Learn how to overcome the barriers to happiness

We all want to be happier. That’s why we spend millions on books, videos and courses, which teach us how to be happy. Yet despite this, many of us spend large chunks of our life in the doldrums. We can’t seem to make ourselves happy all the time.

This book summary, however, are different. They show how our brain and our environment unconsciously affect our happiness levels, and not necessarily in a positive direction. Crucially they also show how we can manage these factors to ensure we remain happy in our lives.

In this book summary you will discover

  • why going to gym can lead you to eat unhealthily
  • why hearing French music makes you buy French wine
  • why happiness begins with switching your phone off.

1. You are happiest when you experience your daily activities as pleasant and purposeful

Imagine being forced to spend the rest of your life watching your favorite comedy show. Would you really be happy? Chances are that eventually, you’ll feel there’s not much point to your life. In the end, you might as well have spent your whole life working instead.

But why is this exactly? Well, happiness isn’t just caused by joy, but by feeling that what you’re doing has some purpose. In order to be happy, you need to experience a combination of joy as well as meaning in your activities.

Every day, your life consists of a mix of activities that you tend to regard as pleasurable or purposeful. For example, catching up on your favorite TV show is pleasurable, while creating a presentation for your work is purposeful.

In order to get the most out of your day, it’s best to alternate pleasurable activities with purposeful ones. For instance, at work, you can consciously integrate “pleasure” breaks into your day, like having a nice lunch and a chat with a colleague, or taking a short afternoon walk.

Interestingly, whether you prefer to have more pleasure or more purpose in your daily life largely depends on your personality.

There is no one-size-fits-all, so find the mix of work and play that suits you best. You might be more of a “pleasure machine,” requiring more fun to be happy, or you could be a “purpose engine” valuing your work more than your downtime.

Lastly, happiness is about feeling good in the moment. Being merely satisfied with your life situation may not indicate that you are happy every day, as happiness is more about spontaneous emotion than contemplating your general situation.

To feel happier, then, you should focus on actively experiencing pleasure and purpose in your daily activities.

Next, we’ll see why it’s also vitally important to focus consciously on these activities.

2. Happiness isn’t caused directly by what you do, but rather by what you pay attention to

A meaningful job, exciting hobbies, optimal health: you would think these are the perfect ingredients for happiness, wouldn’t you? Sure, but only if you actually pay attention to them.

In order to live a happy life, you need to be able to concentrate on what makes you happy.

Focusing on what makes us happy, though, is often easier said than done.

While we may like to feel happy, each one of us can only think of one thing at a time because our attention is a limited resource. Unfortunately, we often dwell on negative thoughts about past and future events rather than positive thoughts about the activity we’re doing in the moment.

As you go about your day, it’s normal to not think about what you’re doing in the moment. We often let our minds drift to doubts and worries. We’ve all had the experience sitting at dinner with friends yet our minds are stewing over the next work day.

We tend to give more attention to unfamiliarities and novelties rather than routines in our lives and, unfortunately, we forget to cherish the good things we do on a daily basis. The first few times you take a ride in your new car might feel really exciting, but soon the novelty fades and driving it becomes routine. Now you’re focused on that horrible coffee stain on the driver seat.

Feeling happy, then, is not so much about changing what you do; it’s about what you give your attention to. This might seem a bit tricky to control, but it’s absolutely achievable.

First, recognize the typical attentional “mistakes” you unconsciously make and you’ll be able to figure out some personal strategies to stop making them.

Let’s take a look in the next summary at what these mistakes are.

3. Your behavior and attention are largely driven by unconscious mechanisms that are prone to mistakes

We saw in the previous summary that we often drift towards things in our life that make us feel unhappy. Why? It’s because the majority of what we do is lead by unconscious processes.

Your brain has two systems that process information and determine how you should behave. System 2 is the conscious brain you use to make considered, well-informed decisions. System 1, however, is far more influential. It’s the ancient, primitive part of our brain that is governed by instinct and operates on impulse and habit, which enables us to act automatically. This is often useful when it comes to always knowing where your car keys are because you always put them in a certain place, but it can also lead to detrimental decisions.

Our focus often wanders onto negative things because our System 1 reacts to our surroundings, which leads to knee-jerk decisions. Without consciously knowing it, what we think and how we behave is changed by our environment.

In one study on the sales of French and German wines, customers were exposed to French accordion music playing in the background whilst they shopped. As a result, 70 percent of the sales of French wines over German wines were accounted for by the French music, yet only 14 percent of the customers reported being aware of it.

