Why Not . . . Design a Happy Life?

“You will be the happiest you can be when you allocate your attention as best as you can.” -Dr. Paul Dolan, author or Happiness by Design The Simple Sophisticate, episode #50 Much of the happiness we seek and either experience or don’t is solely of our own making. And while a significant life change can […] Listen now or continue reading below.


“You will be the happiest you can be when you allocate your attention as best as you can.” -Dr. Paul Dolan, author or Happiness by Design

The Simple Sophisticate, episode #50

Much of the happiness we seek and either experience or don’t is solely of our own making. And while a significant life change can make it easier to establish the necessary changes we need to cultivate the happy life we desire such as a new house, a move or a new job, it is absolutely possible to design a happy life right where you are in the present moment.

If indeed you are currently in the middle of a big life change, prior to laying down roots, begin to make a list of what truly makes you happy after reading today’s post and beginning to create ways to establish a lifestyle designed to welcome as much happiness as possible.

However, if you are still going to have the same job and home tomorrow, take a look at the list of 30 ways to design a happy life as is the focus of Dr. Paul Dolan’s book Happiness by Design: Change What You Do, Not How You Think I am confident that we are all capable of instituting the change we need to cultivate the life we desire. Let’s get started.

1. Cultivate a life of equal parts productivity and pleasure.

2. Let go of what you think should make you happy and begin to recognize what actually does make you happy. (View TSLL mission statement here.)

3. Allocate your attention appropriately to what will truly make you happy. 

“What you attend to drives your behavior and it determines your happiness. Attention is the glue that holds your life together.” Be disciplined about your time and where you spend it. Be disciplined about your thoughts and what you allow yourself to think about. “Your attention is a scarce resource.”

4. Establish situational awareness in your daily routines

In other words establish checklists or routines that cover seemingly very simple information, but if forgotten or overlooked can have disastrous effects.

5. Seek achievement, but not at the cost of health and personal relationships.

In other words, be aware of what you are sacrificing as well as how you will benefit from achieving your goals. Will it be worth it in the long run?

6. Find a career in which you are happy with your boss, pay and daily tasks.

The key is that the career/job is a fit for you and your individual personality, rather than pleasing the external world.

7. Be aware of the truth. Knowing is better than being ignorant. Ignorance is not bliss. 

8. Have modest expectations.

Don’t set them too high, don’t set them too low. Be an optimist that has “a contingency plan”.

9. Seek self-improvement for the right reasons

Are you desiring to lose weight to impress someone or our you losing weight so you can feel more comfortable in your own body, improve your overall health and therefore reduce your stress and improve your happiness?

10. Tamp down the inner-critic

Recognize and realize your strengths and weaknesses. Understand you are fallible, imperfect and that will lead to a happier life. Take control of your thoughts; are they helping or hurting in the quest for happiness?

11. Trust your experiences more than you trust your desires.

Often we are terrible predictors of how something will make us feel in the future if we’ve never experienced it.

12. Trust your own experiences more than you trust your beliefs. 

Dolan explains the brain as having two systems (although it actually doesn’t), but this idea helps to understand that system 1 is the unconscious mind and system 2 is how we think based on the environment we live in and the experiences we’ve had in the past. If we rely only on our beliefs, we don’t factor in our humanness, the unconscious mind, the mind that will respond very similarly to everyone else in certain situations. Therefore, experiences are much more reliable to determine how we will feel in the future.

13. Find a role model

In Stumbling on Happiness, Dan Gilbert shared that “research teach us that the experiences of other people like [us] are a useful guide to the impact of an event on [us], and often a much more useful guide than [our] own predictions about the impact of that event.”

14. Forget the New Year’s Eve party

Forcing happiness to occur is less likely to make it materialize. So let go of the reins a bit and stop trying too hard to be happy.

15. Consider options briefly, rather than dwelling upon them

While Dolan isn’t recommending making rash decisions, he does suggest briefly contemplating a decision and then returning to it later with a decision.

16. Don’t set rigid deadlines for decisions

While it is recommended to make them rather quickly, trusting your gut and then reassessing after a duration of time, being forced to complete something in a certain amount of time can often force the wrong or far less preferred decision. Let the decision come naturally.

17. Select your social circle carefully

Spend time with people you like, are inspired by and who have your best interest at heart when you seek advice. Behavior science reveals that what we are told matters far less than who it is that is telling us. People worth listening to (good messengers as Dolan calls them) can be trusted, are experts of what they speak and are like you.

