Paul Dolan is one of the world’s foremost experts on happiness research. The 46-year-old holds a chair in behavioral science at the London School of Economics. He counts Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman and essayist Nassim Nicholas Taleb as fans of his book Happiness by Design: Change What You Do, Not How You Think. And he’s also a huge meathead, nicknamed “The Prof” by the competitive bodybuilders he trains with. Here he talks about how to be happier, weightlifting, and why he consulted scientific data before having children.
MF: What is happiness?
PD: I argue that happy lives are ones that contain a good balance of pleasure and purpose. If you’re having lots of fun in life, you could probably be happier if you found something fulfilling and equally, if you’re doing lots of things that make your life experiences purposeful, you could probably be happier overall by having more pleasure.
MF: Basically what you’re saying is if I have all the money in the world and I just go and live on my private island, I’m not going to be the happiest I can be? Why is purpose so important?
PD: I think the interesting question is why you think you would be happy on your island with all that money. When you’re thinking about being on the island with all that money, you’re not actually thinking about being on the island with all that money; you’re thinking about becoming someone who is initially on the island. That’s what we project. We don’t project what it’s like after 20 years. We think about what it’s going to be like after 20 minutes. For those first few days, weeks, or even months, being on the island with all that cash is going to be great. But you’ll get used to it.
MF: How will I know if something is going to make me happy then?
PD: If something doesn’t feel like it’s either pleasurable or purposeful, you should probably ask yourself ‘why the hell am I doing this?’ For example, sports stars go run at 5 o’clock in the morning; it’s pissing down rain; it’s a miserable, horrible experience; what for? For some prospect of running a faster time in some race? Actually, I think that waking up at 5 o’clock in the morning feels quite purposeful to them, but if getting up at 5 o’clock in the morning is only ever painful and it doesn’t feel like it’s worthwhile in any sense to you, then you should probably stop doing it.
MF: So how do I become happier?
PD: One of the things we know is happiness slows down the passage of time. We’ve found time passes really slowly for children, and we think the principle reason is because every day is a new day with a new set of experiences for them; whereas when you get older you do the same thing and you’ve seen it all before, so time passes really quickly. Having new experiences is a really important thing to do, and that’s why you should try lots of different things. If you do something and it feels really awful, you should probably stop. And if you find something pleasurable or purposeful then you should carry on.
MF: How do I know if something is purposeful, or if I really just don’t like it?
PD: What you should do is pay attention to the feedback that you get from those experiences. Take two people who are going out on a 5 a.m. run. One of them is doing it because they have some story that they’re telling themselves; that this is a good thing to do and the kind of person that does this is happier, or healthier, or better in some way. But it just only ever feels painful. They should stop. They should stop listening to the story and pay attention to the experience. In contrast, someone else is going out on the 5 a.m. run and they just feel like there’s something purposeful and good about the experience. That’s how I feel in the gym. The pain of the rip in the muscle fibers, I actually love that. There’s a real purpose in the pain. It’s lovely knowing that muscle soreness is a byproduct of something purposeful.
MF: This all makes so much more sense to me and is really making me rethink the terrible early morning run I just had.
PD: That’s really good though. One thing that behavioral science teaches us is that we are creatures of habit. So basically your brain is lazy. It wants to conserve energy and it will create habit loops to make life easier for you. It wants to keep things in an automatic system. That means sometimes you will create bad habits. You’ve gotten this idea that doing your 5 a.m. run is good for you, it’s a habit you’ve always done so of course it’s making you happy. Well actually, you need to pay attention to the feedback of the experience to know whether it does or not.
MF: Do other things become automatic, like in the office?
PD: It happens with a job. It also happens with partner selection. One of the researchers I work with dumped her boyfriend of eight years after reading my book because she realized that she was living in a story. He was, on the face of it, the perfect boyfriend. But her day-to-day experiences with him were quite different. They weren’t actually making each other happy, even though she could tell a very good story. Her parents liked him and all her friends liked him. How could she not be happy with this great guy? Whatever you do, you need to think about how it feels and not just how you think it should feel.
MF: So it’s the beginning of the year and I’m a guy who knows that I’m feeling miserable. What’s the first thing I need to do?
PD: I think you’ve already done the first thing actually. You’ve accepted that you could be happier. Most of the time we think we need to beat ourselves up about not being the kind of person we want to be because that will motivate us to change. That is complete nonsense. The only way that you can ever change is to accept yourself. And then, the simple behavioral science insight is that if you want to do something, make it easier. And if you don’t want to do something, make it harder. If you actually think about your own life for a second, you probably make it quite hard for yourself to do things you want and pretty easy to do things you don’t.
MF: Like what?
PD: Maybe you want to eat less takeaway food, but every day you walk past a takeaway on the way home from work. Well, you just made it very, very easy for yourself to do something that you don’t want to. If you don’t want to eat it, walk home on a different route. Maybe you want to exercise more but you think you need to do that in a gym and the gym is on the other side of town. You just made it really hard to do something that you want to do. You could work out in the house. Or maybe you say ‘I really want to be someone who’s fitter and exercises more,’ but you hang out with lazy people. You need to re-group your social system to pay attention to the people you want to be more like. One of the reasons I train so hard is because I train with someone that does competition bodybuilding. What a perfect training partner for me. If I had a fat slob as a training partner I wouldn’t exercise as hard. So design environments that make it easier to do the things you want.
MF: If I have a goal in mind, like writing a book or running a marathon, how will I know if it’s something that will actually make me happier, or if I just like the idea of wanting to do it?
PD: What you need to do is, if you think that’s what you should do, try and think of a way in which it would make it easier for you to get started. Start it. See how it feels and how you like it, and stop doing it if you don’t. At least that way you will know, rather than living in a story about what you think should make you happy.
MF: Have you used any of this advice to make your life happier?
PD: I definitely wouldn’t have been a father had I not thought about purpose. You can’t do a more significant thing on the basis of happiness than that. When I was thinking about whether to become a father or not, as a good happiness maximizer, I thought I should look at what the data tell me. And the data tell me that at best, children are neutral and probably most likely to make you more miserable than they would make you happy, so there would be no good reason to have children. But I think while having children might not make you happier, it makes you differently happy. So teaching my kids the times table is just a different sort of happiness for me now. It’s more purposeful and a little less pleasurable. It seems to me to make a lot more sense to be a pleasure machine when you are younger and a purpose engine as you get older.
MF: Do you hold the secret to happiness then? What’s the greatest thing you’ve done to be happy?
PD: One thing I did leave out in the book is my wife. She’s 34 but she suggested I leave her age out because it might make me look like I was trying to show off a little bit about having a younger wife, but I do think that’s a key to happiness. Find yourself a younger wife.
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