The problem is that instinctive and impulsive decisions are catalyzed by our environments, sometimes leading us to behave in ways that actually work against what we need to be happy.

For example, you might scarf down a giant candy bar because it was convenient to grab at the cash register, despite that you had decided to start eating more healthily.  So, having given in to temptation, you feel guilty and unhappy.

4. In trying to achieve goals that will make you happy, you fall victim to behavioral spillover

Say you think that getting physically fit will make you happy, so you start going to the gym. Then, driving home from your first exhausting workout, you pass your favorite fast food restaurant. Instead of resisting, you impulsively “reward” yourself with a big, greasy burger and some fries.

Why? Because our past, present and future decisions are not separate; they impact each other, and we are sometimes oblivious to it.

Often, different behaviors are connected by the same motivation (to lose a few pounds, for example), and your success or failure in acting out one behavior effects your future behavior; this effect is called behavioral spillover. Trouble is, these behaviors are largely attributable to your impulsive System 1, so you often aren’t aware of how it works until it’s too late.

Behavioral spillover can be advantageous and help you reach your goals. One positive behavior can encourage another positive one, or you may act positively because you want to make up for behaving negatively before.

For example, after giving the bathroom a thorough clean, you suddenly decide to tackle the kitchen, too. Or, after gorging yourself on rich food at that restaurant, you decide to walk home to burn some calories.

Unfortunately, behavioral spillovers can also make it difficult to act the way we consciously want to, which typically leads to guilt and frustration. Like the example at the start of this book summary, you may allow yourself a bad behavior (consuming a large burger and fries) because of your previous good behavior (working out at the gym).

Even worse, one negative decision may lead to another. We’ve all experienced that after clicking around on the internet all day, you give up on eating a healthy dinner and order takeout, defiantly claiming, “There’s no point now anyway, I’m having a lazy day!”

But to really make yourself happy, be aware of negative behavioral spillovers and see the gain in the positive ones.

5. You often misjudge your desires and goals, including how they impact your happiness

The prospect of being happier is the drive behind a lot of your decisions and actions. You may strive towards a particular goal at your work because you think it’ll make you happier when you reach it. Yet be careful when thinking about how future situations will affect your happiness, because we’re susceptible to making mistakes when doing so.

Consider that when people are asked to picture how being unable to walk would affect their happiness, they overestimate the impact because they are consciously focusing on the problems that come with the disability. In actuality, though, we get used to major changes – positive or negative – far more quickly than we expect.

How we think about the future is also colored by how we recall the past. It’s the peak moments of pleasure and pain that stick with us the most.

Say you’re at your friend’s wedding and you trip and fall on your face in front of everyone. That one moment of embarrassment might negatively affect your whole day, and even change your disposition about attending future weddings.

Worrying too much about future situations or achievements can prevent you from being happy right now. For example, focussing too much on achieving, especially in your job, may negatively impact your health and relationships, and distract you from your current experiences.

We also often begin goals with unreasonable expectations for ourselves and when we get frustrated, we end up settling for less, making our path unhappy most of the time. For instance, when we try to get fitter, we often aim for extreme exercise routines that are way beyond our capabilities. Then after inevitably failing to reach our expectations, we take a “what-the-heck?” attitude, leading to no more exercise.

So, when reaching for a better future, don’t forget about your quality of life in the present!

6. To decide what makes you happy, listen to immediate feedback from both yourself and others

As we’ve seen, we’re prone to letting our past and future cloud our happiness in the present. So how can we make decisions that bring us happiness both today and tomorrow?

We can learn to listen to feedback from our activities. Focussing on the feelings that come as a result of your daily activities will help you ascertain what really brings you happiness.

To start, you can use tracking methods such as the DRM (“Day Reconstruction Method”) to discover which activities and people bring you the most pleasure and purpose.

For one or two weeks, write down all of your activities each day, their length, who you were with, and rank them on a scale from one to ten to represent how much pleasure and purpose you experienced when doing them.

You might also want to ask other people for their thoughts and advice. Friends and family will, of course, have a more objective view on your current situation and might be in a good position to say how a decision might impact how you’ll feel in the future.

To get the most out of other people’s advice, ask specific rather than general questions. You might ask your partner, for example, “How do you think our daily routine would look in a few months if we decide to get married?”

Use this feedback to make better decisions and foresee your future happiness. Think about the immediate feedback you get from your activities in the past, as well as objective information from those around you. But avoid over-thinking. For example, we often spend a huge amount of time on minor decisions, like choosing the tiles for the new bathroom, and not much time on big decisions, like which house to buy.

