When men hit their forties, their happiness hits the skids. That's just one of the insights that Paul Dolan, a professor of behavioral science at the London School of Economics, has found in his 10 years of studying what makes us happy. In his new book, Happiness by Design: Change What You Do, Not How You Think, Dolan lays out simple solutions for increasing life satisfaction: Structure your days around the things you enjoy, stop toiling away toward goals you may not even want to meet, and balance your life with purpose and pleasure.
You slam positive thinking. Why?
Self-help books tell you, "Be positive." No shit! But there's only so much you can do to think yourself happier. You make anywhere from 2,000 to 10,000 decisions every day. If you had to make them all consciously, thinking about how each would boost happiness, your head would explode. It's much easier to design the environment around you, and have that cue automatic decisions that boost your happiness. Take what you enjoy most — a midday run, trying a new dinner recipe, reading a book — then design around those things. Make it clear to co-workers that you go for a run at lunch so they won't schedule meetings; subscribe to a delivery service that sends fresh produce that you can use in recipes; set the home page of your computer to a literary site that recommends novels. You're priming your surroundings to help you make unconscious decisions that make you happier. This is how you "plan" for happiness.
Middle-aged guys sound like the unhappiest. What's going on?
We know there's a problem. Look at suicides in America and you see the biggest jump in men in midlife — up 50 percent in the past 15 years — but there isn't hard scientific data to show why. Explanations that make sense: Men may have imagined that their lives would be sorted out by this point — marriage, children, the ideal career. Or they could be fixating on what's making them the unhappiest, and shunning new experiences — something that happier people are open to and that people have less of as they age. It's this idea of expectation; how happy we expect to be. And this is a problem everyone faces, not just men. When people believe they will have higher life satisfaction in the future compared with what they have now, their happiness drops — a pattern that occurs until the fifties.
It almost seems like the advice is, "Set a low bar for happiness, and you'll hit it."
Just don't put too much emphasis on an "ideal self," someone with the perfect job, the perfect family, whatever it may be. Too much of what we do is driven by these things that we think will make us happy. You sacrifice current happiness for those future, imaginary gains. You don't think about that price. And once you reach your goal, it often doesn't make you happy after all.
In the book, you talk about redirecting attention to enjoy life more. How have you done this?
My best example is my stammer. I've always told myself how much happier I'd be if I didn't have it. A few years ago, I decided to reorient my attention from stumbling on words and what others thought about it (which was never as bad as I imagined) to how effectively I was communicating — how well a speaking engagement would go, the positive feedback I would get. I became happier, and stammered less, too.
So switch your focus.
Just stop paying attention to the things that get under your skin and make you feel inadequate, or the things that suck away your day — like constantly checking your phone. Direct your attention to what has proven, time and again, to make you feel good.
Big picture, what makes us happiest?
Creating goals that have a balance of pleasure and purpose. So don't take a job that seems like it will make you happy, because it's prestigious or high-paying, if you know that your day-to-day work will be stressful, relentless, and happiness-draining. Do consider tackling projects that may seem daunting, such as writing a book, if you know that the process of doing it will make you feel constantly rewarded and satisfied. This is especially important for competitive people, alpha men, and those driven by end points. It's so important that the journey toward the achievement also makes you happy. Because lost happiness is lost forever.