Only You Can Calculate The Formula For A Happier Life

By Jenniffer Weigel
Chicago Tribune.

Is there a formula for being happy? According to Paul Dolan, professor of behavioral science at the London School of Economics and Political Science, we need to start doing more and worrying less. In his book, “Happiness by Design: Change What You Do, Not How You Think” (Hudson Street Press), Dolan brings together the latest research on happiness from economics and psychology, along with insights, strategies and questionnaires to help readers get started.

The following is an edited version of our email conversation:

Q: You say that in order to be happy you need pleasure and purpose. Can you explain?

A: Becoming happier requires a definition of happiness. You can’t know how to become happier unless you know what you are aiming at. The pleasure-purpose principle (PPP) is my definition of happiness, experiences of pleasure and purpose over time, and it resonates with what people tell me is important. Instead of chasing stories about what you think should make you happy, I think you should focus directly on your experiences of what feels good. It provides a lens to judge your activities. If something doesn’t feel good neither pleasurable nor purposeful, it probably isn’t worth doing at all. Lost happiness is lost forever. It’s not like money. You can’t earn it back.

Q: You write about the effect smells and colors can have on our happiness.

A: Research shows that smells and colors can change your behavior, and what you do affects how you feel. If you want to win a sporting match, for example, you’re more likely to do so if you wear red. Partly you’re likely to play more aggressively because red is an aggressive color, and also partly because anyone judging your performance will automatically think you’re playing more aggressively, too. Citrus smells remind people of clean environments, which encourages them to be cleaner too. And people recover from illness more quickly when they are exposed to natural light. We’re learning more all the time about what effect colors and smells have on our behavior, and I encourage people to be their own happiness detectives, figuring out how they can use them to structure their environments to automatically influence them to do things that make them feel good.

Q: What changes, if any, have you implemented in your life as a result of your research?

A: One thing that comes to mind is my office. It’s designed to maximize comfort and creativity. I got rid of my desk last year and brought in an oval table, to encourage conversation, as well as a sofa. The walls are light blue, a color that primes creativity, and I have a light bulb-shaped lamp, too, a form that studies show sparks ideas. I also take care with my attentional resources and try to spend them only on what matters most. For example, I’ve recently relinquished control of my (daily calendar) to a trusted colleague so that I can focus more on other activities that bring more pleasure and/or purpose.

Q: Is there a connection between economics and happiness?

A: Economics has heavily influenced my theory of how people become happier. Scarcity is a fundamental economic problem, and the scarcity of attentional resources is a problem fundamental to happiness. Inputs to happiness, like money, sex, marriage or whatever, aren’t directly converted into the output of happiness. These things only make you more or less happy depending on the attention you pay to them. Just like a company could produce more widgets if it had a more efficient production process, you could produce more happiness if you had a more efficient way of allocating your attentional resources. In “Happiness by Design,” I talk about how you can do this.

Q: What are your tips for not getting bogged down with worrying, which consumes many of us?

A: Two come to mind. The first is to make sure you can explain whatever you are worried about. If we can’t explain something, we will continue reacting to it and thinking about it. Having an explanation promotes adaptation and helps us to move on. The second is to have new experiences. New experiences require more attention in the moment than routine experiences, and help you to focus less on your worries. A lot depends on what you’re worried about. Nearly always it’s something that hasn’t happened yet, and I find that if I remind myself that I don’t have anything to worry about “right now,” I usually feel much better.

Q: What surprised you the most in your research?

A: I am surprised all the time, it’s one of the great things about being an academic, because I am always reading about and analyzing the results of new research. One thing I am still surprised by is the popularity of life-satisfaction measures to measure happiness, which ask people how satisfied they are with their life overall. I don’t really think this is what happiness is about at all. Satisfaction gets at people’s preferences, and what we prefer does not always make us feel happy in our experiences. Instead, we need to focus more directly on the experience of what makes us feel good; in particular, our experiences of pleasure and purpose over time.

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