Finding pleasure and purpose backpacking around Sri Lanka: a book review of ‘Happiness by Design’ by Professor Paul Dolan

By Tom Robinson:

Professor Paul Dolan (hereafter PD) is probably most well-known to health economists for his pioneering research in the area of valuing health outcomes, mostly at the University of Sheffield. Since the mid-2000s however, PD has embarked on a second academic career, and now holds the title of ‘Professor of Behavioural Science’ at the London School of Economics, where he conducts research in the relatively new field of happiness, as well as being a government advisor for well-being.

His first book on the subject, released over the summer, comes with the subtitle ‘Finding pleasure and purpose in everyday life’, which instantly made me think of those awful self-help books by authors such as Paul McKenna. Thankfully, PD stays well clear of hypnotherapy and the like, and instead proposes relatively simple solutions to achieving more happiness, backed up by meticulous academic evidence. I read the book over the space of a couple of days while on a recent holiday in Sri Lanka (this context will become more prominent in a couple of examples later in the text).

Before the main text starts, there is a short section explaining how Paul Dolan has a stammer, and the effect this had on his happiness when he was younger. As someone who also has a stammer, I was initially surprised by this admission (the only other health economist I am aware of with a stammer is Michael Grossman– I’m in good company!), but understood completely why he had decided to discuss it, as such matters are intrinsically related to levels of happiness.

In the opening chapters the author takes us through the literature concerning the definition of happiness and its causes. With a classic economist mind-set, the author sees the production of happiness through a production function framework, where there are inputs, such as money and health, which get transformed into happiness through what he refers to as ‘the allocation of attention’. For example, if we allocate much more attention to money than we do to health, this lack of balance may generate a decreased level of happiness. This production process apparently differs from traditional psychology theory, which fails to take into account the way convert we stimuli into happiness.

The allocation process is also crucial in the context of the authors’ ‘pleasure-purpose principle’ (PPP), for me the key take home message from the book. PD argues that in order to maximise our happiness, we need to feel both pleasure and purpose, with different individuals needing different balances of the two in order to maximise his/her individual happiness. This PPP is illustrated with an example from the author’s personal life (a nice touch which recurs throughout the book), involving his friends Mig and Lisa. Mig lives in Ibiza and enjoys partying and taking life easy. Lisa lives in London and takes her work very seriously. PD argues that Mig would be happier if he had a bit more purpose in his life, for example a steady job, while Lisa would be happier if she had a bit more pleasure, i.e non work related activities.

When reflecting on my time away in Sri Lanka, two personal examples of the PPP came to mind, one quite general and the other more specific. The first involves my reasoning for taking a long time off university and going travelling in Asia. Clearly, both pleasure and purpose both played a part in this decision. A large amount of decision was due to pleasure, such as seeing World’s End in Horton Plains National Park and climbing up the magnificent Sigiriya rock. However, my trip also felt purposeful. It was my first time travelling in Asia, and I feel gained a lot of happiness learning about the different cultures of the Sri Lankan locals, and experiencing their way of life.

Another example that comes to mind occurred in Colombo Fort train station just after I got off the plane. While sitting in a café waiting for my train to the ancient city of Anuradhapura, a man sat right next to me (personal space isn’t a popular concept in Sri Lanka) and started planning the first week of my trip for me. At first I naively thought he was just being extremely helpful, but it soon transpired he was offering himself as a guide. After telling him that I wasn’t interested in his services (around 20 minutes of arguing later), I reflected on why I had refused his services. Although he was only asking for around £10 per day, and most probably would have made the trip a bit more organised (and therefore slightly more pleasurable), part of the fun of the trip was being independent and organising the hostels and activities myself, it was a purposeful activity that brought me happiness (even if it did result in a couple of ill-advised terrifying bus journeys).

The second half of the book is dedicated to how we can go about delivering more happiness for ourselves, and the problems associated with this. One thing that comes across from the text is that the changes that one should make in order to achieve more happiness are minimal. For example PD suggests putting a picture of a clean kitchen on your fridge will ‘nudge’ you to do the dishes more often, or stopping taking your cigarettes to work will encourage you smoke less and save time. PD concludes by advising the reader to listen to their real feelings of happiness rather than listening to what ought to make you happy. From there he advises us to ‘decide, design and then do’ in order to change our allocation of attention to maximise our individual happiness.

Overall, I found ‘Happiness by Design’ a thoroughly engaging read. Even though I haven’t done much reading around the concept of happiness in the past, the style of writing accompanied by real life examples and reader interaction, backed up by a multitude of different references, ensured I very rarely felt confused by the message being brought across. I would recommend the book to anyone with even a passing interest in happiness research, and who knows, you might even benefit from it!