questioning why we measure our happiness by evaluating our lives anyway, especially when this method is inaccurate and the stories we tell ourselves often untrue. According to Dolan we’d learn far more about what really makes us happy if we paid more attention to how we feel, moment by moment, day by day.
Insight No 1: Pay Attention to What Makes You HappyDolan tells us to be particularly wary of the stories we create about ourselves, our lives, and our experiences because they can get in the way of greater happiness. It’s not surprising that we’re not as happy as we could be when we focus all our attention on what we think should motivate us and make us happy.
You might keep telling yourself “I’m happy being a working mother,” because all your friends are working mothers, whereas if you paid attention to your experience of being a working mother you’d realize that you’d be far happier at home with the kids. Or perhaps the other way around.
At the event I attended, Action for Happiness director, Mark Williams, volunteered a personal example concerning Facebook. He was an avid Facebook user, getting his fix first thing every morning, until he realized that checking on his friends and adding his own photos and updates wasn’t actually making him happy. If anything the reverse was true. So now he has stopped checking in with Facebook in the morning and feels much happier because of it.
Attending to what makes you happy is vital, primarily because attention is a finite resource. If you’re paying attention to one thing, you cannot pay attention to something else at the same time. So in order to become happier, Dolan advises that we pay more attention to things that make us happy, and less to those that make us unhappy.Insight No 2: Make Happiness Habitual
Still on the topic of paying attention, Dolan explained the way your hardwired, habitual, unconscious System 1 thinking (the thinking which enables you to function and not be overwhelmed by the gazillions of stimuli you face every day) can be harnessed to create greater happiness.
One way is to shift your deliberative, conscious System 2 thinking about the activities and behaviors that make you happy into System 1 thinking by making them automatic and habitual. Like cleaning your teeth morning and night, activities and behaviors that make you happy can become second nature.
Another way is to use context-focused approaches involving priming, defaults, and commitments to go with the grain, nudging the habitual System 1 thinking into doing what it already does well, but in ways that make you happier. Either way you don’t waste scarce energy, effort, and attention because these actions and behaviors become part of who you are.
Insight No 3: Balance Experiences of Pleasure and PurposePaul Dolan concluded his talk with a discussion of the Pleasure-Purpose Principle. It’s not just whether our experiences are pleasurable that is important here; experiences can also provide us with a sense of purpose. He divides people into two groups, those who are predominately interested in having a good time (‘pleasure machines’), and those who are predominately focused on purposeful experiences (‘purpose engines’).
According to Dolan, having a personal balance of the two types of experiences is what really matters. He suggests that the pleasure machines could increase their happiness by specifically looking to experience more purpose. The purpose engines could increase their happiness by letting their hair down and having a bit of fun every now and again.
So, are you a pleasure machine or a purpose engine? Or have you already learned how to balance the two?
Deciding, Designing, Doing Happiness in 2015
Happiness by Design is not a self-help book with a ready-made or one-size-fits-all answer. Its value is in the way it makes you think about the underlying processes, contexts, and approaches in your life which contribute to or detract from your happiness. As we’re on the verge of the New Year, it may be a good opportunity to consider how you might work with them or change them to design some more happiness into your life in 2015.Despite a very enjoyable talk from the author, the book is probably not an easy-sell for most practitioners because it introduces a ton of complexity about happiness that other positive psychology books neatly avoid.
Now that I’ve read the book and heard the author explain why he wrote it, one thing is clear. There are a lot more miles to cover and avenues to explore in positive psychology before we get near any kind of agreement on how to increase happiness. During the event’s question and answer session, a woman in the audience asked whether people who are ‘purpose engines’ might ever experience such a thing as a eudaimonic treadmill, similar to the hedonic treadmiss experienced by people who are ‘pleasure machines’. Paul Dolan’s answer was that more research needs to be done.
My own conclusion from reading this book is that the more I learn about human happiness, the more I realize how much I don’t know. Although that might sound odd for a practitioner to say, I quite like being in that position.
Now, where’s that next book?
Dolan, P. (2014). Happiness by Design: Change What You Do, Not How You Think/ Finding Pleasure and Purpose in Everyday Life. London. Allen Lane. Also: Happiness by Design: Change What You Do, Not How You Think. Hudson Street Press.
Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. London, Allen Lane. For more on System 1 and System 2.