Happiness by Design by Paul Dolan, book review: A work in progress with some way to go

Peter Carty
Sunday 05 October 2014 00:00

What is happiness?

Traditionally the most we can say with confidence is that it is both indefinable and wilfully elusive. But research into happiness is a burgeoning branch of psychology and the Government takes it seriously. David Cameron launched the UK’s regular National Well-being survey in 2012.

Dolan helped to design the Well-being survey, which gives this self-help volume clout. Interestingly, his background is in economics rather than psychology. Accordingly, he trades in scarcity. Our time is limited, he says, so we should focus our attention on those things that make us feel happier.

This sounds unremarkable, but Dolan emphasises the experiential: how we feel about what happens to us at the time matters more than our subsequent evaluation of it. His theory is that happiness consists of experiences of pleasure and purpose over time. While this juxtaposition of the enjoyable and the meaningful has roots in Aristotle, Dolan claims that – in particular – his discovery that we require feelings of purpose in order to be happy marks a departure.

His main example is parenting. Why do we choose to have children, he asks? Dolan had a strong sense that, despite the daily grind, his parenting activities would feel purposeful. Fortunately, they have and his new balance of pleasure and purpose suits him, but drawing wider implications appears dubious. If the purposeful nature of child rearing can produce positive ongoing emotions, the flipside is responsibilities that can feel burdensome, if not crushing. And, away from the school run, it’s apparent that any optimal balance of pleasure and purpose will fluctuate wildly between us all.

Dolan goes on to scrutinise various prompts to happiness: music, volunteering and so on. His discussion of money is interesting. Research shows that income above a certain level does not make us feel happier on a daily basis (with the caveat that the income threshold seems to vary considerably between studies; Dolan cites a US figure of $75,000). He explains that higher -income individuals place more value on their time, which makes it feel scarcer, and so they find it harder to relax.

Studiously, he avoids obvious political implications. Shouldn’t all income above the happiness threshold be removed through taxation? Instead, Dolan focuses on personal transformation through “nudge” strategies. If you want to spend less time looking at emails, for example, then you could change your password to “don’tcheckmeagain”.

Some of Dolan’s ways of making himself happy appear novel for a sober social scientist. He’s a keen bodybuilder and he chats with a fun-loving friend in Ibiza, Mig, at 9am each Thursday (though one has to wonder exactly what Mig makes of these rigidly scheduled early morning exchanges).

Back at the academic coalface, Dolan’s theory of happiness is a work in progress with some way to go. There’s no doubt that Happiness by Design does offers constructive advice for making ourselves at least a little bit happier. Unfortunately, there’s a longer, more searching book to be written to explain why we’re not about to act on much of it.

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