Pro­fes­sor Paul Dolan is a health econ­o­mist-turned­be­havioural sci­en­tist whose rig­or­ous work on hap­pi­ness has made him a govern­ment pol­icy ad­viser and a best-sell­ing au­thor. Here he gives his top tips on how to be happy.

Weekend Herald - Canvas - - CONTENTS - Pro­fes­sor Paul Dolan

Health econ­o­mist-turned-be­havioural sci­en­tist Pro­fes­sor Paul Dolan gives his top tips on how to be happy


You are less happy if you spend all your time clock-watch­ing, so try to al­low some flex­i­bil­ity in your di­ary; e.g. sched­ule in some free time for see­ing your friends and fam­ily.

Emo­tions are con­ta­gious. There is prob­a­bly a closer cor­re­spon­dence than you re­alise be­tween your mood and the moods of those around you. So el­e­vate your mood and you will el­e­vate theirs — make them happy and you will feel good, too.

Eval­u­ate the health and vi­a­bil­ity of re­la­tion­ships by their con­se­quences for plea­sure and pur­pose over time, not by the nar­ra­tives sur­round­ing them. If spend­ing time with a long-term friend — or even a part­ner — only makes you feel mis­er­able, then you should think about whether that’s a re­la­tion­ship worth hang­ing on to.

You will en­joy your leisure time and so­cial­is­ing much more when you are fully en­gaged. Put your phone away and make it clear that you are not con­tactable in the evenings. Your at­ten­tion to your fam­ily will pay div­i­dends in hap­pi­ness.


In­stead of us­ing the toi­lets across the cor­ri­dor at work, start us­ing the ones at the other end of your floor. It will force you to walk across the of­fice floor, mak­ing it more likely you’ll ca­su­ally so­cialise with oth­ers.

Mul­ti­task­ing is tax­ing for the brain be­cause switch­ing your at­ten­tion re­quires ad­di­tional en­ergy. This di­min­ishes your ca­pac­ity to feel pur­pose­ful in your work, and so makes you less happy. Set win­dows for email-check­ing and work off­line when pos­si­ble.

Laugh­ter has been proven again and again to re­duce stress, lone­li­ness and pain, and to pro­mote re­lax­ation and phys­i­cal re­cov­ery. Stock up on your favourite come­dies and watch them be­fore dif­fi­cult events such as job in­ter­views — and af­ter­wards if the in­ter­view goes badly …

Be­ing out­side, or even just see­ing na­ture at work, is good for us. Prison­ers whose cells have a view make fewer vis­its to their prison’s health­care fa­cil­i­ties than those with­out a view; hos­pi­tal pa­tients who have a view re­cover quicker than those who don’t. Get out of the of­fice if you can; if not, bring in a plant or a fish tank.


Sim­ply talk­ing about ex­pe­ri­en­tial pur­chases — ex­pe­ri­ences, such as days out and meals, rather than ob­jects — can make us hap­pier. En­joy your hol­i­day be­fore you’ve even left (but don’t bang on about it too much).

Stud­ies show that smil­ing can cause hap­pi­ness as well as be a con­se­quence of it. Even a false smile, such as one con­trived by hold­ing a pen side­ways be­tween your teeth, can make you feel hap­pier.

The rise of the smart­phone means that even plea­sur­able ac­tiv­i­ties such as so­cial­is­ing re­quire so­lu­tions to over­come dis­trac­tion. I rec­om­mend the phone-stack­ing game — ev­ery­one at the ta­ble adds their phone to a pile, and if any­one takes their phone back be­fore the end of the meal, they have to pick up ev­ery­one’s bill.

Try some­thing new. The worst that can hap­pen is you don’t like it and don’t do it again. And you might just find your­self a new hobby or in­ter­est.

Peo­ple are bad at giv­ing up on things they don’t en­joy, be­cause time and money feel like in­vest­ments. Of­ten money has been paid up­front. If you’re not en­joy­ing a film at the cinema, leave rather than stay­ing for the sake of it; the same goes for dull jobs.


