Wednesday 13 November 2019

How to achieve... Happiness by design

A new book on achieving happiness says the secret lies in seeking out activities that bring us pleasure and purpose

Seek out activities that bring pleasure and purpose to achieve happiness. Photo: Getty.
Seek out activities that bring pleasure and purpose to achieve happiness. Photo: Getty.
Spending money on fun times, rather than fun things makes us happy
Music is a primal stimulus

Suzanne Harrington

Stuck in the U-bend of despair? A new book promises to unblock you, to flush out misery and get your happiness flowing. And it promises not to tell you to change the way you think. This is too hard, apparently. Instead, it encourages you to change what you actually do.

Yes, another book on how to be happy. Except this one is different. Which is what they all say, and which perhaps leads you to approach such a book with an eyebrow raised, as you scan the hundreds of titles, all pretty much promising the same thing.

But this book is not by someone who channels angels, or did a weekend reiki course. No, Happiness by Design: Finding Pleasure and Purpose in Everyday Life is by a professor of behavioural science at the London School of Economics.

Prof Paul Dolan has also advised the UK government on public policy and how to measure wellbeing. Happiness, it seems, is a serious business these days. Lack of it affects the economy, through reduced productivity and increased physical and psychological unwellness.

Therefore, it is in everyone's interest to keep the population happy, so that we continue to work and consume, and not clog up the system with days off due to depression and anxiety.

While constant consumer dissatisfaction is what feeds capitalism, unhappiness is a bit of a spanner in its works.

But what is happiness anyway? Dolan defines happiness as the "experience of pleasure and purpose over time", or what he terms PPP - the Pleasure Purpose Principal.

That is, a balance of fun and meaning, so that we neither overdo the hedonism nor become dullards through meaningless or joyless activity, but carve a route that incorporates both enjoyment and fulfilment.

He quotes Audrey Hepburn: "The most important thing is to enjoy your life - to be happy - it's all that matters."

And what is the secret of happiness? Four things, apparently. Spending time with people you love, spending time outdoors, spending time helping others, and spending time listening to music.

You can mix and match - although there is no guarantee that taking a friend with a broken leg to an outdoor music concert will quadruple your happiness.

Sorry if I sound cynical. It's because I'm in my 40s, which means I am apparently stuck in "the misery of middle age", that is, the lowest part of the U-bend of despair.

The U-bend starts when you are in your youth, happy and optimistic and invincible; believing ridiculous ideas like your generation can change the world, or that what you think matters. This is when you are at the top left- hand side of the U.

As you slide into your 40s and early 50s, mortgaged to the eyeballs and running around after your kids while working all hours in a job you may never have wanted, you realise that everything you imagined in your youth - achievement, success, lofty ideals - has not come true as you had anticipated. This is because you are too busy pushing a trolley around the supermarket and sitting in commuter traffic, wondering where it all went wrong.

And then, says Dolan, "you get over yourself".

As you move past peak anxiety, which occurs in those aged 50-54, your expectations diminish, and you realise that life is not so bad after all. In fact, it's rather nice.

The older you get, apart from maybe the final six months of life, the more likely you are to tick the 10 out of 10 box in terms of personal happiness and satisfaction, taking you back up to the top of the opposite side of the U.

This U, by the way, is not some made-up journalistic device, but the result of "large longitudinal data sets" outlined by Prof Dolan.

Here are some happiness criteria. You are likely to be happier if you have more money than those around you, if you are either old or young (but not in between), if you are healthy, have lots of social contact, are married or co-habiting, and are reasonably educated (a degree will do - "you probably shouldn't get a PhD to maximise your life satisfaction").

You will be happier if you have a job, a short work commute, and are religious (the religion doesn't matter, it could be the Church of Jedi, so long as you believe in something bigger than yourself).

Having children does not necessarily make you happier, but makes you feel more purposeful, particularly if you are a new father.

"The effect is much less pronounced in new mothers," writes Prof Dolan. (Probably because they are too dazed to register much other beyond exhaustion). Well, duh. Do we really need a book to tell us that hanging out with friends, having fun outdoors, will make us happier than being stuck at the office? That being healthy will make us feel good? That having kids is not a sure-fire shortcut to bliss?

Worried I might be missing something, I go to hear Prof Dolan give a talk at my local Waterstones. There are quite a few people there - mostly middle-aged women like myself.

Prof Dolan is also middle-aged; he is tanned, trendily turned out with diamond ear studs, and stands in front of a big photo of himself. His own route to happiness involves body-building and visiting Ibiza.

Where Dolan's ideas get interesting is when he examines how we actually think. Most of us go through life on auto-pilot. This is a survival device, rather than a failing - if we had to stop and think every time we tried to tie our shoe laces or sneeze, we wouldn't get much done. Instead, our limbic system, evolved over millions of years, steps in to help us, making much of what we do fast, automatic and effortless.

"Most of what we do simply comes about rather than being thought about," Dolan tells us. "You're making 2,000 to 10,000 decisions every day - most of them are made automatically and without effort."

Our brains like to make life easier for us, but in doing so, can actually make life harder.

Dolan mentions evidence of how living nearer a takeaway - tasty and convenient - can make you fatter, which may cause all kinds of long-term health-related inconvenience. Yet, we still stop by the chip shop, because it is there.

He says that we are always being told to change the way we think if we want to be happier, fitter, richer etc, but that actually, changing the way we think - when most of our decision making is unconscious - is far trickier than we imagine.

Instead, we need to change what we actually do. If you don't want to get fat, don't have cake in the fridge. (Or live near a takeaway).

