Engineering Happiness: A New Approach for Building a Joyful Life

Engineering Happiness: A New Approach for Building a Joyful Life

by Manel Baucells, Rakesh Sarin

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Manel Baucells and Rakesh Sarin have been conducting ground-breaking research on happiness for more than a decade, and in this book they distill their provocative findings into a lively, accessible guide for a wide audience of readers.
Integrating their own research with the latest thinking in the behavioral and social sciences—including management science

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Manel Baucells and Rakesh Sarin have been conducting ground-breaking research on happiness for more than a decade, and in this book they distill their provocative findings into a lively, accessible guide for a wide audience of readers.
Integrating their own research with the latest thinking in the behavioral and social sciences—including management science, psychology, and economics—they offer a new approach to the puzzle of happiness. Woven throughout with wisdom from the world’s religions and literatures, Engineering Happiness has something to offer everyone—regardless of background, profession, or aspiration—who wants to better understand, control, and attain a more joyful life.

• Shows how a few major principles can explain how happiness works and why it is so elusive

• Demonstrates how the essence of attaining happiness is choice

• Explores how to avoid happiness traps

• Tells how to recognize happiness triggers in everyday life

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Sarin and Baucells—a management professor at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management and business and economics professor at Barcelona’s Universitat Pompeu Fabra, respectively—provide an insightful and systematic approach to achieving happiness. They rely on a fundamental, seemingly simple equation that they tweak throughout the book: HAPPINESS equals REALITY minus EXPECTATIONS. “It is possible to define happiness in mathematical terms,” they write, measuring happiness in a unit they define as “happydons.” The authors discuss the role of relative comparison, cumulative comparison, expectations, sensitivity, and their effects on happiness. In the final chapter, “Building a Happier Life,” Sarin and Baucells offer concrete tips on how to achieve happiness, ranging from enjoying one’s meals, to improving the quality of one’s commute to work, to practicing frugality as way to tame expectations. This unique and refreshing look at happiness will appeal to anyone searching for a more fulfilling life. (Mar.)
Spirituality & Practice

In approach and in its creativity, Engineering Happiness is one of the best books on happiness in many a moon!”

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University of California Press
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Engineering Happiness

A New Approach for Building a Joyful Life

By Manel Baucells, Rakesh Sarin


Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95142-6


Measuring Happiness

When you can measure what you are speaking of and express it in numbers, you know that on which you are discoursing. But when you cannot measure it and express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a very meagre and unsatisfactory kind.

—Lord Kelvin, English physicist and mathematician

As with matter and energy, our understanding of happiness increases with the discovery of more and more precise measurement instruments. The great milestones of science, such as deciphering the motion of heavenly bodies, all began with the measurement of the object being studied. Without measurement, it is not possible to advance our understanding of the complex dynamics of the happiness seismogram.

There are at least seven ways to measure happiness. Each one helps to create a picture of what makes people happy. Let's see how these seven measurement devices work and the main findings each provides.


The primary strategy for measuring happiness is very simple but has proven to be very useful. It is as easy as asking people twice a year the simple question: All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days? Would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?

It may seem too simplistic an approach, and it is. It gives only an imprecise estimate of the average height of the happiness seismogram. The usual finding is that people are generally happy. We surveyed 103 people from Spain. In one of our questions, we asked them to rate their happiness on a 1 (low) to 10 (high) scale, and found that two-thirds gave an answer of 7 or higher.

Many researchers have developed more sophisticated self-report studies, attempting to take a more valid measurement of happiness. Ed Diener of the University of Illinois has conducted many such studies. He uses the following multiple-item questionnaire:

Indicate on a 1–7 scale [1 = strongly disagree, 7 = strongly agree] your agreement with each statement:

a. In most ways my life is close to my ideal.

b. The conditions of my life are excellent.

c. I am satisfied with my life.

d. So far I have gotten the important thing I want in life.

e. If I could live my life over, I would change almost nothing.

The average of the five scores is a measure of happiness. Such a measure is more precise than the measurement based on one question. Diener and colleagues have taken pains to show that these self-reported measures of well-being correlate reasonably well with other measurements of well-being, such as bodily measurements (levels of stress), evaluation of our happiness by friends and relatives, smiling, and experience sampling. Of course, self-reports can be biased in many ways. For instance, the emotion of the moment can have a disproportionate influence on the answer. If your partner is away on a long business trip, the momentary loneliness might lead you to answer that you are not that happy, even though you actually are. But, even taking the imprecision and potential for bias into account, the existing research suggests that, for many purposes, self-reported well-being is a useful indicator of individual happiness.

The usefulness of self-reports comes mostly from the vast quantity of data that have been collected using this method. Because collecting self-reports is cheap and easy, there is an ever-growing record of measurements taken in different countries, at different times, and from subjects experiencing all sorts of circumstances. These results comprise the content of the World Database of Happiness and the World Values Survey.

Studies based on these databases suggest that, across different countries, happiness is high among people with lots of friends, the young and the old, married and cohabiting people, the healthy, and the self-employed. Income has a moderate effect, although, as we will soon see, it is relative income that matters the most. Through this kind of approach, scientists have found that American millionaires living in huge, luxurious houses are barely happier than Masai warriors in Kenya who live in huts. Other research has attempted to put a price tag on overcoming adversity, suggesting that it takes millions of dollars to make up for the emotional turmoil of a relationship breakup or a job loss.

