Happiness by Design: finding pleasure and purpose in everyday life


Podcast produced by Lee Millam

What makes us happy? It is not just how we think but how we act, says Paul Dolan, Professor of Behavioural Science in the Department of Social Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science and author of Happiness by Design.

Professor Paul Dolan: For me happiness is in our experiences of life. Things that we feel day to day, moment to moment. And [in the book] I talk about pleasure and purpose.

OK, so my name is Paul Dolan, I’m at London School of Economics and my book is called ‘Happiness by Design – Finding Pleasure and Purpose in Everyday Life’. So, happy lives are ones that contain some balance; it’s not the same for everybody and it is not in equal measures. But some kind of balance between things that we find fun on the one hand and things that we find fulfilling on the other.

Music: Abstract Nostalgic Fractals Systems – Floating In A Lake Of Happiness

PD: Well, it is a subjective experience. I think everything ultimately matters because it makes us feel better, so I can describe to you the things I think are pleasurable and the things that I find purposeful.  And I can also give you a good sense of how much I find them pleasurable and purposeful.  And equally, of course, things that I find painful and things that I find pointless, so I think we are now getting a better insight into the quantities and natures of those elements.

 Music: Abstract Nostalgic Fractals Systems – Floating In A Lake Of Happiness

Vox pop: Happiness for me is a very ethereal thing, I think. By that I mean that it is very difficult to say what is, and it can be different, at different stages of my life. But in essence, happiness for me, as I have grown older, is quite a few intangible things, things which make me think that life is worth it, so it is spending time with the people I want to be with, it’s not just living from moment to moment but actually just being in the moment and doing the things that are most important. So the places are really important for me, and often, actually, it is later on that you realise the happy times; well I am getting better at that.

PD: We are getting many observations on many people over many years, and there seems to be something sensible coming through from the answers people give us. We get association with some things which you would expect them to be associated with, you know, poverty makes people more miserable but being rich doesn’t make people happy.   So there are some nice insights coming through from this data. Time we spend with other people that makes us feel nice, time spent on trains and on tubes and on buses, not so nice

Music: Blue Ducks – Floss Suffers From Gamma Radiation

Vox pop: The things that make me happy are: spending time with my friends and family, going out for dinner, going to watch my football team play football, playing with my cat.

PD: Well I think how we use our time is absolutely critical, it’s the scarcest thing we have got right?  The few moments we have been talking now, or I have been talking now, are moments closer to death and it is time I won’t ever get back, so I think it is incumbent on us all to think about how we use that time and just reorient some of it away from things that we find painful and pointless. And spend a bit more time, you know, with things that we find pleasurable and purposeful which would include spending time with people we like being with; will include spending a bit more time outdoors, maybe listening to music, all of these things, I think most use of us know if we stop and think for a moment, would make us feel happier. The interesting question is why we don’t do more of it? And helping others too , makes us feel nice, so all these things that we get good feedback for if we paid attention to those experiences but one of the reasons why we don’t do those things most is we don’t pay attention to those experiences as much as we might, we tell ourselves big stories about the things we think should make us happy, buying more stuff, earning more money, the kind of narrative and stories that we tell ourselves or we are told by other people sometimes deviate us off the path of using our time, I mean, in those ways that make us happier.

Music:  Lucky Dragons – Open Melody  

PD: Yeah, I think we all know people who, you know, like to moan. It probably makes them happier moaning too but there are some people that are just temperamentally, naturally happier, but I think the important thing is that all of us could be a little happier by doing some more of the things that make us feel good. And the critical thing is to design environments that make it easier for us to do those things. You know, if you’ve got a friend who you want to speak to, plan a time in the diary that you speak to them at the same time every week, and then habits will get formed and ultimately you will speak to the person without having to think too hard about doing so. So all of us, wherever we start from, I think can nudge ourselves a little bit happier.

Music:  Abstract Nostalgic Fractals Systems – Floating In A Lake Of Happiness

Vox pop: I love going out, I love going to the theatre, I love going out to restaurants. I love beautiful walks in the countryside, and for a City boy, that’s quite unusual. So yeah, job satisfaction, good income, that’s what makes me happy.

Music: Abstract Nostalgic Fractals Systems – Floating In A Lake Of Happiness

PD: If you read any self help book, they would always say about how you can consciously change the way that you think about stuff like being positive. Yeah, I kind of worked that out but how do I actually do that?

So I have an alternative approach which is to say change what you do, not what you think or how you think. So if you can re-orientate activities in your life towards spending time with people you like, towards listening to music, towards spending time outdoors, to spending time helping others, all those things will make you happier without you having to consciously think about being happier – you will just be happier automatically by doing things that make you feel better. The really simple behaviour insight is to make it easier. And so, I think, we just need to think about ways in which we can make it easier for us to do all of those things and the way we do that is by setting defaults as I say, you know, have the same time every week where you speak to that friend. You will just automatically do it. Surround yourself with people that make you feel good. I mean these are obvious insights but how much of our time are we spending with people we don’t like? Laughter. You know, you could probably at the margins change how you use your time a bit to do those things. Prime yourself to behave differently.

PD: One of the great things about the human condition is that we are really good at fooling ourselves. So, if you wanted to spend less money, on your on-line shopping if you changed your banking password to ‘don’t spend so much money’, even though you know you are changing it to stop yourself from spending money, you would still spend less, so it’s actually quite good that we can be a bit stupid.

Music: Pod Academy theme

Note: ‘Happiness by Design’ is written by Professor Paul Dolan a Professor of Behavioural Science at the London School of Economics, Dolan conducts original research into the measurement of happiness and its causes and consequences, including the effects of our behaviour.

‘Happiness by Design’ is published by Hudson Street Press – and is out now.

Photo: Happiness by Irina Patrascu

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