Struggling to find happiness across your life? Paul Dolan might have the answer with his new book Happiness By Design.
Finding happiness in all areas of life can seem like an almost impossible task. Work, relationships, social life, finances, family, personal appearance and so on, all ultimately affect how we feel on a daily basis and it’s a rarity for all of those areas to make us completely happy.
But what if finding happiness was easier than you thought? And could be achieved across all areas of your life?
Professor Paul Dolan argues that we can all be happy if we focus not on how we think, but how we act.
Author of new book Happiness By Design; Finding pleasure and purpose in everyday life (Allen Lane; £20) Paul shows us how happiness is a combination of the experiences of both pleasure and purpose over time, and depends on how we allocate our attention on various stimuli vying for it.
‘Many books on happiness make prescriptions about what to do in order to be happier, without defining what happiness is in the first place,’ Paul explains. ‘But the pursuit of happiness requires a definition of just what is being pursued. Some activities we get pleasure from, like watching TV, are different from those that bring us purpose, such as work.
‘The different ways we define happiness affect what we can do to improve it. So a clear definition should be, but rarely is, a fundamental concern for any book on happiness. Having worked at the interface of economics, psychology, philosophy, and policy for two decades, I think I am well placed to make a strong case for the following definition: happiness is experiences of pleasure and purpose over time.’
But how can we go about achieving happiness? Read on for Paul’s advice…
Paul has one recipe that he argues helps to improve on our happiness. ‘Your life goes well when you feel happy,’ Paul explains. ‘You feel a rich array of feelings in any one day, let alone over a lifetime.
‘To be truly happy you need need to feel both pleasure and purpose, I call this the pleasure-purpose principle – the PPP.
‘A happy life is one that contains lots of positive sentiments of pleasure and of purpose. Equally, a miserable life contains a preponderance of negative sentiments of pain and pointlessness.’
‘You are unlikely to have thought explicitly about your balance of pleasure and purpose before now,’ Paul continues. ‘To begin considering it, think about the kinds of TV programs you typically watch on TV. Would you say you generally sit down in front of programmes that you would describe as pleasurable, or those that you would describe as purposeful?
‘Now that you have warmed up by thinking about TV, think about yourself in general. Are you more of a ‘pleasure machine’, experiencing lots more pleasure than purpose? Or are you more of a ‘purpose engine’, experiencing lots more purpose than pleasure? Or are you one of the ‘balanced folk’ with a mix?
‘You are happiest when you have a balance between pleasure and purpose that works best for you. They will not necessarily always be in the same proportion as one another and each of us requires different combinations of pleasure and purpose at different times in the day and in our lives.’
‘If you have a lot more pleasure in your life than purpose, then you should spend a bit more time doing something that is purposeful,’ explains Paul. ‘And equally, if you have a lot more purpose than you have pleasure, then you should spend more time engaging in pleasure.
‘The scarcity of time means that any sensible definition and measure of happiness must consider the duration of your experiences of pleasure and purpose as well as their intensity.
‘Ultimately we should all be seeking to use our time in ways that bring us the greatest overall pleasure and purpose for as long as possible. Just as you cannot recover time that is lost, you cannot recover happiness that is lost.’
‘When thinking about how to be happier, you must keep in mind that your memories of the past are important experiences of happiness in the present,’ says Paul. ‘Happiness includes good memories of good experiences.
‘The key to being happier is to focus on what makes you happy and less attention to what does not.
‘If you’re thinking too hard about being happier and aren’t feeling any happier, you’re likely to become less happy as you get frustrated with yourself.’
‘There is one almost surefire way to be happier: spend more time with people you like,’ Paul outlines. ‘Your friends not only make you happier because they’re there to hang out with you but also because they make you feel like you matter.
‘If you spent twenty minutes more each day with people you like, or failing that, talking on the phone to people you like, would you be happier? If you’ll allow me to answer for you: the answer is yes, irrespective of how happy you are at the moment.’
‘There are a few obvious but sometimes forgotten stimuli that we can pay attention to in order to be happier,’ Paul explains. ‘One of the most important is listening to music. It is a powerful way to open up the mind, and it most strongly affects the brain region associated with positive emotions and memory in a way that no other input to our happiness production process can.
‘Don’t underestimate the effects of humour, either. Twenty minutes of watching a comedy reduces stress levels by about the same amount as twenty minutes on a treadmill. One hour of watching a funny video is enough to increase infection fighting antibodies in the bloodstream for twelve hours, as well as activate ‘natural killer cells’, which selectively target infected and tumours cells.’
‘When you interrupt yourself to text, tweet or email you are using attentional energy to switch tasks,’ Paul says. ‘If you do this frequently, your attention reserves quickly become diminished, making it even harder for you to focus on whatever it is you want to do.
‘Assuming that what you want to do is pleasurable and/or purposeful activity, it will make you less happy if you give it limited attention. So multi-tasking makes you less happy and also results in less productivity.’
‘The modern world is making us victims of ‘attention distraction disorder,’ as a result of contextual influences outside the person, and they usually involved modern technology,’ Paul explains.
‘The modern age is constantly removing obstacles to become addicted to checking e-mails or checking Facebook updates.
‘Distraction is an attentional thief and so you should look to keep the thief out by erecting barriers to being distracted. Use technology to counter its negative effects – set up new defaults by turning off notifications, leaving your phone on silent, turning off that chat function on your computer at work and take advantage of the new apps and programs that actually block you from using the internet.
‘This will allow you to pay attention to your activities and to pay attention for longer because you have designed a distraction-free zone.’
Buy a copy of Happiness By Design; Finding pleasure and purpose in everyday life (Allen Lane; £20)