Happiness by Design: Change What You Do, Not How You Think
by Paul Dolan
Hudson Street Press, 2014 ($25.95)

Are people happier in the Midwest or in southern California? Most folks point to the difference in weather and guess the latter. But in fact, the populations of these regions report roughly the same level of overall life satisfaction. That is because people quickly acclimate to weather, turning their attention to other aspects of their lives.

In Happiness by Design, behavioral economist Dolan suggests that once we accept how attention shapes experience, we can learn to shift our focus to what brings us the most joy. Dolan defines happiness as our experience of pleasure and purpose over time. He then draws on happiness data from the U.S. and Europe to reveal several general trends. Volunteering, for instance, tends to correlate with greater feelings of purpose in life and television with greater pleasure.

But one size does not fit all when it comes to happiness. Dolan proposes that monitoring our personal pleasure and purpose can tune us into what brings us contentment. From there, he offers ways to maximize those stimuli. For example, if you want more quality time with loved ones, simply turning off your computer or phone may help you be more present.

Although many of Dolan's suggestions may sound familiar—don't expect too much, surround yourself with people who make you happy, invest in experiences, not objects—he goes a step further by supporting these claims with recent research in behavioral and brain science. For example, before making a big decision, we are often told to “sleep on it.” Neuroimaging research suggests that when we take a mental break, our brain continues to evaluate the situation and that this unconscious reflection often provides us with more clarity than if we overthink. One study found that subjects who made a decision after solving a puzzle were more content with their choice than people given extra time to actively pore over their options.

Overall Dolan gives a comprehensive overview of the science of happiness and useful tips to achieve it. In his quest to explain what makes us happy, Dolan touches on a powerful idea: happiness need not be pursued, simply rediscovered. In other words, sources of pleasure and purpose are all around us, if only one knows where to look.