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Updated: Aug 11, 2020

HAPPINESS BY DESIGN: Change what you do, not how you think

Andrea Seydel Live Life Happy Unconventional Book Club


Paul Dolan, PHD, is an internationally renowned expert on happiness and behaviour. When he was little he had a stutter that made him miserable. He realized he was unhappy because he gave the problem so much attention. There was the beginning of his research and the quest for happiness. HAPPINESS BY DESIGN gives us a thought- provoking new paradigm for the way we think! Unlike typical schools of thought that suggest changing the way we think first, Happiness by Design suggests changing what we do. DESIGN OUR LIVES in ways that DIRECT OUR ATTENTION to what makes us HAPPY.

Changing behaviour and enhancing happiness is as much about withdrawing attention from the negative as it is about attending to the positive. Your happiness is determined by how you allocate your attention. What you attend to drives your behaviour and it determines your happiness. Attention is the glue that holds your life together. For example, when you are texting one friend, you are not paying attention to the other friend sitting right next to you. Scarcity of attentional resources- means we can be better at deciding what we pat attention to and in what ways. YOU can be the HAPPIEST you can be when you allocate your attention as best as you can.

We are going to discover through the scarcity of attentional resources, that we must consider how we make and facilitate better decision about what to pay attention to and in what ways. THINGS LIKE money, marriage, stuttering- can all affect your happiness a lot or a little depending on how much attention you pay to them. We have control over the level of inputs or what it is we put our attention on, and the impact they have on how we feel. PRETTY LIBERATING!


Happiness is caused by what we pay attention to. Dolan demonstrates that the key to happiness is finding pleasure and purpose in everyday life.

What exactly is Happiness? HAPPINESS Is experiences of pleasure and purpose over time. Many of the assumptions we make about happiness and about ourselves have to do with the fact that WE PAY MORE ATTENTION to what SHOULD make us happy... rather than focusing on what ACTUALLY DOES!! Do you have anything that you thought should make you happy? What actually DOES make you happy?

THE PLEASURE-PURPOSE PRINCIPLE: There is pleasure (or pain) and purpose (or pointlessness) in all that you do and feel. To be truly happy, you need to feel both pleasure and purpose. This explains human motivation: We need to seek out pleasure and purpose and avoid pain and pointlessness. Pleasure-purpose principles teaches us that happiness isn't just seeking pleasure and avoiding pain, but rather having purpose behind things. KEY IS TO BALANCE what works for you PERSONALLY: Balance PLEASURE AND PURPOSE.. If you have a lot of pleasure in your life you can balance it with purpose to make you happier. How is your balance? Do you have more pleasure and less purpose or more purpose and less pleasure? Or are you pretty balanced?

Rationing Attention: Our attention is a scarce resource. Attention is devoted to one thing is attention that is not devoted to another. Scarcity is part of this equation. The key to being happier is to pay more attention to what makes you happy and less attention to what does not. Not about paying attention to happiness itself. Being aware of how to best allocate your attention, you need to consider how to effectively manage your attentional energy. Paying attention can literally change your brain. Famous Attention study: The Missing Gorilla demonstrated Participants instructed to count basketball passes and more than half failed to even notice a gorilla passing through the video. Participants were paying attention to the passes. Also, CT lung scan, radiologist failed to notice the tiny gorilla into top corner. SITUATIONAL BLINDNESS or Situational awareness. Two types of attention are CONSCIOUS ATTENTION-where you are aware of where your attention is directed and UNCONSCIOUS ATTENTION- where you are unaware of what you are attending to.

ATTENDING TO HAPPINESS: Attention holds together our lives. It converts stimuli into happiness and it drives our behaviour. This precious scarce resource ATTENTION, is responsible for all of what we do and how we feel. Attention explains why we adapt to weight gain, a rude husband, and not to noise and negative traits. It also explains why we might not be as happy as we could be. (link)


WHY AREN'T WE HAPPIER? Are brains are amazing but they make mistakes. When you attend to what you think will make you happy in the future, you are making predictions. We also create attentional obstacles. We misallocate our attention and make conscious mistakes and unconscious errors that mean we aren't as happy as we could be. All this thinking determines what we attend to, in what ways, and for how long.

We need to understand the Attentional obstacles to happiness: Mistaken desires, Mistaken projections, and mistaken beliefs.