7. By using unconscious mechanisms, you can design your environment to steer your attention toward things and behaviors that make you happy

By now, you should see how what you do affects your feelings, and you may wish to change how you behave in order to be happier.

The best way is by deceiving your unconscious brain.

You can start by redesigning your immediate environment to automatically make you happier. Even simple, small changes to the settings for your daily activities can alter your feelings towards them significantly, as well as help you form healthy habits and break bad ones.

For example, changing your office light bulb to a blue bulb can have a huge effect on your efficacy, as it’s been shown to biochemically increase alertness.

You can also set up primes and defaults that make you behave the way you wish with little effort. Fill your environment with incentives and reminders for positive behavior. So, if you want to go for a run in the morning, lay out the clothes you need the night before, and make a playlist of your favorite music to run to.

It’s a great idea to have people around you who support your goals and it’ll help to seek out people who have similar objectives to yours. For example, buddying up with a friend with the shared aim of losing weight will combine mutual support with friendly competition and will help both of you keep to your goal.

For extra incentive, you can make public promises regarding your goals. This will make you feel more obliged to reach them. If you want to quit smoking, tell everyone at your office. You’ll have the added motivation of avoiding the embarrassment of explaining yourself if you light a cigarette, and you might even receive some help.

Lastly, it’s important to stay realistic about what you want to achieve, why you want to achieve it and divide big plans into bite-sized steps.

8. To be happier, pay attention to what you’re doing, choosing to ignore distractions

Every day, we let ourselves get distracted. Our phones and new technologies are often what capture our attention almost constantly throughout the day. It’s become increasingly difficult to fully engage in a single activity and our brief attention span has become an obstacle to being happy.

The reality is, distraction costs time and energy and is destructive to happiness. In fact, just the act of moving your attention from one thing to another, such as from your work email to your Facebook feed takes “switching cost.” That is, your brain needs time and energy to re-orient itself between tasks, which leads to a decrease in efficacy in both tasks.

Imagine you’re trying to finish a paper for university whilst watching a film and texting your friend. Attempting to do all three simultaneously means you’ll do all three poorly. This multi-tasking stops you from consciously attending to any experience, focussing on what you gain from it and how it makes you feel.

If you immerse yourself in an activity, like talking to your friend without checking your phone, you’ll gain far more enjoyment and purpose from it.

So, what can you do to avoid distraction?

First, establish new defaults to break bad habits. You could switch off all non-essential notifications on your phone, keep it on silent as much as possible and even consider dropping internet on your phone altogether.

You can also make commitments to pay attention to your friends and family. For instance, when sitting down for a meal, play the “phone-stacking game” whereby everyone must place their phone in the middle of the table at the start of the evening and the first one to check theirs has to foot the bill.

Finally, make a mindful effort to focus on the “here and now,” whether it’s work or pleasure. Being in the moment becomes easier with some practice and will allow you to benefit more from your experiences.

In Review

The key message in this book:

Rather than overhauling your personality and radically changing how you think, you can increase your happiness by having a balance of pleasure and purpose in your everyday activities, focussing on their positive aspects and making small adjustments to your surroundings.

Actionable advice:

Spend more time with people you like and less with those you don’t!

It may seem obvious to socialize with people we like, but often we hang around with people who don’t bring out the fun or the purpose in our lives. So, make a concerted effort to surround yourself with people who do bring out your pleasures and purposes.

Do something for someone else.

Caring for others can foster a strong sense of purpose within us and make us feel incredibly good. One study showed that on average, participants felt happier when they spent $20 on somebody else rather than themselves. Consider what you might do regularly to help or give to others.


Have you ever sat in a beautifully designed chair or an exquisitely well-made sports car? Or maybe you’ve stopped and marveled at the design of your smartphone? If so, then you’ve experienced the bliss of quality design. Now, let’s imagine that you could tinker with and fine-tune your life so that it, too, was perfectly designed.

Just as designers solve everyday problems by creating new things, so can you too address the problems in your life by focusing on its design. Designers have tools and training at their disposal to help them in their work, and this book summary aim to give you the tools and training that will allow you to build a life that brings continuous joy.

You’ll also find out

  • what the four most important parts of life are and how you balance them;
  • how coherency between your beliefs and what you do will give you a compass for life; and
  • why you want to design several different types of life.
Happiness By Design 1

Designing Your Life

How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life


If you feel completely content with your personal and professional life, then consider yourself lucky. Most people are unhappy with at least some aspects of their life.

For instance, many people worry that they’ve chosen the wrong profession.

In a poll of US workers, two-thirds of the respondents expressed dissatisfaction with their job, some of them saying they feel trapped because their diploma is in a field they’d rather not be in. They have a degree in civil engineering, for instance, and feel doomed to pursue a career in this field that they never really enjoyed in the first place.

