Monday, 2 February 2015

Happiness by Design - Paul Dolan ***

I've always been a little wary of books that package up the science of a human emotion, or some other arbitrarily isolated mental trait. However, happiness is something that has responded quite well to this treatment, both in Daniel Nettle's book Happiness, which focuses on the science behind the feeling of happiness and David Linden's Pleasure, which lives up to its entertaining subtitle 'How our brains make junk food, exercise, marijuana, generosity and gambling feel so good,' in an entertaining romp through the biochemistry of the pleasure principle.

In the case of Happiness by Design, Paul Dolan takes a very different approach. Rather than go into any depth on the science of happiness, this is written more in the style of a 'how to' business book - so how to find what makes us happy, assess our personal state and do something about making it better.

Dolan divides happiness into two parts - pleasure and purpose (which is achieving something that makes you feel happy for having achieved it, rather than giving you direct pleasure - he gives a good example of writing a book as potentially producing that kind of happiness). Dolan makes this division sound like something new and original, though interestingly in Nettle's book happiness was given this division and one further distinction, as Nettle splits it between the immediate, short-lived buzz of joy, the feeling of well being and satisfaction, and the least directly expressed but long term feeling of achieving your potential.

Of itself, this revelation, and Dolan's recipe for discovering your current state of happiness and doing something that makes it better is quite interesting, but the whole thing suffers from business book-itis. In my experience, most business books (and I've written a few), when compared with a popular science title, have very little content, repeated over and again different ways, with various layout gimmicks like boxes, diagrams and tables to write in, designed to fill it out to length. And I'm afraid Happiness by Design does suffer from this a bit. I think Dolan could have fit the whole thing into a feature article in a magazine and all the rest is filler. It would have been much better if there had been more of the underlying science to back up the various claims and suggestions, as well as giving a better understanding of just what happens in the brain to cause happiness.  That way, this could have made a good book.

As it was, reading it didn't make me happy. The writing style is workmanlike, but not inspiring. Although it is structured as a 'how to' book, the advice is quite difficult to separate from what can be rather dull text. I also got the impression that Dolan had taken to heart the usual publisher's push to 'make it more personal' and 'give it your voice' by trying to be a little hip occasionally (doesn't work) and by telling us far too much about himself. The danger here - and it really does come across this way - is of suffering from confirmation bias. Dolan is a body builder, which he gives as a good example of the purpose aspect of happiness, which seems to blind him to the fact that most people think bodybuilders look grotesque and that the whole business is about as purposeless as it gets.

One last, minor moan. One of the few parts where Dolan does stray into science, he gets it unfortunately wrong in an analogy linking the way we subjectively 'warp' time with the way we notice sounds. He comments 'If I doubled the volume of the TV from 50 decibels to 100 decibels, you would think that the sound had increased by less than a factor two.' In practice I would definitely know that the sound had increased by far more than a factor of two, because decibels are measured on a logarithmic scale.

So some good points here - I especially enjoyed the breakdowns of when and doing what people were most happy (for those who moan we watch too much TV, the television seems to be pretty much the number one source of happiness) - but it wasn't a particularly inspiring book.

Review by Brian Clegg

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