Review: Happiness by Design (Paul Dolan)

Happiness by Design: Finding Pleasure and Purpose in Everyday Life

Hardcover, 256 pages, ISBN: 9780241003107, published 28 August 2014

Amazon / Google Books / Allen Lane

Many economists balk at the mention of happiness research. I consider myself a sceptic. But people care about attaining happiness, and governments care about measuring it. And why not? There are behaviours and outcomes that are difficult to explain without its careful consideration. Why might cancer patients report lower levels of life satisfaction when their disease is in remission? Understanding such quirks can help us to improve outcomes for patients and, as Paul Dolan argues in his new book, enhance our own lives on a day-to-day basis.

Paul Dolan’s career – as far as we’re concerned – has come in two waves. Until 2006 he was professor of health economics at the University of Sheffield, where his first wave came to an end. You’d be hard pressed to find a health economist unfamiliar with his work from this period, such as that on the EQ-5D. Since then, Dolan has embarked on a programme of work developing measures of happiness and using experiments to shed light on individual behaviour and ways of influencing it for good. Happiness by Design goes some way to summarise the second wave of Dolan’s career, and shares with the reader the potentially life-enhancing implications of the research.

Be happy

Dolan describes the route to happiness as analogous to a production function. Firstly, there are inputs from various stimuli, such as the TV, this blog post or your back pain. Secondly, the production process corresponds to the allocation of your attention to these stimuli. Finally, the output is your level of happiness. A key message of HbD is this: learn to allocate more attention to positive stimuli – and less to negative stimuli – and you will be happier.

In order to achieve this, Dolan proposes a nudge-like context-focused approach. We should design our surroundings such that our behaviour is automatically guided towards maximising our happiness. Clearly some cognitive effort is required to achieve this, but Dolan’s approach is designed to be minimal. Change your banking password to Sav£M0ney; stop taking your cigarettes to work; or put a recurring event in your calendar to Skype your best friend. All of these could improve your happiness by influencing your behaviour.

The arguments in HbD are compelling. Almost every claim is backed-up by research, with 30 pages of references for you to trawl through should you fancy it. At times this results in the book reading a little like a review of Dolan’s work to date, which might be alienating for lay readers but comfortably familiar for academics (or nerds more generally). I only have a rudimentary understanding of behavioural science, but I suspect I may have struggled with some concepts and terminology without it. Nevertheless, the book remains engaging throughout. We’re given examples from the author’s own life, where he or the people around him have (or haven’t) dealt with the challenges to happiness, making the ideas easier to grasp and the concepts more relatable.

When it comes to policy prescriptions, Dolan argues that we shouldn’t care so much about ratings of life satisfaction. These are too subject to biases, such as the current weather. Rather, we should estimate levels of happiness over time. Such data could be obtained using the day reconstruction method (DRM). Dolan hints at a QALY-esque, area-under-the-curve type quantification of happiness over time, without fully proposing such a thing. HbD also gives a very useful whistlestop tour of the cognitive biases that influence our behaviour and determine our happiness. As a health economist, with limited exposure to behavioural science, HbD gets you thinking about the implications of these for health.

I have never read a self-help book, but it seems to me that HbD serves well as one. Throughout, the book encourages interaction. There are thought experiments in which the reader can participate, and doing so will enhance the experience. As a consistently happy person, with a relatively sunny disposition, I found myself identifying with many of the traits that Dolan encourages us to adopt in the name of happiness. I listen to a lot of music, my phone does not receive Facebook notifications, and I prefer to spend money on experiences rather than products. But am I happy because I adopt these behaviours, or do I adopt these behaviours because I am happy? Unfortunately, HbD will do little to dispel your concerns about causality. Though the book is evidence-based throughout, few of the references convincingly demonstrate causal relationships between behaviour and happiness.

Like John Stuart Mill before him, Dolan advances a unidimensional approach. Happiness is all that matters. We may think that we wish to experience sentiments of achievement or authenticity, for example, but these are ‘mistaken desires’. However, unlike Mill, Dolan appears to allow one concession: purpose. On this, I am less convinced.


