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One on one… with Paul Dolan

‘Happiness is seen as a trivial concern’

06 July 2016

One moment that changed the course of your career
Sitting next to Daniel Kahneman on a short bus ride at a conference in Milan in 2004. This stroke of luck resulted in me (an economist at the time) working with Danny (a Nobel Laureate in Economics but a psychologist by training) for a year at Princeton University. That year opened my eyes to happiness research and to the importance of conscious and unconscious attention on determining what we do and how we feel. A decade later, in 2014, Happiness by Design was published. It shows how people can better allocate their time and attention in ways that make them happier day to day.
One insight that has stuck with you
Most of what we do simply comes about rather than being thought about. Whilst most of us would like to believe that our actions are governed by conscious attention and deliberate thought, decades of research in behavioural science has shown that most actions are driven by automatic and unconscious processes. This basic insight is important for anyone who wishes to influence human behaviour and improve wellbeing.
One thing you would change
For psychologists to think more clearly about the policy implications of their research. Psychology is a discipline that describes human behaviour, but policy makers require prescriptions and predictions about how behaviour would change in response to different stimuli. Economists have models that predict changes in demand when prices change, for example, and they have been very successful in influencing public policy. One way for psychologists to influence policy is through influencing economics, and this was the route so successfully taken by Kahneman and Tversky. But psychologists could influence policy more directly themselves if they paid more attention to the normative (ought to) statements that come out of their positive (how the world is) analysis.

One problem with psychological measures
There are two main issues. First, the lack of real incentive compatibility in experiments. I wonder how many of the biases shown in psychological experiments would remain if real money was at stake. And I don’t mean real money as in the few quid used by experimental economists, but real money as in amounts that would have a significant effect on people’s happiness. I’m sure some effects would be quite robust but that many others would disappear. I would suggest carrying out fewer experiments with more money at stake. Second, the scepticism that still exists around happiness measures in surveys. Sometimes happiness is seen as a trivial concern, even by psychologists, many of whom are only interested in behaviour. For policy purposes, we might want to focus instead on measures of misery, and we might want to do that in research to get them taken more seriously. You might not be interested in maximising happiness but you would most likely be pathological not to want to reduce misery.
One important misconception  
That the stories we live our lives according to are conducive to our happiness. Much of our lives are lived in narratives and evaluations of the things we think ought to make us happy. These narratives are often a product of social construction and external indicators (e.g. income or relationship status). Relying on ‘storytelling’ to assess our lives can distract our attention from the feelings brought about by the moment-to-moment experiences of our lives. As a result, many of us make mistakes when identifying the things that really make us happy. If you are only happy in your job when you think about how great it is, but miserable the rest of the time, then you should look for alternative employment.
One thing that makes you happy
Weight training. I argue that happy lives are ones that contain a good balance of pleasure and purpose and this is one activity that, for me, is very high in both. When I am chucking heavy weights around a gym, it is about the only time that I am truly focused on what I am doing. Weight training is mindfulness.
One alternative career
Investigative journalist. Because I am bloody good at writing. I love miscarriages of justice (not literally, but the stories surrounding them) and so I would probably have investigated cases of wrongful conviction.
One resource
I have developed a tool that helps people reduce their tendency to be drawn towards alcohol – a nice example of how we can alter our unconscious processing of information to guide our behaviour in ways that can make us happier. Look for ‘Attention Training’ at
One final thought
Try not to think too much. Organise your life in ways that make you happier without having to think about being happy.