happiness, middle aged, Science

Happiness by Design (Change What You Do, Not How You Think) by Paul Dolan, PhD – Book Review

(Originally published in Brain World magazine)

I am generally, not a big “self help” book reader – often I find them a bit too “hippie dippy” for my taste so I had doubts when I first opened the pages of “Happiness by Design”. Paul Dolan, PhD a Professor of Behavioural Science, focuses on developing ways to measure happiness and wellbeing. He then applies behavioral science to understand and change individual behavior. He gets his unique perspective from an economics background that helps set his book apart from many other self help happiness books. It’s not too touchy feely; he doesn’t ask you to get in touch with your inner child or balance your chakras. He takes an ironic cold hard analytical approach to finding happiness. It works and that’s why I liked it.

Happiness by Design book
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I was interested in reading the book since I recently read an article about how people who have a purpose in their lives are happier. It made sense to me. What could be more depressing than living a life with just a pointless job that leaves you no time to pursue your passions, whatever they may be?

The book is divided in to two parts: The first part concentrates on the history of his happiness study, how some of the questionnaires were designed and the limitations and quirks they each have. The second part of the book concentrates on applying what those studies have learned to “Decide, Design and Do”. Decide what will make you happy, design your life to fit those things in as easily as possible and ultimately doing what it is that will bring about your happiness.

Dolan acknowledges that there is no formula for happiness since each of us is unique. Rather he suggests it all starts with us being more attentive in our everyday lives to how we feel in different situations. Sometimes what we think should make us happy (like shopping at the mall) does not and may even make us unhappy, so why do we do it? Identifying what really makes us happy and designing our lives to fit it in is the key.

I found the explanations of how happiness is measured to be interesting. I now have a greater appreciation for this type of psychology and the difficulty in designing an experiment that measures something so subjective. It is not only subjective but so easily influenced by external factors.
“Happiness by Design” is a fairly quick read. However, I could have done without the heavy description of the questionnaires Dolan used in his study to question the subjects about their quality of life. I could have done with just a summation of the results, as many of the concepts were covered in the first chapter. Many of the conclusions however I found interesting. For example, having children doesn’t make one any happier, but does seem to give one more purpose. And that $75,000 seems to be the magic salary for peak happiness. Happiness tends to plateau at greater salaries. Dolan does a great job of setting up examples in the book and I found it very easy to identify in any given scenario.

He also gives ample reference to other researchers and work in general human behavior and how we sometimes self sabotage. He then guides us through identifying our obstacles and designing our way around them.

I recommend the book; it gives you a good blueprint to designing your own happiness, though you will have to do much of the building on your own.


The book is available on Amazon and other places books are sold.