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Happiness expert: We are what we pay attention to

by - 25 February

Paul Dolan is a world-leading thinker on the science of happiness. He is a Professor of Behavioural Sciences in the Department of Social Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Dolan conducts original research into the measurement of happiness, its causes and consequences. He wrote the questions that the UK government uses to monitor national happiness, and he currently advises policy-makers and global corporations in the UK and elsewhere on how to measure wellbeing and influence behavior. He’s the author of “Happiness by Design,”, in which Dolan shows that what we do and how we feel is determined by how we allocate our attention, which is sometimes unconscious. Informed by the latest evidence from behavioral science and happiness research, the book provides the tools for each of us to find our own optimal balance of pleasure and purpose.

Mr. Dolan, are we the designers of our happiness?
We can be. Designing happiness refers to changing what you do in order
to feel happier, rather than just changing how you think. Some of the
most influential books on happiness focus a lot about how to think
yourself happy, take a positive approach, and so on. But it is very
hard to change the way you think. It’s why there are so many
unsuccessful self-help books. Instead, I think we should change how we
behave, and behavioural science provides us with many lessons about
how best to do this.

How could we design our happiness?
First, you have to figure out what changes you could make to be
happier. I recommend getting feedback on your experiences of happiness
by keeping a diary or even asking other people to consider what makes
you happy and what doesn’t. Then, once you know what makes you happy, you can make some changes to design your environments to make it easier to do what makes 
you happy. In general, it is a lot easier for you to nudge yourself
happier in small but effective ways than it is to try to “shove”
yourself into becoming a whole new person or into adopting a wildly
different lifestyle. There are four principles in the book that I
recommend using – priming, defaults, commitments and social norms.
Priming refers to changing your immediate environment to change your
behaviour. For example, if you want to use Facebook less, you could
change your password to ‘donotcheckme’; if you want to clean more, you
could buy a citrus air freshener, which studies show help people to
clean up. Commitments refer to the fact that we are more likely to do
something when we publicly promise to do it – so if you’re trying to
spend less money, for example, tell other people about your goal to
curb your spending. Defaults work when you make a behaviour automatic
– eating healthier by getting farm fresh vegetables delivered to your
door weekly, for example, or setting up automatic email reminders
about your friends’ birthdays. And social norms means that we are more
likely to do what other people like us are doing, so if you’re
interested in volunteering more, for example, schedule a lunch date
with other friends who also volunteer.

What are the main factors that contribute to happiness? What
should we do to maximise it?

Happiness is very individual, so the most important thing is to work
out what makes you happy and what does not. But studies from many
people suggest a few things that make most people happy, and those are
listening to music you like, spending time with people that you like,
and avoiding distractions from anything that detracts from happiness
you are experiencing in the moment, such as traffic noise or text

Can happiness be learnt?
Yes, I think it is possible to learn what happiness is, and to learn
how to become happier. That’s part of the reason I wrote the book. I
hope making what I know about happiness and human behaviour public
will enable people to design their own ways into greater happiness.

Could happiness be genetically determined?
Yes, some of our happiness is genetically determined, but some of it
is not. Research shows that we do not all have a “set point” of
happiness that we return to. Some things can permanently alter or
lower people’s happiness, so it is possible to become happier despite
our genetic predisposition towards a particular level of happiness.

Are we our worst enemies towards happiness?
No, I don’t think so, because within each of us is the ability to
become happier.

What’s the difference between satisfaction and happiness?
Satisfaction is a problematic word for measuring happiness, I think,
because it can mean many different things – ‘having just enough’, for
example, which is not really what the word happiness gets at.
Satisfaction generally refers to how people think about their lives
overall, rather than how they experience the moments of their lives. I
think we should prioritise the latter, rather than stories and
constructions about what we think should make us happy that are
usually brought about when we think about whether we are satisfied
with our lives overall.