Indeed, around 31 million Americans between the ages of 44 and 70 would choose a different encore career if they could, one that gives them a sense of personal meaning and societal impact, as well as a steady paycheck, but they see no way of getting there.

With all these unsatisfied workers, what we need is a new way of designing our lives to meet our needs and desires.

A degree shouldn’t limit your options. After all, three-fourths of US college graduates end up in a field that has nothing to do with the subject they majored in. You may have chosen to get a certain degree, but it needn’t determine your future.

Whatever your age, background or profession, thinking like a designer and creating a well-designed life can bring you more satisfaction and joy.

A well-designed life is one that allows you to be creative, happy and fulfilled. It helps you to avoid feeling stuck and unproductive while providing you with a sense of freedom – freedom to change and grow, in both your personal and professional life – no matter how old you are.

Everything around you is designed: your house or apartment, the chair you sit on and the computers and devices you use. So why not design your life, too?


If you’re trying to get directions from Google Maps, you need to know more than just the destination; you also need to know your current location. The same is true when you start designing your life.

The first step to figuring out your current situation is to assess four critical areas in your life: health, workplayand love.

Health includes your emotional, mental and physical health.

Work includes both paid and volunteer jobs.

Play is any activity done simply for the fun of it.

And love applies to partners, children, friends and pets.

The goal is to find a healthy balance among all four of these areas, and the precise balance is totally up to you. Someone young will likely give more importance to play, while an elderly person might focus more on health.

After you’ve taken stock of these areas, it should become apparent to you if one is being neglected. For example, maybe you’re too focused on work, and it has caused both your health and your love life to suffer? Or maybe you’ve been too immersed in play and have neglected your career aspirations?

Once you’ve made this assessment, it’s time to assume a beginner’s mind and start asking the questions a complete novice would. A beginner’s mind is a great perspective to have whenever you’re facing a life-changing decision, such as which career to choose.

Let’s say you’re interested in studying marine biology because you love seals. Before you make the decision to start applying to colleges, approach the situation like a beginner and ask yourself basic questions like “What is the life of a marine biologist really like?” and “How much of it really involves seals?”

This will help you find the right direction. Maybe you should do some volunteer work on a research vessel to get a better idea of what the day to day is really like? If you approach situations with a beginner’s mind and ask the right questions, you’ll reduce the risk of regretting your choices later down the line.


A great many discoveries were made by explorers who had little more than a compass to guide them. When entering the great unknown of your future, you can use a compass as well.

In this case, the two guiding poles of your life are your workview and your lifeview.

Your workview is your own philosophy on work and what it means to you. Everyone has their own ideas about what “good work” entails and how important money and the societal impact are to their job satisfaction. Your idea of “good work” might be whatever earns enough to pay the bills, so long as you don’t have to work on weekends.

Likewise, your lifeview is your philosophy on life, meaning your personal values and perspectives on how it should be lived. This view covers things like how important religion is in your life, how you think society should function and what you consider to be moral and just. Your lifeview might, for instance, place a lot of importance on the environment and lead you to live a self-sustainable life on a farm somewhere.

When you start designing your life, reflect on these two areas and write down at least 250 words to accurately describe both. Try not to spend more than half an hour on each description.

Now, the goal is to find a coherent balance between the beliefs in your lifeview and the kind of job your workview suggests; if you can manage this balance, your compass will be correctly aligned.

Without the right balance, you’re bound to feel discontent and unhappy sooner or later, because you’ve compromised your beliefs, and therefore your integrity. If your lifeview says the planet must be treated with care, then you don’t want to take a job with a corporation that dumps chemicals into the ocean every day, right? And if your workview says that money and prestige are important to you, you need to choose a career that can realistically deliver those.

By taking both views into consideration when designing your life, you should be able to stay on course and know when to adjust your route.

Now that our compass is set let’s put it to use.


With your compass in proper working order, let’s take a closer look at engagement.

To live a joyful life, it’s important to know what engages and disengages you. And for this, a Good Time Journal can be an invaluable tool. This is a place to write down your experiences, in both good times and bad, and doing so will help you understand what brings joy to your life.

Throughout each day, wherever you are, write down how engaged and focused you feel, also noting if you’re unhappy or bored. Also, jot down what you were doing at the time.

One thing to make special note of is when you experience flow, where you become completely immersed in an activity and time seems to fly by. Maybe it happens when you’re researching a legal document or when you’re chopping carrots. Maybe you feel it when you play sports. It depends on you.

