Bosses who find their staff reading copies of Paul Dolan’s Happiness by Design should feel wary. “The social media person at Penguin read the book and quit,” Dolan tells me. “Someone else read the draft and dumped her boyfriend of eight years.”
I have come to meet Dolan in his office at the London School of Economics, where he is a professor of behavioural science. He relaxes into an armchair and offers me a sofa. Recently a student has helped him redesign his workspace using research into how physical environments affect behaviour. The soft furnishings were chosen to help promote easy conversation. His desk is oval to resemble a boardroom table and encourage discussion.
Dolan, who is 46, is wearing earrings and has styled his grey hair into a quiff. His shirt strains a little at the shoulders – evidence of his love for bodybuilding, which he describes earnestly in his book.
Dolan believes that all human beings strive for happiness, which he defines as a combination of pleasure and a sense of purpose. The problem is that we are often very bad at maximising our own well-being. In the passage that prompted my question about readers leaving their jobs, he describes how a friend who works for a media company spends a whole evening moaning: she dislikes her boss, her colleagues, her commute. At the end of dinner she tells him, “Of course, I love working for [the company].” (Incidentally, this friend, too, has now left her job.) “I use that story a lot in talks,” Dolan says. “I get a bit bored of saying it now, but when I tell the story, everyone nods.” He believes we often cling to the belief that our work or relationships are making us happy, perhaps because the job is prestigious, or our partner is “our type” – even when our day-to-day experience tells us otherwise.
For a start, the pursuit of success rarely leads to happiness, in part because not everyone achieves what they set out to do. “Lost happiness is lost happiness for ever. If you’re sticking with something that’s making you miserable, you’d better be pretty sure that you’re going to make that back in happiness units.” Dolan says he’d prefer it if his children – he has two, aged five and six – became builders, not bankers, because statistics show that, on average, the former are happier.
Dolan grew up on a council estate in Hackney and was the first in his family to go to university. “I knew I was going to do a job I wouldn’t like, so I thought I might as well put that off,” he says. It turned out he liked this “learning malarkey”. His first research job was at the Centre for Health Economics at the University of York, where he studied the impact of health conditions on quality of life.
He says his background has influenced his view of happiness and made him more “open-minded”. “There was this huge contrast between my working-class background, where I saw lots of experiences of pleasure and not a great deal of purpose, and the academic environment – especially LSE – where there’s lots of purpose but people don’t seem to be having much fun.”
He believes that upward social mobility often affects happiness because it can leave people feeling isolated. So he does his best to straddle his native and adopted worlds. “I’m sitting in my office in LSE,” he says, “but I’ll be back in my muscle-boy gym back in Brighton later, with all builders and doormen.”
From 2004 to 2005 Dolan worked with Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize-winning behavioural economist, and he was a member of the UK government’s “Nudge Unit” until 2011. This work has also made an impact on his outlook: he considers research into how people can, in effect, “nudge” themselves into being happier.
He offers sensible-sounding tips, including spending money on experiences rather than splurging on material goods: these rarely make you as happy as you think they will. A few suggestions seem banal, such as his observation that listening to music will boost your mood, but then medical advice on mental health is often similarly boring: eat your vegetables, do exercise. Some ideas seem a little selfish: surround yourself with happy people. Others are wacky – if a tidy house keeps you happy, why not invest in a lemon air freshener, as studies show that citrus scents encourage cleanliness?
“It may sound a bit smug, but I think I do a pretty good job of using my time and designing my environments in ways that mean I’m more likely to experience pleasure and purpose,” Dolan says. He certainly seems upbeat in our interview, often guffawing at his own jokes. As we part, he asks what I think of the book and adds: “So, are you going to leave your husband?” (I’m not.) And he throws back his head and laughs.