• Having kids reduces pleasure but gives us a massive dose of purpose
• Gaining weight won’t necessarily make us unhappier, but being too ambitious might
• A quiet neighborhood is more important than a big house
Vividly rendering intriguing research and lively anecdotal evidence, Happiness by Design offers an absorbing, thought-provoking, new paradigm for readers of Stumbling on Happiness and The How of Happiness.
—Nassim Nicholas Taleb, bestselling author of The Black Swan and Antifragile
“Happiness by Design is the best kind of psychology book: the ideas are fascinating, understanding them will make your life happier and more meaningful, and Dolan expresses them beautifully. Whether you’re a novice or a voracious consumer of happiness research, Happiness by Design hits all the right notes.”
—Adam Alter, bestselling author of Drunk Tank Pink
“Dolan gives a comprehensive overview of the science of happiness and useful tips to achieve it. In his quest to explain what makes us happy, Dolan touches on a powerful idea: happiness need not be pursued, simply rediscovered. In other words, sources of pleasure and purpose are all around us, if only one knows where to look.”
I’d like to thank you for buying my book. It makes me happy, and I hope it will make you happy, too. I’m fascinated by happiness and human behavior, professionally and personally, and I get plenty of opportunities to fuel my fascination. Before writing an entire book on happiness, I was asked to devise the questions that are now being used in large surveys of happiness in the UK and also to advise the UK government on how to design better behavior change interventions. I am now increasingly being asked to advise charities, multinational companies, and other governments about how they can improve happiness and influence behavior.
My professional fascination with happiness came about largely by chance. I had spent a decade conducting academic research into how we should measure and value the benefits of health care spending. This work was recognized with a Philip Leverhulme Prize in 2002 for my contribution to health economics, which meant that I could take some time out from teaching at the University of Sheffield and attend a few conferences. One such conference, on the economics of happiness and held in Milan in March 2003, turned out to be the most significant event of my academic life. On the way to the conference dinner, I sat next to a man who introduced himself as Daniel (Danny) Kahneman. I knew exactly who he was. As many of you know, too, Danny is a psychologist who won the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 2002. He has subsequently written Thinking, Fast and Slow, which is a brilliant book about human behavior and decision making.
Danny was immediately engaging and interested to hear about what I was working on. After a few minutes, he said, “Why not come to Princeton [where he worked] and we can work together?” I thought about that for about a nanosecond and said, “Yes, please.” Beyond being one of the nicest people I have ever met, Danny is my intellectual hero. In fact, that whole conference was pretty life changing as I also met Richard Layard, one of the most famous happiness researchers in the world and author of Happiness: Lessons from a New Science. Richard was instrumental in my move to the London School of Economics in 2010.
Since meeting Danny and Richard, I have been conducting research into happiness and its causes. Sometimes this has involved analyzing existing data sets; other times it requires me to gather my own data. This has quite naturally led to research into understanding human behavior, using experiments conducted in the lab and in the real world. A large part of how you feel is determined by what you do, what you do is largely motivated by the expected impact on your happiness, and happiness is the feedback you receive about the impact of what you do. You can see how it’s all very cyclical.
As one of the small number of researchers working on both happiness and behavior, one of the main aims of this book is to demonstrate the links between these two research fields, and in so doing to bring the latest insights from happiness research and behavioral science to bear directly on the questions of what you are trying to achieve (more happiness) and how you can bring it about (by behaving differently). I was trained as an economist but I am now a professor of behavioral science, which probably gives me more in common with psychologists these days. My research, and now this book, seeks to combine the best bits from these two disciplines: the formal and explicit consideration of costs and benefits from economics alongside the recognition from psychology that our behavior is heavily influenced by context and situation.
I also bring a distinctive personal perspective to the book. My dad had many low- or semiskilled manual jobs over the years, and my mum worked in clerical roles to supplement the family income. I grew up in social housing and attended run-of-the-mill state schools. Money was tight, but not too tight to mention. We did not go on holiday very often, but my parents made sure we were always well fed and wore pretty decent clothes, too. Many of my current friends have not attended university, while others have had privileged backgrounds. I therefore continue to have experiences that are different from many of those who write about human happiness and behavior. A good understanding of the academic research matters, but so, too, does a little knowledge of the complexities and quirks of the real lives of people from a range of different backgrounds.
As I’m sure you are only too well aware, managing other people’s expectations of you is an important skill, and so I won’t make any promises to change your life; but I do hope to provide some insights into how you can change what you do. Behavioral science teaches us that what you are told matters a bit but who it is that tells you matters a lot. You listen more to some people than to others. Ideally, good messengers have three attributes: they can be trusted; they are experts; and they are like you. As a consequence of my academic work and my personal background, I would like to think I have all three attributes. All the more reason to pay attention to what follows.