If you ever emerge from being in the zone and are surprised by how much time has passed, be sure to make note of what you were doing. These moments are a great indicator of your engagement, and you should keep them in mind when designing both your career and your life.

Another clue to help you find your way in life are your energy levels.

Every day involves both physical and mental work, but some activities take a bigger toll than others. And some activities can even raise your energy levels.

Use your Good Time Journal to keep track of which activities drain your energy and which ones help to sustain it. If you feel completely drained after sitting in meetings or doing data entry, but feel energized after pitching products to a potential customer, make a note of it.

Understanding how to stay energized and make the most of your day will be useful information for designing your life.

In the next book summary, we’ll look at what to do when your life has you feeling neither engaged nor energized, just stuck.


At one time or another, most of us have felt stuck.

Just consider the story of Grant, who was working at a car-rental company. Even though he had recently been offered a promotion, he still loathed having to deal with angry customers and boring contracts. He felt like a mere cog in the corporate machine with nothing to keep him engaged or energized.

Like a lot of people who don’t like their jobs, Grant looked to the weekend for engagement. He enjoyed hiking and playing basketball, but these energizing activities couldn’t pay the bills. In college, he’d studied literature, but he’d felt the need to jump at the first decent paying job he found, which is how he got stuck in the car-rental business.

Eventually, Grant got unstuck, after he did some mind mapping.

Because he knew he enjoyed doing things outdoors, Grant picked “outdoor activities” as his starting point and wrote this in the center of a sheet of paper. He began to free associate and jot down what popped into his head, like “hiking,” “surfing” and “travel.” For each of these, he made secondary associations. For hiking, it was “mountains” and “exploring”; for “travel” he wrote down “Hawaii” and “tropical beach.”

Now Grant could start to put these ideas together into a plan. He thought about accepting the promotion the company had offered, but only if he could relocate to another office where he could surf and enjoy the beaches, such as California or Hawaii.

This is how mind mapping works. It allows you to open your mind to new ideas that you otherwise might not have thought of. With just a pen and paper you can begin to find your new path.


 Most of us have regrets from time to time. If only I’d played that one situation slightly differently, we think, everything would be better today! But the truth is, there’s no single, specific choice that will lead to a perfect life.

In fact, there isn’t a single best or perfect way to live a life, period. Throughout your life, you’ll have many options to choose from, even if they aren’t always apparent.

This is why it’s important to think ahead and plan, or design, many possible lives for yourself – not just one.

Consider the story of Chung: when he graduated from UC Berkeley, he was offered four different internships, three of which were ones he’d hoped to receive. But he hadn’t expected to be in the position to choose among three great opportunities.

At first, he felt immense pressure to choose the right path. After all, this would likely influence his choice of graduate degree, his career and the rest of his life. But then it hit him: there’s nothing stopping him from doing all three one after the other – which is exactly what he chose to do.

But then came another twist: while doing his first internship, Chung spent a lot of time talking to his friends via Skype. He was so pleased with his decision to do all three internships that he felt motivated to help them with their career choices, too.

In the end, he realized he enjoyed this so much that he skipped the other internships and began studying career counseling in grad school.

You can do a similar thing by charting three different paths, which the author calls odyssey plans.

Life is an odyssey, with a variety of possible routes and circumstances, so it’s wise to give yourself at least three options. But don’t rank them from worst to best. Instead, have an open mind and look at them as three equal, and equally possible, plans. An example of three equal plans could be, for instance, becoming an ecological farmer, journalist or kibbutz volunteer.

At the Stanford Graduate School of Education, professor Dan Schwartz and his colleagues have observed that people who have multiple ideas from the get-go as to how to solve a problem are more likely to come up with innovative solutions than people who start out with just one idea. So don’t settle for a single path. Keep an open mind!

This way, if your first choice doesn’t work out, you won’t panic about not having a perfectly viable plan B to turn to.


The key message in this book:

You can be the designer of your own life. First, focus on your current situation, and the balance of work, health, play and love in your life. Then understand your workview and lifeview. Next, do some mind mapping to figure out three solid options of where you want to go.

Actionable advice:

Stuff keywords into your CV.

If you discover that you’re in the wrong line of work and decide to look for a new job, you should be aware that many companies often just automatically scan incoming CVs for certain keywords like a “Phd,” “creative” or “motivated”. Therefore, to ensure that your CV gets to the top of the pile that actual humans look at, you should stuff as many of those keywords into your CV as possible. Look at the job description for guidance as to which ones to include.

Happiness By Design 1

Designing Your Life

How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life
Happiness By Design 3