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 AI Delusion - Gary Smith *****

This is a very important little book ('little' isn't derogatory - it's just quite short and in a small format) - it gets to the heart of the problem with applying artificial intelligence techniques to large amounts of data and thinking that somehow this will result in wisdom.

Gary Smith as an economics professor who teaches statistics, understands numbers and, despite being a self-confessed computer addict, is well aware of the limitations of computer algorithms and big data. What he makes clear here is that we forget at our peril that computers do not understand the data that they process, and as a result are very susceptible to GIGO - garbage in, garbage out. Yet we are increasingly dependent on computer-made decisions coming out of black box algorithms which mine vast quantities of data to find correlations and use these to make predictions. What's wrong with this? We don't know how the algorithms are making their predictions - and the algorithms don't kn…

Infinity in the Palm of your Hand - Marcus Chown *****

A new Marcus Chown book is always a treat - and this is like a box of chocolates: a collection of bite-sized delights as Chown presents us with 50 science facts that are strange and wonderful.

The title is a quote from William Blake's Auguries of Innocence: 'To see a World in a Grain of Sand, / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, / And Eternity in an hour.' It would seem particularly appropriate if this book were read on a mobile phone (so it would be literally in the palm), which could well be true for ebook users, as the short essays make excellent reading for a commute, or at bedtime. I found them distinctly moreish - making it difficult to put the book down as I read just one more. And perhaps another. Oh, and that next one looks really interesting...

Each of the 50 pieces has a title and a short introductory heading, which mostly give a feel for the topic. The very first of these, however, briefly baffled me: 'You are a third mus…

How to Invent Everything - Ryan North ****

Occasionally you read a book and think 'I wish I'd thought of that.' This was my immediate reaction to Ryan North's How to Invent Everything. The central conceit manages to be both funny and inspiring as a framework for writing an 'everything you ever wanted to know about everything (and particularly science)' book.

What How to Invent Everything claims to be is a manual for users of a time machine (from some point in the future). Specifically it's a manual for dealing with the situation of the time machine going wrong and stranding the user in the past. At first it appears that it's going to tell you how to fix the broken time machine - but then admits this is impossible. Since you're stuck in the past, you might as well make the best of your surroundings, so the aim of the rest of the book is to give you the knowledge you need to build your own civilisation from scratch.

We start with a fun flow chart for working out just how far back in time you are…