Review: Happiness by Design: Change What You Do, Not How You Think

Happiness by Design: Change What You Do, Not How You Think
Happiness by Design: Change What You Do, Not How You Think by Paul Dolan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

HAPPINESS BY DESIGN seeks to take Paul Dolan’s training in economics and behavioral science and offer a unique approach to overall happiness not found in other of its same-shelf counterparts. This is an interesting approach, considering Dolan is working with Daniel Kahneman, who won the Nobel Prize in economics as a psychologist. (It must be nice to refer to a Nobel Prize winner as “Danny”.)

Dolan claims to make two distinguishing factors on the path to happiness: relatability and definition. Dolan speaks to his lower class upbringing and his current group of friends that are both college educated and those who are not. After reading this book, I’m not sure if he creates a completely relatable experience or not, but more on that later. As for the definition, Dolan states other books on happiness have never offered a definition of happiness. His definition is, “experiences of pleasure and purpose over time.” He later calls this a life “that contains lots of positive sentiments of pleasure and of purpose”, labeling it as “sentimental hedonism”.

My two favorite quotes in this book are: “Your happiness is determined by how you allocate your attention.” and, “If you are not as happy as you could be then you must be misallocating your attention.” Dolan’s method of bringing about happiness is a balance of pleasure and purpose, for as he writes, “If you are not as happy as you could be then you must be misallocating your attention.” The problem is that we “generally pay attention to what we think should make us happy rather than focusing on what actually does.”

I appreciate Dolan’s scientific-like approach, which is my main contention with books such as THE HAPPINESS PROJECT that feature more “feel good” statements and “it worked for me” statements. A lot of what Dolan offers resembles Rick Hanson’s book HARDWIRING HAPPINESS, which is one of the best I’ve read of the subject. Both this book and that book feature focused attention on everyday events.

There are hundreds of footnoted studies that Dolan uses to effect. By the time he wraps up, he presents ways to “decide, design, and do” that will organize your life around long standing happiness. In particular, Dolan shows how current happiness surveys capture a moment of response, such as posing for a camera, versus a more accurate capturing of happiness over time, such as video recording someone that isn’t posed and gives a more life-like representation.

The parts I would like more clearer or more defined research are the effects of: mindfulness, sleep, and happiness for the unemployed. Dolan believes, though not explicitly pointing to, books like THE POWER OF NOW by Eckhart Tolle offer obtainable happiness by at a cost of the mind’s System 2 effort (taken from Daniel Kahneman’s THINKING, FAST AND SLOW). Dolan writes that it is “easier and more effective to nudge system 1 than it is to shove system 2.” Dolan’s messages are interesting and remind me a lot of Daniel J. Levitin’s recent THE ORGANIZED MIND.

As for sleep, Dolan shows an interesting study comparing spiked happiness of those who stay up late versus the continuous overall happiness of those that forgo late-night television in order to get a full night’s sleep. As for unemployment, Dolan continuously shows studies how working and money both directly and indirectly affect happiness. On one hand Dolan speaks of the advantage of finding work via happiness, but on the other speaks of the depressiveness of unemployment. This shows me a slippery slope that needs more resolution (which I believe mindfulness or Hanson’s HARDWIRING HAPPINESS addresses).

Overall, HAPPINESS BY DESIGN is an excellent scientific approach to understanding how to obtain continuous overall happiness through simple organizational techniques. This book provides plenty of new insight through hundreds of studies and relatable material. While I would like more information on some of the presented material, there are plenty of footnotes and end-book references for me to follow-up on.

Thanks to Hudson Street Press and The Penguin Group for providing an electronic copy of this book for me to review.

You can find this book’s preview and soon-to-be other reviews on Amazon: Happiness by Design: Change What You Do, Not How You Think


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