Professor Paul Dolan is a health economist-turned-behavioural scientist whose rigorous work on happiness has made him a government policy adviser and a best-selling author. Here he gives his top tips on how to be happy.


• You are less happy if you spend all your time clock-watching, so try to allow some flexibility in your diary; e.g. schedule in some free time for seeing your friends and family.

• Emotions are contagious. There is probably a closer correspondence than you realise between your mood and the moods of those around you. So elevate your mood and you will elevate theirs — make them happy and you will feel good, too.

• Evaluate the health and viability of relationships by their consequences for pleasure and purpose over time, not by the narratives surrounding them. If spending time with a long-term friend — or even a partner — only makes you feel miserable, then you should think about whether that's a relationship worth hanging on to.

• You will enjoy your leisure time and socialising much more when you are fully engaged. Put your phone away and make it clear that you are not contactable in the evenings. Your attention to your family will pay dividends in happiness.



• Instead of using the toilets across the corridor at work, start using the ones at the other end of your floor. It will force you to walk across the office floor, making it more likely you'll casually socialise with others.

• Multitasking is taxing for the brain because switching your attention requires additional energy. This diminishes your capacity to feel purposeful in your work, and so makes you less happy. Set windows for email-checking and work offline when possible.

• Laughter has been proven again and again to reduce stress, loneliness and pain, and to promote relaxation and physical recovery. Stock up on your favourite comedies and watch them before difficult events such as job interviews — and afterwards if the interview goes badly …

• Being outside, or even just seeing nature at work, is good for us. Prisoners whose cells have a view make fewer visits to their prison's healthcare facilities than those without a view; hospital patients who have a view recover quicker than those who don't. Get out of the office if you can; if not, bring in a plant or a fish tank.


• Simply talking about experiential purchases — experiences, such as days out and meals, rather than objects — can make us happier. Enjoy your holiday before you've even left (but don't bang on about it too much).

• Studies show that smiling can cause happiness as well as be a consequence of it. Even a false smile, such as one contrived by holding a pen sideways between your teeth, can make you feel happier.

• The rise of the smartphone means that even pleasurable activities such as socialising require solutions to overcome distraction. I recommend the phone-stacking game — everyone at the table adds their phone to a pile, and if anyone takes their phone back before the end of the meal, they have to pick up everyone's bill.

• Try something new. The worst that can happen is you don't like it and don't do it again. And you might just find yourself a new hobby or interest.


• People are bad at giving up on things they don't enjoy, because time and money feel like investments. Often money has been paid upfront. If you're not enjoying a film at the cinema, leave rather than staying for the sake of it; the same goes for dull jobs.


• Think about how your long-term goals benefit you now. The benefits of saving for your retirement come not only from being secure in your old age, but from feeling secure about your old age in the years that approach it.

• "Pay now, enjoy later" is a good happiness-enhancing principle. Indulgence is more enjoyable when we've already footed the bill: this is partly why many of us prefer all-inclusive holidays. You could allocate yourself some "me money" each month and spend it with less guilt than you might otherwise.

How to turn tips into habits

Prime yourself

Intentions explain, at most, about a quarter of the variation in health behaviours such as exercise. This leaves three quarters that are triggered by specific contexts — such as an easily accessible gym or a walk home that doesn't pass a fast-food restaurant. Even the smell of citrus air-freshener has been shown to make us more likely to clean up.
These triggers appear to work even if we know they're triggers, so use them to your advantage.

Create defaults

Going with the flow is much easier than using finite willpower. Change your home page to something other than Facebook. Put exercise in your calendar. Set up regular times to see friends rather than organising meet-ups one-by-one.

Make commitments

We are more consistent with our public promises. Tell a friend you will stop smoking and you are more likely to do so. Divide your goals into bite-sized commitments and consider introducing tangible losses and rewards. A study showed that smokers who wanted to quit were much more likely to be successful if, by staying off cigarettes, they won back a deposit.

Use social norms

The presence of friends and family in our lives not only makes us happier, but also affects our behaviour. Surround yourself with people whose company you enjoy, and whose habits you'd like to imitate. I have a weight-training buddy, for instance, and he keeps me motivated to train harder.

Design your habits

Draw on cognitive behavioural therapy. Rehearse in your head how you will respond to potentially tempting or triggering scenarios: if X, then Y. For example, if you find yourself wanting a cigarette, you could make yourself a cup of tea. Don't expect future benefits to consistently motivate your habits. If you want to be healthier, find an exercise you enjoy — it's much easier to stick to.

How to be happy: overcoming common misconceptions

Keep a diary

We often misjudge our enjoyment of activities. Plot a diary of what you did yesterday. For each activity, record what it was, who you did it with, how long it took, the pleasure it gave you (out of 10) and the purpose you felt while doing it (again, out of 10). This diary will draw your attention to any misconceptions you have about how you use your time. Maybe you don't enjoy a TV show anymore. Maybe you took the bus instead of the train, and the extra time it took was outweighed by enjoying it more.

The pleasure-purpose principle

People often choose one kind of happiness over another in a way that is unbalanced and ultimately makes them unhappy. Remember the pleasure-purpose principle: we enjoy things that are fun and relaxing, such as watching TV, and we enjoy things that feel worthwhile, such as working and learning. We need a balance of both in our lives.


We often underestimate how much we will enjoy doing things for other people, whether that's volunteering, caring or giving gifts. In fact, it is very good for our happiness. Think you're too busy? Giving away time has been shown to make you feel less pressed.

Act now

Don't cling to the mistaken belief that you can recoup a present lack of happiness in the future. People often make this error in pursuing unfulfilling careers. If you want to be happier, take steps towards it now.

Happiness by Design: Finding Pleasure and Purpose in Everyday Life, by Paul Dolan (Penguin, $30).