18. Set up routines that assist you in living a happier life

Living closer to nature, walking in the morning with your dogs, enjoying hot water with lemon as you read your morning paper, set up routines that are enjoyable and leave you happier (involving both pleasure and purpose).

19. Create defaults that always leave you without regret

Smaller plates, leave your cell phone in your office at night rather than by your bed, turn off your alerts on your phone or choose. Establish systems that happen easily (the power cord for the phone is in the office, the only plates you have are small, etc.).

20. Make commitments that when completed will leave you happy that you attended 

Whether it is saying you’ll meet a friend at the gym or scheduling a date for brunch, even if you’re feeling tired Sunday morning, it is easier to go than opt out. Start small, so you’re less likely to opt out.

21. Break commitments when it’s a sunk cost

Dolan defines a sunk cost is something that is gone and you cannot get it back. In other words, the class is already paid for and nonrefundable, but your realize you’ve already learned the information or it’s the wrong class all together, walking out in the middle of it is a commitment worth breaking.

Dolan uses the example of realizing that when out at night, when the first thought of leaving enters his mind, he should heed it rather than ignore it as his happiness decreases immediately after that point.

22. Surround yourself with people who you want to be – and can be – more like.

As much as I am inspired by Olympic athletes, I know I will never have the initiative or desire to train as hard as they do. It doesn’t mean they aren’t good people and wouldn’t be interesting to spend time with occasionally, but rather, in the long scheme of things, surrounding ourselves with people who have similar goals or have achieved goals we believe we can and want to achieve ourselves is better for our overall happiness.

23. Cultivate healthy, helpful habits

Establish ways of doing things that keep you going with the grain (less friction), and that produce the results you wish. Habits involve three parts: the cue, the routine and the reward. #18 talks about the necessity for establishing helpful routines, and when it comes to forming habits, this is the easiest to tweak.

24. Let go of multi-tasking

Productivity, one of the two key components to happiness drastically decreases when we choose to multi-task.

25. Limit technology distractions

A significant cause of unintended multi-tasking is the technology we have in our lives. Set limits of when you will and won’t answer your phone, check email, etc.

26. Think less about money

While we all need to think about money to some extent, putting our financial house in order, etc., there comes a point when we need to stop. Trust your system, and then let go. If you view every minute of the day as money, then you are not living in the moment. If you are worrying about the stock market and how your money is doing, you are not living in the present and your attention has been robbed for the negative effect of worry.

27. Invite new experiences that pique your interest

When we are engaged with new experiences, people, etc, these moments require our full attention which makes it more difficult for our minds to wander. While engaging in new experiences regularly can be very taxing emotionally on our minds, it is something to sprinkle throughout days regularly in doses that we can handle and increase our happiness.

28. Unearth the root of procrastination

Do you really want to perform the task? Is it part of achieving productivity or pleasure? Depending on the balance of each, determine if what you are putting off needs to be done, and if not, why you said yes. And if it needs to be done, recognize the negative effects procrastination has on your overall happiness and refrain from doing it.

29. Do something for others

Maybe it’s not volunteering at the soup kitchen which tends to always be the fall-back idea, but perhaps it is volunteering with a group of people to clean up the river/beach/highway annually or speaking up for others who don’t have a voice.

30. Begin the design process gradually

The world we live in, the work, home and community we reside it plays a large part in our ability to find and maintain a happy life. The key is to be aware and that is where the designing part enters the picture. Paying attention, living consciously, and not wandering blinding through each day is how we design the life that will make us feel happier. Each of us will need different details to make us feel happy, so we must get to know ourselves. Experience, reflecting on these experiences, will guide us to the understanding of who we are. And the equation that has been so perplexing to so many is really quite simple, bring together equal parts pleasure and productivity and you will find the happiness that you seek.

Dr. Paul Dolan’s book Happiness by Design: Change What You Do, Not How You Think is a rich resource. And while much of this may sound simple, I will admit to have overlooked much of it at different points in my life. Whether this post was a wonderful aha moment or a helpful refresher on how to cultivate a happier life, I hope from this day forward to experience just that a happy life by design. Have a wonderful week.

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4 thoughts on “Why Not . . . Design a Happy Life?

  1. Love this. Thank you so much for your constant inspiration. I have been following you for about a year. Your site/book/podcasts have most certainly had a positive effect on my views and practices

  2. Shannon! Thank you again for another terrific post. You have been such a positive influence on me! Thank you so very much for your wonderful outlook on life, finances- everything! I love your blog, your podcasts, your instagram. I am a huge fan!!!!!! I am very happy for you for your success and wish you, and your pups, the very best in Bend. All the best- Ann

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