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Happiness, Bodybuilding, and a Ph.D.

A Q&A with the world's leading expert on happiness (who is also a huge meathead).

Paul Dolan is one of the world’s foremost experts on happiness research. The 46-year-old holds a chair in behavioral science at the London School of Economics. He counts Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman and essayist Nassim Nicholas Taleb as fans of his book Happiness by Design: Change What You Do, Not How You Think. And he’s also a huge meathead, nicknamed “The Prof” by the competitive bodybuilders he trains with. Here he talks about how to be happier, weightlifting, and why he consulted scientific data before having children.

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MF: What is happiness?

PD: I argue that happy lives are ones that contain a good balance of pleasure and purpose. If you’re having lots of fun in life, you could probably be happier if you found something fulfilling and equally, if you’re doing lots of things that make your life experiences purposeful, you could probably be happier overall by having more pleasure.

MF: Basically what you’re saying is if I have all the money in the world and I just go and live on my private island, I’m not going to be the happiest I can be? Why is purpose so important?

PD: I think the interesting question is why you think you would be happy on your island with all that money. When you’re thinking about being on the island with all that money, you’re not actually thinking about being on the island with all that money; you’re thinking about becoming someone who is initially on the island. That’s what we project. We don’t project what it’s like after 20 years. We think about what it’s going to be like after 20 minutes. For those first few days, weeks, or even months, being on the island with all that cash is going to be great. But you’ll get used to it. 

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