Most people assume that they know whether they are happy or not, but in reality, judging our own happiness can be very difficult. There is often a disconnect between what our brains are telling us and what we actually feel. “We tell stories about the things we think should make us happy, but sometimes, when we look a bit closer, we’re not really that happy at all,” says Paul Dolan, a professor at the London School of Economics, a government policy advisor and one of the world’s leading happiness scholars. (Yes, that’s a real field of study.)
Perhaps you think you’re happy because you’ve landed your dream job, but in practice, you’re tired from the commute, your coworkers are unfriendly and you’re spending less time with your kids. Or maybe you’ve just gotten engaged and in the flurry of congratulations, it may not register to you that you’re anxious about moving in with your partner. Dolan has concluded that thoughtful, driven people spend so long reflecting about what makes a meaningful life, they sometimes lose sight of what actually feels good to them on a daily basis. “I think we should be paying attention to how we feel day-to-day and moment-to-moment,” he tells Fast Company.
After decades of studying happiness, Dolan has developed a happiness formula. He says that happy people pay attention to the everyday experiences that give them pleasure and purpose, then organize their lives so that they are doing more of those things. It sounds obvious, right? Sure, but the problem is that we spend so much of our lives on autopilot instead of consciously focusing on doing things that make us happy. “We are creatures of habit and we automate processes very quickly,” Dolan says. “We do a lot of what we do because we’ve always done it, not because it is good for us or because we enjoy it.” The good news, however, is that Dolan offers two tangible ways for us create more happy moments in our lives. The first is creating a mental habit of paying attention to what makes us happy and the second is designing our lives so it is easier to do those things.
It takes a lot of energy to be constantly thinking about whether or not you are happy. This is why most of us adopt a philosophy about what goes into meaningful life–such as finding satisfying work, getting married, having kids–then we stop wondering whether we are happy. Dolan does not recommend fixating on your daily happiness levels, but rather taking one day a week or month to observe yourself. “It’s about tuning in to what you are doing, who you are doing it with and how it makes you feel,” Dolan says. “How much worry, stress, anger, joy or contentment do you experience on a given day?” In doing one of these audits himself, Dolan noticed that he got more pleasure out of listening to music on his commute than hearing a podcast, checking his email, or reading. This was not obvious to him until he paid attention to it, but now, he sets off to work with a playlist loaded on his phone.