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My Creative Life

How To Intentionally Design A Happier Life

Paul Dolan, a leading happiness scholar, offers strategies for identifying what really makes you happy and doing more of those things.

[Photo: Flickr user Derek Σωκράτης Finch]

Most people assume that they know whether they are happy or not, but in reality, judging our own happiness can be very difficult. There is often a disconnect between what our brains are telling us and what we actually feel. "We tell stories about the things we think should make us happy, but sometimes, when we look a bit closer, we’re not really that happy at all," says Paul Dolan, a professor at the London School of Economics, a government policy advisor and one of the world’s leading happiness scholars. (Yes, that’s a real field of study.)

Paul Dolan

Perhaps you think you’re happy because you’ve landed your dream job, but in practice, you’re tired from the commute, your coworkers are unfriendly and you’re spending less time with your kids. Or maybe you’ve just gotten engaged and in the flurry of congratulations, it may not register to you that you’re anxious about moving in with your partner. Dolan has concluded that thoughtful, driven people spend so long reflecting about what makes a meaningful life, they sometimes lose sight of what actually feels good to them on a daily basis. "I think we should be paying attention to how we feel day-to-day and moment-to-moment," he tells Fast Company.

After decades of studying happiness, Dolan has developed a happiness formula. He says that happy people pay attention to the everyday experiences that give them pleasure and purpose, then organize their lives so that they are doing more of those things. It sounds obvious, right? Sure, but the problem is that we spend so much of our lives on autopilot instead of consciously focusing on doing things that make us happy. "We are creatures of habit and we automate processes very quickly," Dolan says. "We do a lot of what we do because we’ve always done it, not because it is good for us or because we enjoy it." The good news, however, is that Dolan offers two tangible ways for us create more happy moments in our lives. The first is creating a mental habit of paying attention to what makes us happy and the second is designing our lives so it is easier to do those things.

Do a Happiness Audit

It takes a lot of energy to be constantly thinking about whether or not you are happy. This is why most of us adopt a philosophy about what goes into meaningful life—such as finding satisfying work, getting married, having kids—then we stop wondering whether we are happy. Dolan does not recommend fixating on your daily happiness levels, but rather taking one day a week or month to observe yourself. "It’s about tuning in to what you are doing, who you are doing it with and how it makes you feel," Dolan says. "How much worry, stress, anger, joy or contentment do you experience on a given day?" In doing one of these audits himself, Dolan noticed that he got more pleasure out of listening to music on his commute than hearing a podcast, checking his email, or reading. This was not obvious to him until he paid attention to it, but now, he sets off to work with a playlist loaded on his phone.

This was a relatively small fix, but some changes are bigger in scale. In fact, it can be hard to be honest about what truly makes us happy because the answer might involve altering important parts of your life. For instance, if you scrutinize your relationship and realize that you are unhappy, it might seem overwhelming to think about leaving your partner. Or if you determine that your job is making you miserable, you might not relish the idea of looking for a new career.

Dolan says that it is worth confronting these realities because escaping unhappy situations can have an enormously positive impact on your mood and your health in the long term, even though the short term transition might be painful. The key is to be gentle with yourself and not rush into major life changes.

Design Your Life for Happiness

One of the most interesting questions to Dolan is why we fail to do things that make us happy. Sometimes, it comes down to not perceiving what really makes us happy, which is why a happiness audit is so valuable. But often, even when we know that certain activities make us happy, our ingrained habits sabotage our efforts to do them. We might realize that taking an afternoon walk lifts our mood, but because we’re so used to working at our desk all day, it takes effort to pull ourselves away. We might feel better when we sleep earlier, but it might be hard to break the habit of watching TV late into the night.

The solution, according to Dolan, is to deliberately make it very easy to do the things that make us happy. If an action seems difficult or hard, our brains will be inclined to avoid it. But if it seems easy, it takes less willpower to do them. If you love spending time with a certain friend, you could set up a standing weekly or monthly date with that person, so it isn’t a hassle to keep scheduling time to meet. If you want to take that daily afternoon walk, put it on your calendar for all to see. If you fill your kitchen with healthier foods, eating better will take less mental energy. If you enjoy going to the gym, find the closest gym to your house and make friends with the people that hang out there, so you cannot make up excuses not to go.

Dolan believes we can structure our time and design our surroundings in such a way that we can quickly make a habit out of doing things that make us happy. These changes are small and incremental, but this is precisely why he thinks they work so well. "People think that we need big solutions to do the issue of happiness justice," he says. "There’s this belief that anything worth having has to be effortful, but really the opposite it true. Just make happiness as easy as possible."

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