Book review: Happiness by Design

by Richard_NgoThinking Complete4 min read23rd Sep 20181 comment


Book ReviewsWell-beingHedonism

I've been reading a book called Happiness by Design, by Paul Dolan. Most of its material is very standard, but there was at least one thing I hadn't seen before. Dolan thinks that we should consider happiness to be a combination of the feelings of pleasure and purpose. He shows that this is a significant change in our definition of happiness because many of the most pleasurable activities, such as eating, feel the least purposeful - and vice versa. Unfortunately, Dolan doesn't ever make explicit arguments about why some states of mind should be considered 'happiness' and not others. Rather, he seems to be using an implicit definition of happiness as "the thing we value experiencing", or perhaps "the experiences which are intrinsically good for us". I'm going to simplify this and use the phrase "good experiences" instead. The claim that purposeful experiences are good experiences is not unreasonable - in hindsight I am glad to have had experiences of purposefulness, and hope to have more in the future (regardless of whether they lead to other good outcomes or not).

Unfortunately, this evaluation doesn't actually show that the experience of purposefulness is a good one, merely that I evaluate it as good for my past and future selves. As Dolan explains, it's well-known that evaluations of satisfaction don't fully reflect our actual experiences. Our judgements about the past are prone to several notable biases, including the peak-end effect, where the most extreme moment and the final moment of an experience disproportionately influence our later evaluations; duration neglect, where the length of an experience has disproportionately little influence; cognitive dissonance, where our evaluations skew towards confirming that we are the type of person we like to think we are; and priming effects, where making people think about money or relationships exaggerates the impacts of those factors on their reported life satisfaction (although many priming effects have been discredited, it seems like these ones are robust). Furthermore, as bad as we are at figuring out how good we felt during past experiences, we're even worse at figuring out how good we will feel during future experiences. People massively overrate how much happier they will be after getting a new job, or a new house; even events as extreme as winning the lottery or having a limb amputated each have only small effects on experienced happiness, which rebounds back to near a set point fairly soon afterwards.

I'm therefore torn about how much to value life-satisfaction versus valuing quality of experience (the latter position is what Dolan calls "sentimental hedonism", which differs from traditional hedonism in valuing more emotions than just pleasure and lack of pain) in evaluating the overall welfare of a life. On one hand, I'm loath to rely on a metric which is as variable as life-satisfaction evaluations. Even ignoring reporting biases, an evaluation might change from very negative to very positive based on the events in the last few minutes of one's life - for instance, depending on whether you hear that you won the Nobel Prize or not. There are also difficulties in judging cases where your goals change significantly over time. On the other hand, I believe very strongly that there are more things which matter to me than the emotions I feel. For example, I might know that founding a billion-dollar company or curing malaria would require sacrifices in the short term without making me any happier in the long term - yet still devote most of my life to achieving them. The hedonic position would conclude that even these great achievements are actively bad for me, compared with living a simple and happier life. It would also endorse pursuit of the feeling of meaningfulness instead of actually doing anything meaningful. (For a detailed discussion of related issues, check out my essay on different types of utilitarianism). Given the flaws of both metrics, my current theoretical position is somewhere in the middle, leaning a little more towards sentimental hedonism.

From the hedonistic perspective, a good way of judging whether purpose matters is simply to ask people how good they feel while actually doing purposeful activities. Dolan doesn't mention any such research, but it seems to me that Csikszentmihalyi's concept of of 'flow' is very relevant here. Flow can be roughly summarised as being "fully immersed in a feeling of energised focus". It's seen particularly in sportspeople (who often describe it as being "in the zone"), musicians and artists, and some religious practitioners. Notably, flow is often experienced as being "intrinsically rewarding". Flow is not synonymous with purposefulness, but I think both terms aim at the same broad idea: a component of wellbeing which depends on intention, and is distinct from pleasure (perhaps we can think of flow as a state of extreme purposefulness). A third phenomenon to consider is the way that we enjoy emotional experiences, for example watching tragedies, despite (or because?) they evoke negative emotions. This is not quite purpose or flow, but it does evoke the related idea of meaningfulness. If we take these three facets of wellbeing into account, we might revise some conclusions that have been drawn over the last few decades about which experiences are most rewarding. For example, research suggests that having children makes you less happy, by standard measures of happiness. However, it is plausible that parents experience less pleasure but more purpose and meaningfulness on a daily basis, which might compensate for this.

Happiness by Design does two more useful things (although in a rather confusing and messy way). Firstly it describes, using an economic metaphor, the "production" of happiness and unhappiness from attention. I think this is a useful analogy, especially in conjunction with a number of ways that Dolan claims we can increase happiness via shifting our attention. These include mindfulness, especially of new experiences or different facets of old experiences; not thinking about money; not focusing on our expectations; trying to resolve uncertainty; thinking of others; and avoiding shifting our attention too frequently by multitasking. These all seem like fairly sensible and standard cognitive habits which are very difficult to implement consistently. So secondly, Dolan describes a number of tangible steps which can help cement these cognitive habits. These include: recording how we actually feel during various activities; asking others to evaluate our happiness or even make decisions for us; changing our environments to prime us away from unrewarding activities, while adding cues for good habits; making public commitments (while still being willing to abandon sunk costs); spending more time physically with friends; spending more on experiences not possessions; and listening to music.

Dolan provides some evidence for why some of these work, but could do with a more rigorous approach in this section. Nevertheless, I'm willing to believe that most of the above steps are worth trying; I'd also add altruism to the list, since it has shown to be a good way to make yourself happier. Overall I'm glad that the belief that it's much easier to become happy by changing our attitudes and habits than by changing our external circumstances has become so widespread. I do worry a little that many of us are focusing on making those changes individually, without necessarily creating norms or community structures that will allow others to benefit from them automatically. These do exist in some communities (notably amongst effective altruists and rationalists) but I think a lot more can be done to make sure they spread more widely.


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You should read authentic happiness and flourish by Martin Seligman for a very similar and slightly more expanded opinion on the topic.

I suspect anyone studying happiness very quickly noticed that it's about meaning and not "ice-cream makes me happy for a moment".