Happiness by design

Shaun H. Ruff


If you want to know what really makes us happy, as well as why we are so quick to judge what others do to be happy, you’ll want to join me at Ignite London

I’m a Professor of Behavioural Science at LSE. Simply put, behavioural science is the study of why we do what we do, and what causes us to change our ways.

In my session at Ignite, I’ll show how we can engineer a better life. What makes us happy isn’t rocket science and there are a few things that are guaranteed to make us happier if we do a little more of them every day. The trick is in trying to frame our days (at work and at home) to enable us to do that.

I’ll be looking at what makes us happier, but also what causes us to make the decisions we make, even if they don’t always seem to be logical. I will also touch on how we can influence those decisions, whether made by a customer, employee or colleague. It’s a broad topic in a short time, so I’ll be led by what the audience is interested in, and I urge them not to hold back with the questions.

Here’s a taste of some of the ways we can do that.

We are what we pay attention to

Too much of what we thought about happiness in the past related the inputs of money, marriage, status and so on to the output of happiness. But the inputs only affect happiness if we pay attention to them. So, the answer to the question, ‘does money make you happy?’ depends on how much attention you pay it. If you don’t have to pay attention to it, it makes you happier than if you’re worrying about it.  

Much of attention is unconsciously allocated. Because so much of what you do and how you feel is driven by automatic processes, you can’t just think your way into happiness. You can’t just be positive like you hear in so many self-help books (which is one of the reasons self-help books fail). What you can do is create the right environments that mean you are more likely to be positive without having to think too hard about it.

Focus on what brings pleasure and gives you purpose

Pleasure and purpose don’t have to be in conflict at all. Some things are very high in both, such as volunteering. But many activities are mostly fun – like going out for dinner – and other activities are mostly fulfilling – such as producing a good piece of work. Happy lives are ones that find the right balance between pleasure and purpose – and that will vary across people as some are more ‘pleasure machines’ and others more ‘purpose engines.’

Where we find pleasure and purpose isn’t as simple as being at home or at work. I see it as an exchange rate with a marginal rate of substitution from pleasure to purpose and back again. If you live your life in pursuit of pleasure, you’d probably be a bit happier if you added a little purpose to it, and vice versa. We shouldn’t think that only pleasure can come from outside of work and purpose is derived from our job. We can do purposeful things with our spare time, such as help other people or tend to the garden, and it is possible for work to be fun… sometimes.

Listen more to people you disagree with

We must accept that we dislike dissenting views. Instinctively, we want to be around people who share our views. We like people who are like us. This makes the formation of echo chambers a very natural phenomenon. Like most behavioural phenomena, they have been magnified by social media, not created by it.

There is comfort in closing off an opposing perspective. But the most effective approach is to take a deep breath and accept that other people see the world differently. We must allow ourselves time to reflect before we react. One way that people could be more likely to have more constructive conversations online rather than simply posting immediate reactions would be to set a few seconds delay on their posts and ask for confirmation that they want to send.

I’m looking forward to speaking at Ignite. There’s nothing like an in-person event. I look forward to being challenged by the audience and answering some tricky questions. Particularly from those who disagree with me.


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