How can we be happier? What is happiness? These questions are often asked yet seldomly answered in a satisfactory manner. In an interview with Joel Suss, editor of the British Politics and Policy blog, Paul Dolan explores these questions and discusses his new book, Happiness by Design. Released yesterday, the book is a culmination of years of research into happiness, its causes and how we can all get more of it.
In your new book, Happiness by Design, you write “happiness is caused by what we pay attention to”. Can you elaborate on what you mean by this?
We are what we pay attention to. Too much of what we thought about happiness posits a direct relationship from the input – money, marriage, sex and so on – to the output – happiness. In actuality the answer to the question, ‘does money make you happy?’ depends on how much attention you pay it. Money would make you happier if you constantly pay attention to how rich you were.
So it’s a production process. Just like a company producing output takes land, labour and capital as inputs and puts them through the sausage machine that makes widgets at the output, your sausage machine for the inputs of money, marriage, sex and so on, is the attention production process, and that converts the inputs into units of happiness.
How easy is it to shift attention towards the things that make you happy?
Most of our attention, or at least a significant part, is unconsciously allocated. We don’t decide to pay attention to the French music that’s playing in the supermarket that makes us more likely to buy French wine. In fact, we’re largely unaware of the fact that we’re paying unconscious attention to the French music that’s driving us to buy the wine. Because so much of what you do and how you feel is driven by automatic processes, you can’t just think your way into happiness. You can’t just be positive like you hear in so many self-help books. What you can do is create the environment, situation, and context that make it more likely that you are positive without having to think about being positive.
The attention production process is incredibly complicated by the fact that you don’t consciously decide like a company does when it combines land, labour and capital to make the output. But you’re being unconsciously drawn around and attending to things in your situations and in your everyday life in ways that you’re largely unaware of. So that raises a challenge about how you can think of your way out of trouble and into happiness.
Your book provides a novel definition of happiness and how to measure it.
The original contribution is what I call the pleasure-purpose principle. I argue that happiness is experiences of pleasure and purpose over time. In happiness research there are currently two ways in which happiness is measured: as experiences of pleasure and pain over time on the one hand and evaluations of meaning and purpose on the other. So meaning and purpose only shows up when you’re thinking about how meaningful and purposeful your life is. But I don’t sit here and rock in my chair thinking about how meaningful my life is. It shows up in conversations like this with you; it feels meaningful, it’s a bit fun too.
So, firstly, we need to understand happiness in an experiential way. Kahneman, towards the end of his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, touches on this, saying that the experiencing self doesn’t get a voice because you live your life in stories and narratives, evaluations essentially about the things that you think should make you happy, without paying enough attention to the day-to-day moments of pleasure and pain. It is these day-to-day moments, the experiencing self as Kahneman puts it, that we need to pay attention to. And once you add in purposefulness and pointlessness, or fulfilment and futility, whatever adjectives you may prefer to use for purpose, you have a much more complete picture of the experiences of someone’s life, which means you don’t have to have recourse to these big stories or narratives that people tell.
I’m making a normative claim that we ought not to pay attention to those stories. The stories, constructions and narratives we tell, or are told for us, sometimes sit in sharp contrast with what actually makes us happy – they, for example, make people stay working in a job they hate and marriages they shouldn’t be in for longer. Happiness shows up in how we feel; pleasure and purpose, moment-to-moment, day-to day. Therefore we need to shift our attention from those stories towards the experiences. I’m increasingly convinced that that’s actually one of the major obstacles to being happier, and I talk about it in the ‘mistakes’ chapter.
How do you trade off purpose and pleasure? Things that give you pleasure might not be very purposeful and vice versa.
The next step for the pleasure-purpose principle is to think about the marginal rate of substitution between those elements. For the book it was more than enough to set out those two principles and to talk a bit about the fact that if you’re a pleasure machine you can probably be happier if you had a little bit more purpose and tiny bit less pleasure, and if you’re a purpose engine, you could be happier if had little bit more pleasure and bit less purpose. So I started getting in to this exchange rate, trade-off thing, but nowhere do I make it specific or quantifiable.
I think the next challenge, if people are going to develop this pleasure-purpose principle further, is exactly the issue you just raised. How do you trade them off against one another? How do you know whether you’ve got the optimal balance between them? Probably the answer to that question is you don’t ever know but just kind of muddle your way through.
Decide, design, do. They’re the three Ds in part two of the book. Critical in making better decisions is the feedback you get about your experiences. So much of what we do comes about by habit or by accident. We kind of get on and do it without really paying too much attention to whether or how it is making us happy or sad, whether it is has purpose or is pointless.
Part of what we have to do is monitor, once in a while getting some light-touch feedback; considering, ‘is this the best use of my time?’ Thinking about happiness as a set of experiences over time forces us to pay attention to the scarce resource of time. What the ‘decide’ chapter does is discuss ways in which you can get feedback from your own experiences and from others as well. Dan Gilbert talks about this in some length in Stumbling on Happiness. If you’re thinking about going on a cruise, ask someone who just got off what it’s like. They’re probably a better guide to your own experiences than your imagination of your experiences would be.