Mistaken Desires: We think achievement of something will make us happy, but the process of attempting to get there should be pleasurable and purposeful. We think we Authenticity will make us happier but it can make us miserable (cheating husband). We think getting more is better, but possessions or more leisure time does't necessary make us happier.

Mistaken Projections: We frequently make mistakes how much something will make us happy. We have a focusing effect (grass is greener kinda thinking). Many choices, problems lie with where attention issuing grabbed. Distinction bias is a tendency to view two options as different instead of paying attention to how you well experience the final decision. We are also often wrong with how much regret we will feel and our anticipation of future feelings are in accurate. We also Miss remember things.

Mistaken Beliefs: We also make mistakes about who we are and how we would like to be. We are often wrong about the kind of people we are. We are often wrong about why we do what we do and often wrong about the expectations we have and the benefits of accepting who we are. We feel uncomfortable and it is known as cognitive dissonance. We expect too much, accept too little

The fundamental reason why most of us aren't as happy as we could be is that we allocate attention in ways that are often at odds with experiencing a much pleasure and purpose as we could. Misallocation of attention is the fundamental problem then reallocation of attention must be the fundamental solution. You can re orient your attention to deliver happiness.


The ways in which we reallocate our attention to be happier are best understood by three perspectives: DECIDING, DESIGNING, and DOING.

We can overcome the attentional obstacles to happiness by deciding to pay attention to WHAT MAKES US HAPPY, including decisions ranging from which job to take to what we do this evening. The key is to more accurately monitor the feedback for you happiness from your decisions, you might be able to make more decisions that make you happier. Make your own feedback salient (noticeable & relevant).

ACTION: Take time to pay attention to your own feedback. Do you ever think about what brings you the most pleasure and purpose in your life and what does not? You can trust your experiences more than you beliefs, projections, and desires. ATTEND TO YOUR PLEASURES and PURPOSE in current Experiences. Day Reconstruction Method exercise. Journal/track. Focus on current experiences not what you think future benefits will be. Use Pleasure-purpose feedback. Let other decide and pay attention to the feedback of others. Don't try to hard to be happy.


We can DESIGN OUR SURROUNDINGS so as to become happier without having to think too hard about it, such as setting a home page for you website. The key is to organize your life in ways that go with the grain of human nature.

Prime yourself to act differently, the defaults you set up, the commitments you make and the norms you surround yourself with all alter you habits. Use priming, defaults, commitments and norms in your life and you can become HAPPIER by DESIGN!! Defaults are passive commitments e.g. Home screen Facebook.

Action: Figure out your own Primers, Defaults. Make commitments What do you want to commit to or stop? Consider when to give up on commitments. A primer or reminder could be running shoes beside you bed. Surround yourself with good people. People matter so much to our behaviour and happiness. Where are the people that contribute to you happiness live, work, play? EXAMPLE: READ MORE: Primer-Put books in every room, Defaults- set phone home page to audible, Commitments- Plan into calendar time to read, Social norms- Join a Bookclub.

Action: Design Habits: Brain is constantly looking to conserve attentional energy- and seeking ways to go with the grain. Much of what we do becomes habitual. HABIT LOOP- The Cue (trigger), The Routine (physical or mental act), the Reward (worth remembering) Best way to change a habit is to change the routine, leaving cue and reward the same.


If we create a rule to give everything we are doing, like talking to friends or any activity our FULLEST ATTENTION we all would be happier.

Pay attention to what you are doing and who you are doing it with while doing your utmost to not get distracted from those experiences. Bottom line pay attention to good experiences and to people we enjoy being with.

Action: Happier when attending to our experiences, spend money on good experiences. Shake up your attention with new experiences. Listen to music. Use humour. Avoid multi-tasking. Be Mindful, Spend time with people you like. Limit distractions, List typical distractions. Who do you like spending time with?

Final Thoughts

ATTENTION is the glue that holds our lives together. It's in our power to shift our attention to the things that make us feel better.

Everything can affect your happiness-your relationship, your weight, even stuttering- A LOT OR A LITTLE depending on how much attention you pay to them.

Dr. Dolen's Original theory defines happiness as experiences of pleasure (like watching your favourite show) and purpose (like having a fulfilling job).

We each have our own optimal balance, and this book shows us how to find it. There are many potential departures from being happy, Dolen showed us that we can reallocate our attention to become happier by deciding, designing and doing.

For the podcast, full book highlight, worksheets and book link:

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