How can we achieve happiness by design?

Ok, this is not a design focused article but more on happiness. We all want to be happier. That’s why we spend millions on books, videos and courses, which teach us how to be happy. Yet despite this, many of us spend large chunks of our life in the doldrums. We can’t seem to make ourselves happy all the time.

In Happiness by Design: Change What You Do, Not How You Think, author Paul Dolan however, pitches ideas that are different. He shows how our brain and our environment unconsciously affect our happiness levels, and not necessarily in a positive direction. Crucially he also shows how we can manage these factors to ensure we remain happy in our lives.

Imagine being forced to spend the rest of your life watching your favorite comedy show. Would you really be happy? Chances are that eventually you’ll feel there’s not much point to your life. In the end, you might as well have spent your whole life working instead.

But why is this exactly? Well, happiness isn’t just caused by joy, but by feeling that what you’re doing has some purpose. In order to be happy, you need to experience a combination of joy as well as meaning in your activities.

Every day, your life consists of a mix of activities that you tend to regard as pleasurable or purposeful. For example, catching up on your favorite TV show is pleasurable, while creating a presentation for your work is purposeful.

In order to get the most out of your day, it’s best to alternate pleasurable activities with purposeful ones. For instance, at work, you can consciously integrate “pleasure” breaks into your day, like having a nice lunch and a chat with a colleague, or taking a short afternoon walk.

Interestingly, whether you prefer to have more pleasure or more purpose in your daily life largely depends on your personality.

There is no one-size-fits-all, so find the mix of work and play that suits you best. You might be more of a “pleasure machine,” requiring more fun to be happy , or you could be a “purpose engine” valuing your work more than your downtime.

Lastly, happiness is about feeling good in the moment. Being merely satisfied with your life situation may not indicate that you are happy every day, as happiness is more about spontaneous emotion than contemplating your general situation.

To feel happier, then, you should focus on actively experiencing pleasure and purpose in your daily activities.

A meaningful job, exciting hobbies, optimal health: you would think these are the perfect ingredients for happiness, wouldn’t you? Sure, but only if you actually pay attention to them.

In order to live a happy life, you need to be able to concentrate on what makes you happy.

Focusing on what makes us happy, though, is often easier said than done.

While we may like to feel happy, each one of us can only think of one thing at a time because our attention is a limited resource. Unfortunately, we often dwell on negative thoughts about past and future events rather than positive thoughts about the activity we’re doing in the moment.

As you go about your day, it’s normal to not think about what you’re doing in the moment. We often let our minds drift to doubts and worries. We’ve all had the experience sitting at dinner with friends yet our minds are stewing over the next work day.

We tend to give more attention to unfamiliarities and novelties rather than routines in our lives and, unfortunately, we forget to cherish the good things we do on a daily basis. The first few times you take a ride in your new car might feel really exciting, but soon the novelty fades and driving it becomes routine. Now you’re focused on that horrible coffee stain on the driver seat.

Feeling happy, then, is not so much about changing what you do; it’s about what you give your attention to. This might seem a bit tricky to control, but it’s absolutely achievable.

First, recognize the typical attentional “mistakes” you unconsciously make and you’ll be able to figure out some personal strategies to stop making them.

Why do we often drift towards things in our life that make us feel unhappy. It’s because the majority of what we do is lead by unconscious processes.

Your brain has two systems that process information and determine how you should behave. System 2 is the conscious brain you use to make considered, well-informed decisions. System 1, however, is far more influential. It’s the ancient, primitive part of our brain that is governed by instinct and operates on impulse and habit, which enables us to act automatically. This is often useful when it comes to always knowing where your car keys are because you always put them in a certain place, but it can also lead to detrimental decisions.

Our focus often wanders onto negative things because our System 1 reacts to our surroundings, which leads to knee-jerk decisions. Without consciously knowing it, what we think and how we behave is changed by our environment.

In one study on the sales of French and German wines, customers were exposed to French accordion music playing in the background whilst they shopped. As a result, 70 percent of the sales of French wines over German wines were accounted for by the French music, yet only 14 percent of the customers reported being aware of it.

The problem is that instinctive and impulsive decisions are catalyzed by our environments, sometimes leading us to behave in ways that actually work against what we need to be happy.

Why? Because our past, present and future decisions are not separate; they impact each other, and we are sometimes oblivious to it.

Often, different behaviors are connected by the same motivation (to lose a few pounds, for example), and your success or failure in acting out one behavior effects your future behavior; this effect is called behavioral spillover. Trouble is, these behaviors are largely attributable to your impulsive System 1, so you often aren’t aware of how it works until it’s too late.

Behavioral spillover can be advantageous and help you reach your goals. One positive behavior can encourage another positive one, or you may act positively because you want to make up for behaving negatively before.

For example, after giving the bathroom a thorough clean, you suddenly decide to tackle the kitchen, too. Or, after gorging yourself on rich food at that restaurant, you decide to walk home to burn some calories.

Unfortunately, behavioral spillovers can also make it difficult to act the way we consciously want to, which typically leads to guilt and frustration. Even worse, one negative decision may lead to another. We’ve all experienced that after clicking around on the internet all day, you give up on eating a healthy dinner and order takeout, defiantly claiming, “There’s no point now anyway, I’m having a lazy day!”

But to really make yourself happy, be aware of negative behavioral spillovers and see the gain in the positive ones.

The prospect of being happier is the drive behind a lot of your decisions and actions. You may strive towards a particular goal at your work because you think it’ll make you happier when you reach it. Yet be careful when thinking about how future situations will affect your happiness, because we’re susceptible to making mistakes when doing so.

Consider that when people are asked to picture how being unable to walk would affect their happiness, they overestimate the impact because they are consciously focusing on the problems that come with the disability. In actuality, though, we get used to major changes – positive or negative – far more quickly than we expect.

Check out my related post: How to deliver happiness in business?

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