Dolan proposes that individuals choose to behave in particular ways not only because of the pleasure associated with the choice, but also because of sentiments of ‘purpose’. The pleasure-purpose principle (PPP) states that people’s happiness is determined by sentiments of pleasure and purpose. If we only consider pleasure then we are missing something; though people may experience less pleasure at work, this may be counterbalanced by feelings of purpose.

Pleasure and purpose are subject to diminishing marginal returns and, so Dolan argues, many people would benefit from achieving a more balanced ratio. There is no evidence to support this, but it is nevertheless a compelling argument. We can all imagine behaving in ways that are pleasurable and ways that feel purposeful, and that there is often a trade-off between these. However, on closer inspection, I feel the PPP is of limited use. Take my writing of this review. I would probably consider this to be a purposeful activity. I am presently experiencing at best a modicum of pleasure; the opportunity cost being the pleasure I’d get from sitting and reading or listening to music. It feels somewhat purposeful, though, and that’s why I’m doing it. But it appears to me that we can dissect this sentiment of purpose and rationalise it to feelings of pleasure. For example:

  • I gained pleasure from reading the book; a condition of which was me writing this review
  • I expect to gain pleasure in the near future as I see this page receive hits and my ego is massaged
  • I expect to gain pleasure in the more distant future as my better understanding of this book, and my exposure as a writer, improves my employability and the quality of my future writing.

Each of these sources of pleasure lends to increases in my happiness. So the question is, what is left for purpose? Purposeful health behaviours, such as going for a run, share similar implications for pleasure. It seems clear to me that sentiments of purpose are at least partly explained by anticipation of future pleasure, making the two ‘P’s difficult to separate. Even if sentiments of purpose are distinguishable from sentiments of pleasure, I do not see how we could avoid double-counting in policy or evaluative applications. I remain open to being convinced by the PPP, but unfortunately HbD falls short in this regard. A real proof-of-principle would lie in a behaviour which provides some sentiment of purpose but absolutely no pleasure. I cannot imagine such an activity existing, let alone anybody choosing to do it. Of course, there are situations where people may choose to behave in purposeful ways that ultimately do not provide pleasure, but this is surely more likely due to biases in people’s expectations. Another explanation could lie in the concern for equity and for the well-being of others which, as Dolan points out in HbD, affects our own happiness. Part of the reason I experience purposefulness in my work in health economics is that I expect it to be of some (small) benefit to others at some point in the future, and this thought gives me pleasure when I complete a piece of work. Dolan provides a table that ranks various professions by the percentage of people agreeing that they are happy. Interestingly, the jobs that one might consider most ‘purposeful’ in this respect – e.g. nurses and teachers – occupy the middle ground.

It seems more likely to me that the PPP may actually be a reflection of our desire to smooth the pleasure we experience over time. Behaviours that maximise our pleasure in the present – skiving off work to watch TV and eat doughnuts, say – may have negative implications for future pleasure. As such, we invest some of our time in activities with the purpose of increasing future pleasure.

Last word

HbD provides many useful tools for improving your happiness; even for someone already satisfied with their life. I intend to use some in my day-to-day life. I believe this to have been Dolan’s primary purpose in writing the book, in which case – as far as this reader is concerned – HbD is a great success.

doi: 10.6084/m9.figshare.1152711


One thought on “Review: Happiness by Design (Paul Dolan)

  1. Writing this blog post also helps you construct a particular narrative about your life and a sense of personal identity. This narrative and identity in turn helps lay the groundwork for future behavior and achievement, which hopefully will lead to more happiness.

    A mountain climber gets happiness from climbing the mountain, of course, but then gets continual hits of happiness as he recounts the tale to others late in life, or even as he just sits and ponders it himself during a tough time. He may tell himself if I could do that than I can get through this.

    In this way many of our behaviors continue to impinge on our self narratives, on how others view us, and on our happiness well into the future.


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