Think about how your long-term goals ben­e­fit you now. The ben­e­fits of sav­ing for your re­tire­ment come not only from be­ing se­cure in your old age, but from feel­ing se­cure about your old age in the years that ap­proach it.

“Pay now, en­joy later” is a good hap­pi­nessen­hanc­ing prin­ci­ple. In­dul­gence is more en­joy­able when we’ve al­ready footed the bill: this is partly why many of us pre­fer all-in­clu­sive hol­i­days. You could al­lo­cate your­self some “me money” each month and spend it with less guilt than you might other­wise.

How to turn tips into habits PRIME YOUR­SELF

In­ten­tions ex­plain, at most, about a quar­ter of the vari­a­tion in health be­hav­iours such as ex­er­cise. This leaves three quar­ters that are trig­gered by spe­cific con­texts — such as an eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble gym or a walk home that doesn’t pass a fast-food restau­rant. Even the smell of cit­rus air-fresh­ener has been shown to make us more likely to clean up.

These trig­gers ap­pear to work even if we know they’re trig­gers, so use them to your ad­van­tage.


Go­ing with the flow is much eas­ier than us­ing fi­nite willpower. Change your home page to some­thing other than Face­book. Put ex­er­cise in your cal­en­dar. Set up reg­u­lar times to see friends rather than or­gan­is­ing meet-ups one-by-one.


We are more con­sis­tent with our public prom­ises. Tell a friend you will stop smok­ing and you are more likely to do so. Di­vide your goals into bite­sized commitments and con­sider in­tro­duc­ing tan­gi­ble losses and re­wards. A study showed that smok­ers who wanted to quit were much more likely to be suc­cess­ful if, by stay­ing off cig­a­rettes, they won back a de­posit.


The pres­ence of friends and fam­ily in our lives not only makes us hap­pier, but also af­fects our be­hav­iour. Sur­round your­self with peo­ple whose com­pany you en­joy, and whose habits you’d like to im­i­tate. I have a weight-train­ing buddy, for in­stance, and he keeps me mo­ti­vated to train harder.


Draw on cog­ni­tive be­havioural ther­apy. Re­hearse in your head how you will re­spond to po­ten­tially tempt­ing or trig­ger­ing sce­nar­ios: if X, then Y. For ex­am­ple, if you find your­self want­ing a cig­a­rette, you could make your­self a cup of tea. Don’t ex­pect fu­ture ben­e­fits to con­sis­tently mo­ti­vate your habits. If you want to be health­ier, find an ex­er­cise you en­joy — it’s much eas­ier to stick to.

How to be happy: over­com­ing com­mon mis­con­cep­tions KEEP A DI­ARY

We of­ten mis­judge our en­joy­ment of ac­tiv­i­ties. Plot a di­ary of what you did yes­ter­day. For each ac­tiv­ity, record what it was, who you did it with, how long it took, the plea­sure it gave you (out of 10) and the pur­pose you felt while do­ing it (again, out of 10). This di­ary will draw your at­ten­tion to any mis­con­cep­tions you have about how you use your time. Maybe you don’t en­joy a TV show any­more. Maybe you took the bus in­stead of the train, and the ex­tra time it took was out­weighed by en­joy­ing it more.


Peo­ple of­ten choose one kind of hap­pi­ness over an­other in a way that is un­bal­anced and ul­ti­mately makes them un­happy. Re­mem­ber the plea­sure­pur­pose prin­ci­ple: we en­joy things that are fun and re­lax­ing, such as watch­ing TV, and we en­joy things that feel worth­while, such as work­ing and learn­ing. We need a bal­ance of both in our lives.


We of­ten un­der­es­ti­mate how much we will en­joy do­ing things for other peo­ple, whether that’s vol­un­teer­ing, car­ing or giv­ing gifts. In fact, it is very good for our hap­pi­ness. Think you’re too busy? Giv­ing away time has been shown to make you feel less pressed.


Don’t cling to the mis­taken be­lief that you can re­coup a present lack of hap­pi­ness in the fu­ture. Peo­ple of­ten make this er­ror in pur­su­ing un­ful­fill­ing ca­reers. If you want to be hap­pier, take steps to­wards it now.


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