If you don't want to spend all day hypnotised by cats doing funny things on social media, limit your wifi access. Cutting edge thinking or lessons in the bleedin' obvious? Nudge theory, actually: small and incremental change, which nudges us towards the kind of happiness we seek, rather than setting ourselves up to fail via unrealistic targets we cannot sustain, and then feeling bad about ourselves when we slide.

Aimed at those self-helpers who don't want to get overly philosophical, or immerse themselves in spirituality, Dolan's approach is to seek happiness via paying more attention to what we pay attention to, so that pain and pointlessness is replaced by purpose and pleasure.

"The same life events and circumstances can affect your happiness a lot or a little, depending on how much attention you pay to them," he says.

One person's disaster is another's inconvenience - it all depends on perspective, and how much time you devote to ruminating, obsessing, overthinking.

Also, our attention is finite and limited, and is easily hijacked by internet cats or the nearby tin of biscuits.

"Focus on what you are doing rather than looking for a mental escape route," he says. "When you are in the flow of an experience, you will become completely absorbed, even losing track of time, and eventually, tiredness, thirst and hunger.

"If you are purposely engaged, attention is directed only at what you are doing, and not how long the experience lasts."

Dolan terms spending our cash on fun times rather than fun items 'experience expenditure', and says that as well as a helicopter ride making us happier than a widescreen television, it also reduces unhappiness caused by trying to keep up with the Joneses.

You can't compare with others an experience or memory the way you can compare a car or a handbag. He cites research, which shows that even talking about experiential purchases make us happier than talking about things we have bought.

Also, beware the law of diminishing marginal returns. We get used to things, and the shine wears off. When this happens, we need to redirect our attention to new activities.

If our happiness in a pleasurable pursuit begins to wane, to keep our happiness topped up, we must direct ourselves towards something purposeful; then, when this begins to wane, we direct ourselves back to pleasure again.

By keeping your activities involving pleasure and purpose well balanced, your happiness levels remain topped up.

Again, the obviousness of this idea is startling - and yet, as humans, we divert huge amounts of our time and energy into worrying, fretting, speculating, projecting, catastrophising about what has not yet happened and may never happen.

"We are addicted to suffering, and addicted to the causes of suffering," observes Buddhist monk, Matthieu Ricard, in his own book on happiness, unambiguously entitled Happiness.

Dolan writes how, "The key to being happier is to pay more attention to what makes you happy and less attention to what does not" - which is a bit like saying that the secret of eternal life is to refrain from dying, and yet remains inarguable.

Because we are so good at psychologically giving ourselves a bad time, Dolan acknowledges the popularity of mindfulness and CBT, both now routinely prescribed by doctors.

He thinks mindfulness training is moderately useful, but says that people have to self-select it, and that it takes a bit of effort to sit still and observe your thoughts and breathing.

Happiness is all about context, he says, requiring only "that you or someone close to you can influence your environment, and once that is done, it only then requires you to go with the grain of your human behaviour" .

In other words, nudge, not shove. Shape your life towards happiness, rather than having to resort to mindfulness practice when your life makes you unhappy. Producing happiness requires the joining up of three things - deciding, designing and doing. Deciding what you makes you happy, designing your life to accommodate it, and then getting on with it.

Procrastinate less - because the path of dithering has never led to the temple of contentment, but instead just drives yourself and your loved ones/colleagues around the bend - and "help yourself by helping others more".

The second idea might sound paradoxical, but altruism benefits yourself as much as - perhaps even more than - those to whom you are giving your time and energy. It is, for instance, the basis of 12-step recovery.

Watching telly and eating doughnuts might be pleasurable, while volunteering is purposeful - a mixture of the two types of activities equals happiness.

Caring about and caring for others lifts us out of self-interest, self-absorption, self-obsession, which in turn makes us happier in ourselves. Or as Mark Twain put it: "The best way to cheer yourself up is to try to cheer someone else up."

It is also a marvellous antidote to loneliness, which is very bad for your health.

Happiness, concludes Dolan in his entirely non-esoteric manner, "causes a range of other good outcomes and is also very contagious".

"The pursuit of happiness is therefore a noble and very serious objective for us all."


Buy a few more experiences and a bit less stuff

Instead of buying a handbag or a new telly, buy tickets to the opera or the football - something you will experience, engage with and remember, rather than just a passive material object.

Switch between pleasurable and purposeful activities

That way you don't become miserable from too much hedonism, or cranky from too many worthy pursuits. All work and no play (or all play and no work) makes a person dull - and not very happy.

Listen to music

Music is a primal stimulus which has been bringing us together for thousands of years and bypasses our intellect straight to our emotional response. We listen to music with our entire bodies - which is why it is used in treatment for people with heart disease, stroke, PTSD, behavioural problems, and Alzheimer's. It's cheaper than therapy too.

Spend a little more time each day talking to people you like

This might sound obvious, but spending time and doing things with people you like and care about makes you happier and more satisfied. For most of us, positive social contact is vital for happiness. This can be anything from eating together to car-pooling, or families sharing domestic tasks and then down time together, rather than working and relaxing in isolation.

Spend less time each day glued to your computer or phone

Distractions, no matter how seemingly innocent and trivial - like social media, or non-essential emails - drains you and leaves you feeling less happy. Checking your phone or email at short intervals is not doing your mindful focus on the present any favours. Switch it off if you're not working.

Help others

A common phrase in 12-step recovery suggests that an individual must give it away to keep it - this too applies to happiness. Working with others by giving some of our time and care not only helps the other person, but makes us feel better in ourselves, reduces loneliness, and makes us happier. It's never just about you. It's about everyone.

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