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Happiness by Design – Speed Summary

Want to know the secret to happiness from one of the most respected international researchers in the field of human well-being? The secret to happiness is selective attention.

Authored by Professor Paul Dolan, experienced happiness researcher at the LSE, Happiness by Design: Change What You Do, Not How You Think is a behavioural economist’s take on happiness. The book promotes a ‘nudge’ approach to becoming happier by making small changes to our behaviour. What’s particularly interesting about the book is the nudge that it champions; to be happier we need to nudge our attention.

Attention is important to happiness because unless we pay attention to the things that make us happy, they can’t exert their positive effect. Enjoy breakfast? Then pay more attention to breakfast by making more time for it and by making it a more important part of your day. By focusing our limited attention on the positive, we boost our happiness.

But what are the things in life that make us happy? This will be different for all of us, but Dolandistilss decades of research into happiness into a useful soundbite – happiness is experiencing pleasure and purpose over time. The key, therefore, is to nudge our attention to the things in our lives that give us pleasure and purpose. Do that, and we experience happiness.

Happiness is experiencing pleasure and purpose over time. 


Are you paying attention?

For Dolan, ‘attention’ is the missing link in the pursuit of happiness. But in order to pay more attention to the things that give us pleasure and purpose, we first need to identify what they are. Happiness by Design promotes something called the ‘Day Reconstruction Method’ (DRM) to do this.

Used by happiness researchers to measure happiness, the DRM is a simple form – shown below – that you complete at the end of your day. In the form you split your day up into ‘episodes’ (getting up, having breakfast, going to work…). Then you simply score each episode out of 10 in terms of the degree it was a source of a) pleasure (positive feelings), and b) purpose (worthwhile) for you. In this way, you can idenify the positive sources of happiness in your life.

(Alternatively or additionally, you can also make a separate two-column list of the top things in your life that give you pleasure or purpose. BTW You can also adapt the last two columns in the DRM to also diagnose activities that make you unhappy – experiences that you find either a) painful or b) pointless. Do less of these.  The overall goal is simple; to become conscious of the things in life that give you pleasure and purpose (as opposed to the things you experience as painful or pointless)).

Once you’ve scored the DRM, you’ll note that your sources of pleasure may well be different to your sources of purpose – binge-streaming TV may be pleasurable but with little purpose, whilst childcare chores may offer little pleasure, but promote a sense of purpose. Dolan suggests, that ideally, we should seek a balance of pleasure and purpose in our lives. The logic here is that a pure pleasure-seeker may be missing out on the happiness generated by purpose and vice versa.  Moreover, as we overload one column, additional benefits in terms of happiness become smaller. So we’re better off investing our attention in the lagging column.

By nudging our attention to the positive ‘inputs’ to our lives, we create more happiness because the more happy input we get, the happier we get. The problem, according to Dolan, is that we spend so much of our life on ‘autopilot’, inattentive to the beauty and good in the world.  How many times have we journeyed from A to B but recall nothing of the journey? When we’re on autopilot, we miss out on happiness. Another threat to our happiness is multi-tasking because multi-tasking divides our attention.  Attention halved is happiness halved. So put down that weapon of mass-distraction – the smartphone – and enjoy the moment. Attention is a finite commodity; use it wisely.

Stop multi-tasking



Managing Expectations

The key message of Happiness by Design is that we need to nudge our beam of attention to focus on sources of pleasure and purpose. In other words, we need to wake up to the good things in life. However, attention does not exist in a vacuum – attention is the act of interpreting stimuli against expectations – and these expectations can cloud how we perceive things. Here, Dolan builds on recent research indicating that happiness is heavily influenced by expectations.

For example, if we turn our attention to what we expect to be a five-star experience, but it turns out to only be four-star experience, we’ll be disappointed. On the other hand, the same four-star experience interpreted through a lens of modest expectations will yield happiness. In short, high expectations are a happiness killer, modest expectations are a happiness booster. For example, research shows that a pay rise can be a source of happiness, but only if it is more than you were expecting. So a second nudge is to nudge our expectations downwards. Expect less, experience more.

Deciding, Designing, Doing

Nudging our attention and expectations can go a long way to improving happiness, but sometimes attentional and expectation nudging is not enough.  So to become happier we may need to nudge our behaviour in direction of doing more things that are sources of pleasure and purpose. And here, Happiness by Design offers classic behaviour change techniques (BCTs) to nudge you in the direction of doing more positive stuff. For example, creating goals, setting reminders, and making public commitments can boost happiness. To make your goals more attainable, Dolan suggests we break down the overall goal into a smaller “bite-size goal’ and a “right-now goal” that nudge us along the path to happiness.

Behavioural nudges aside, the real new news in Happiness by Design is that happiness is about selective attention – attending to sources of pleasure and purpose in our life. It sounds self-evident, but are we aware of the little things in life that make us happy? And if so, do we consciously do anything about it?  If not, then Happiness by Design will help nudge you in a happy direction – using nudges. The book concludes, appropriately enough with a wonderful quote from Audrey Hepburn – “The most important thing is to enjoy your life—to be happy—it’s all that matters.”

Digital Happiness?

For digital marketers and designers, Happiness by Design reinforces the key insight that to manage experiences we need to understand expectations. Without expectations, experiences are meaningless. This is not new news, but the reminder is worthwhile.

The book’s focus on the role of attention in defining experience quality also has design and marketing implications – we need to know what people pay attention to, and whether these things are sources of pleasure or purpose, or pain or pointlessness. The implication is that our work should be positive; helping people focus on pleasure and purpose in their lives.

Finally, we believe the DRM – day reconstruction method – has potential as an empathy tool to help us define a point-of-view and focus that has people’s happiness in mind. At the very least, the DRM helps us pay attention to what people pay attention to. And that’s a good thing.

Written by
Dr Paul Marsden
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Digital wellbeing covers the latest scientific research on the impact of digital technology on human wellbeing. Curated by psychologist Dr. Paul Marsden (@marsattacks). Sponsored by WPP agency SYZYGY.