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Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Can Behavioural Economics Make Us Happy?

Economics was memorably described as ‘the dismal science’ by the Scottish writer and philosopher Thomas Carlyle in the early 19th Century. So it’s fitting that, in the early 21st Century there could be lessons on how to be happy from behavioural economics and the behavioural sciences.

Happiness by Design was written by Professor of Behavioural Science at the London School of Economics Paul Dolan. The book is interesting for two main reasons: first, like other books on happiness, it covers a lot of useful research, including Dolan’s own contribution to the work on happiness – he was heavily involved with specifying the measures on happiness which are now included in the work of the Office for National Statistics

But Dolan focuses on the personal, showing how to implement findings from the research. The second half of the book includes practical tips to help us be happy. Not by thinking about it, and not by devoting ourselves to 24x7 hedonism (which would be pretty exhausting). Rather, by using insights and techniques from the behavioural sciences. And concentrating on finding the right balance between pleasure and purpose. At the risk of stating the obvious, the book recommends that we spend more time on the things that make us happy, and less time on the things that make us unhappy – happiness comes from what you do, and what you don’t do. Which might even mean chucking in your job if it’s causing unhappiness - although it might be easier to quit the old job than find a new one which will make you happier. Which  probably brings us back to traditional economics. As Thomas Carlyle might agree.