Skip to main content

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.


Hardback 

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Demon in the Machine - Paul Davies *****

Physicists have a habit of dabbling in biology and, perhaps surprisingly, biologists tend to be quite tolerant of it. (I find it hard to believe the reverse would be true if biologists tried to do physics.) Perhaps one reason for that tolerance is Schrödinger’s lecture series and book What is Life?, which had a huge impact on molecular biology and with a reference to which, not surprisingly, Paul Davies begins his fascinating book. 

At the heart of the The Demon in the Machine (we'll come back to that demon in a moment) is the relationship between life and information. In essence, Davies points out that if we try to reduce life to its simple physical components it is like trying to work with a computer that has no software. The equivalent of software here is information, not just in the best publicised aspect of the information stored in the DNA, but on a far broader scale, operating in networks across the organism.
This information and its processing gives life its emergent compl…

The Cosmic Mystery Tour – Nicholas Mee ****

This is another book, like last year’s Enjoy Our Universe by Alvaro de Rújula, that sets out to provide a light-hearted introduction to physics and astrophysics for the general reader. It’s from the same publisher (OUP) and packaged in the same way: as a high quality small-format hardback with 200 glossy pages, the majority of them adorned with colour pictures. But that’s where the resemblance ends. Unlike its predecessor, this new book by Nicholas Mee delivers exactly what it promises.

It’s not that de Rújula’s book was a bad one, but he just wasn’t able to think his way into the reader’s mind. He kept saying ‘physics is fun’, but he was talking about the fun a professional physicist gets out of doing it – which is a very arcane, often highly mathematical, type of fun. The result, for a non-specialist reader, was actually quite alienating. Mee, on the other hand, understands exactly how his readers think, what they find interesting, and the details that – no matter how important they …

Shadow Captain (SF) - Alastair Reynolds *****

One again, Alastair Reynolds demonstrates his mastery of complex world building. This is a sequel to Revenger, but while it's ideal to have read that first, I didn't feel a huge loss from not having done so. (But I'll be going back to read it.)

What sets these books apart is the richness of the setting. The Ness sisters, Adrana (the narrator of the book) and Arafura, along with their small motley crew, sail their spaceship through a far future solar system, where the planets have long since been dismantled to produce millions of small habitats and storage asteroids known as baubles. The civilisation in the system has risen and fallen many times, leaving mysterious technology (and contact with some low grade aliens) in a scenario that mixes high tech with a setting that is strongly (and intentionally) reminiscent of the world of seventeenth century shipping.

Spaceships are primarily powered by vast acreage of solar sails, privateers hunt bounty from the baubles and even th…