Does happiness exclude suffering?
If someone is experiencing happiness, yes, then they are not feeling
suffering; however, someone can still experiences mostly happy moments
and still feel sad moments from time to time. Suffering is the flip
side of happiness and they are interrelated. We need to accept some
sadness in our lives from time to time. It is a natural human response
and we should not always treat it as pathology.

In your new book Happiness by Design you said because our time is
limited we should focus our attention on those things that make us
feel happier. Is happiness an attention problem?

Yes, I think happiness is an attention problem. In general, we should
ignore what makes us unhappy and pay attention to what makes us happy,
although it is also important to pay attention to what makes us
unhappy sometimes so that we can change it. If we can’t change
something and it makes us unhappy, we should not pay attention to it,
but if we can change it, then we should pay attention to it so that we
can change it.
Previous attempts to explain the causes of happiness have all
mistakenly sought to relate inputs, such as income, directly to the
final output of happiness. But my approach recasts the inputs as
stimuli vying for your attention, with their effects on your happiness
determined by how much they are attended to. So the effect of income
on your happiness is determined not only by how much money you have
but also by how much attention you pay it. The same inputs—money,
marriage, sex, stammering, or whatever—can affect your happiness a lot
or a little depending on how much attention you pay to them. 

How could we shift our attention towards the things that make us
happy when most of us are living life on autopilot and when we are
preoccupied with our daily concerns?

By designing environments that put our autopilot into ‘happy-mode’. By
this I mean designing environments that make it easier to do that
which makes us happiest, even if we are on autopilot. For example, if
you are on autopilot when you get ready for work in the morning, and
you want to cycle instead of drive to work because you think cycling
will make you happier, loan your car to a friend for a few weeks. This
will force you into the automatic habit of cycling. You’ll cycle
automatically because you can’t drive because you have created an
environment where you can’t drive.
Your daily concerns are exactly what it is important for your
happiness – find out if what you do during the day makes you feel
good, and if it doesn’t, work for ways to change it. If you can’t
change it, try and pay more attention to anything that does make you
happy, rather than to that which does not.

Why do you recommend that we should delegate some decision-making
to our friends? How wise is it to ask our friends for example if we should take a
new job?

It’s very wise, as long as you choose the right friend - someone who
is like you and who cares about your happiness. It is vital that you
ask the right questions in order to more accurately get at the likely
effects of your decision on your happiness. So don’t ask your friends,
“What do you think about me taking the new job?” where the focus of
attention will be on differences between the jobs that may not show up
in the experiences of your decision. Instead ask, “How do you think my
day-to-day life will be in a couple of months if I take the new job?”

Does money buy happiness?
People who are not able to afford what they need to live, such as
money and food, are generally unhappy, and so in this sense yes, it
can. But after this point money generally matters much less than other
things, like your relationships. Also, the same life events and
circumstances can affect your happiness a lot or a little depending on
how much attention you pay to them. We tend to think more money will
make us happier for longer than it actually does because we fail to
predict that we will get used to having more money and not pay so much
attention to it anymore.

Can happiness be described as moments of pleasure?
Although most people interpret the word ‘happiness’ as referring to
pleasure, that’s only half the story. Happiness is about experiencing
purpose, too. Some activities are generally more pleasurable than
purposeful, like watching TV, and others are usually more purposeful
than pleasurable, like work. We need a mix of both in order to be
truly happy.

What’s the relation between happiness and social media? How much
time should we spend on social media to be happy?

That’s a great question and I hope someone answers it soon, but I
suspect the answer will be different for each individual. In general,
we are happier when we are paying attention to what we are doing and
who we are doing it with, so if social media is detracting from your
experiences of happiness in the moment, then you should be using it
less than you are now. I have written further about this topic here: ;

Why do you recommend having modest expectations to be happy?
This is based on a study showing that people with high expectations
about and big plans for the millennium celebrations were less happy on
the night than those with low expectations and not much planned. And
you know that about nights out on the town: the best ones tend to be
unplanned. Expecting to be very happy is probably a surefire way of
not being so.

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