The ‘design’ chapter is the choice architecture stuff. I talk about priming; for example, if you don’t want to spend so much money change your bank password to ‘don’tspendsomuchmoney’. I also discuss defaults and commitments; for example, change your homepage from Facebook to a reading website if you want to read more books. The point is that you can have a really big impact from very small changes. You don’t have to think in these big, grand, ‘I need to change my life’ ways, but about how to change little bits of it – how can I get five minutes more of fresh air every day? How can I speak to my mates for ten minutes more each day? Tiny little things can have a significant effect on happiness without you having to go through this huge reorganisation of your life in order to do it.
I also talk about norms. We know that we’re social animals; we want to be like people like us. A critical part of being happier is to think about those people that we want to be around. There’s a song by The Smiths where Morrissey sings ‘why do I give valuable time to people who don’t care if I live or die?’ It’s quite remarkable that we do – not in such an extreme way – spend an awful amount of time, especially people driven by career success for example, with people we don’t really much care for but who we think are going to be useful to us in some way. First of all, they might not be. Even if they are, you’re just going to be miserable on the way. You lose either way it seems to me.
Choosing who to work with and who to spend time with is a very simple thing that many – admittedly not all – of us can do. We should think about how much time we’re spending with people that we really genuinely enjoy the company of – probably not as much as we could – and how much time are we spending with people we don’t very much care for – probably a bit too much.
The “do” chapter is then just about getting on and doing it. You’re happier when you pay attention to what you’re doing and who you’re doing it with, and when you’re not distracted by other stimuli. I talk a lot about modern technology and how we’ve become addicts. Of course I’m not some dinosaur who thinks it hasn’t all been a great advance, but we are literally hooked on the internet and our smartphones – checking emails, checking Facebook updates, text messages, and so on. It’s kind of just happened to us. It’s almost like we haven’t had any say in it. It’s not like we decided to legalise heroin and there’s a heroin dealer on every corner. We’ve kind of put the heroin dealers out there and have said let’s see what happens. That’s pretty much what’s happened with internet addiction. You see it all the time. I’m tempted right now to see whether I have got any emails while I’m talking to you. Not only is it rude, but it makes us both much less happy when I do that.
If you forget your cellphone at home eventually you get to the point where you feel that the world does still turn. You’re not that important actually; people get on without you and you get on with experiencing life. Worst of all is people with their camera-phones out at gigs. Just go home and watch it on television if that’s what you want to do, you get a much better picture on television. Just put it down and enjoy the gig. We’re spending too much time distracted, away from the experiences.
What do you want policymakers to get out of this book? How could this book be used by them?
I’ve spent a lot of time trying to get policymakers to take seriously behavioural science and happiness research, and then I thought about how those insights can be applied and used by individuals, most of who don’t care about policy. The simple answer to that question is that this isn’t a book policy but about using these insights in your own life. Of course, my own personal interests are also on the policy side of things.
I don’t hear very many policymakers talking very much about time use. I hear more about the circumstances of people’s lives – big conditions, life chances, opportunities, etc. Big ticket items without actually thinking about, ‘can we do anything that makes it easier for people to use their time in ways that make them happier and nudge them out of using time in ways that make them miserable’. Time is the scarcest resource we have. We’re 15 minutes closer to death than when we started this conversation. We’re not going to get that time back. You can beg, borrow and steal money, but we’re not going to get that time back. Policymakers should consider more seriously the scarcity of time and think about what policies would look like if they were thinking about ways in which they could either nudge or shove or inform people about better, or different, time use. I’d also like policymakers to think about what the role of attention means in designing interventions. That’s something that should be thought through much more fully.
Then there’s the pleasure-purpose principle. There’s something significant in the fact that people who go into floristry and become hairdressers are happier than people who become lawyers and bankers. Of course causality hasn’t been established – florists and hairdressers may be happier to begin with – but I think there probably is something causal about those jobs. I think floristry and hairdressing have a lot of the attributes which would lend themselves to being happy. Banking and being a lawyer have a lot of attributes that lend themselves to being miserable. Not to say then that we shouldn’t have bankers and lawyers, but we should think about some of the attributes of floristry and hairdressing; can we design an environment in banking and the legal world that replicates to some degree some of the attributes that you find in hairdressing and floristry?
Note: This article gives the views of the interviewee, and not the position of the British Politics and Policy blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting.
Paul Dolan is Professor of Behavioural Science in the Department of Social Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science and Director of the new Executive MSc in Behavioural Science. He is an internationally renowned expert on happiness, behaviour and public policy. His new book, Happiness by Design is out on 28th August 2014, see more at www.happinessbydesign.com or @HappinessBD