Another interesting finding is the relationship between happiness and age. When are we the happiest in our lives? The economists David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald tried to answer this question, examining data on well over a half million people from about seventy-two countries, both developed and undeveloped. They found that happiness follows a U-shaped curve over our lifetimes, or, for the more optimistic among us, a smile-shaped curve. In either case, happiness appears to dip to its lowest level in middle age.

They suggest that, on average, the low point of happiness occurs around age forty-four. The exact age varies from nation to nation and between genders, but it is always somewhere in middle age. After reaching middle age, happiness begins increasing, and by the time you reach an average of fifty years old, you can expect to be on the bright side of the curve again.

Although this U-shaped trend in happiness is certainly fascinating, it doesn't tell us anything about the causes of our happiness or why it should dip steadily until midlife before rising again.

One possibility is that individuals learn to adapt to their strengths and weaknesses, and are happier in the second half of their lives after accepting their limitations and giving up on early aspirations that cannot be met. It could also be that cheerful people systematically live longer than unhappy people, although that wouldn't account for the decline in happiness leading to middle age.

What about the effect of education? If we compare a person who has not completed high school with a college graduate, the more educated person will be on average 0.3 standard deviations higher in the happiness bell curve. If happiness were measured as in the SAT test score, with the average at 600 points, then the less educated would have a 585 and the more educated a 615. In our knowledge-based society, education has a moderate but positive effect on happiness.

Happiness and Productivity

The December 2007 edition of Perspectives on Psychological Science features the work of researchers from the University of Virginia, the University of Illinois, and Michigan State University. Scholars analyzed the behaviors and attitudes of 193 undergraduate students at the University of Illinois and observed data from the World Values Survey.

Among the conclusions drawn was that those who classify themselves as 8 or 9 on a 10-point scale were more successful in some aspects of their lives than those who consider themselves to be 10 on the happiness scale. People who are just "too happy" may be less inclined to alter their behavior or to adjust to external changes even when such flexibility offers an advantage.

"The highest levels of income, education, and political participation were reported not by the most satisfied individuals (10 on the 10-point scale)," the authors wrote, "but by moderately satisfied individuals (8 or 9 on the 10-point scale)."

The 10s earned significantly less money than the 8s and 9s. Their educational achievements and political engagement were also significantly lower than those who considered themselves to be moderately happy or "happy-but-not-blissful." In other words, being joyful all the time does not necessarily provide any drive to succeed.

Happy people tend to be optimistic, and even though this is a good characteristic, it could mislead people to view their symptoms too lightly, seek treatment too slowly, or simply not look into what could be a happier future just because the present is good enough now. The bottom line is that if you are perfectly fine with the way things are going, then you most likely won't want to do anything to change.

Income and Happiness

These large surveys on life satisfaction allow us to look at the relationship between money and happiness. Here are the two questions for which we have answers: Are richer countries happier than poorer countries? Are rich people happier than poor people?

The answer to the first question is as follows. If a poor nation moves from $4,000 to $5,000 in income per capita, its life satisfaction increases significantly. No surprises here. However, if a nation five times richer moves from $20,000 to $21,000 in income per capita, the effect of the same $1,000 increase on happiness is tiny. To experience the same increase in happiness, the rich nation needs an increase of $5,000 in income per capita. In poor countries, additional income is mostly spent on basic goods. Hence, money does matter a lot for happiness. In rich countries, additional income is mostly spent on adaptive goods, whose effect on happiness is temporary. (On the distinction between basic and adaptive goods, see the end of chapter 4.)

If we look at the evolution of happiness as the income per capita increases, we see a similar pattern (see figure 1). Once the income per capita reaches a minimum threshold of around $20,000, the effect of additional income on happiness becomes very small. Thus, there is a large increase in happiness up to the income level that is required to satisfy the basic needs and only a moderate increase beyond that level.

Let's move to the second question. Are rich people happier than poor people? We can compare the happiness of the rich and the poor in a given country at a given moment. This analysis shows that the rich are significantly happier than the poor. This holds true for both rich and poor countries. Social comparison explains these data quite well. Thus, as a country becomes richer its total happiness increases until the income per capita exceeds $20,000. Past this point, the total happiness of the country increases very little with increases in income. Nonetheless, regardless of the average income, within the country, the richer are happier than the poor because of the effect of social comparison. This implies that for a moderately affluent individual, an increase in money does increase happiness, but it does so mainly because of social comparison.

For lack of better measures, income and gross domestic product have been used as rods to measure the success of a society. The former president of Harvard Derek Bok argues that research on happiness can inform public policy and potentially aid in improving citizens' quality of life. He examines the policy implications of happiness research for economic growth, equality, retirement, unemployment, health care, mental illness, family programs, and education. In the United Kingdom, Richard Layard advocates that the goal of public policy is to maximize happiness. Income is important to the extent that it contributes to happiness. For instance, devoting public funds to improve mental health may be more happiness-efficient than using these same resources to improve infrastructure. Layard also claims that, when it comes to happiness, policies that produce stability may be more important than those that produce growth.

On March 18, 1968, Robert F. Kennedy challenged conventional wisdom in saying that the gross national product (GNP) measures everything except that which makes life worthwhile. Forty years later, the tiny kingdom of Bhutan (nestled between India and China) adopted gross national happiness (GNH) in place of GNP as the measure for tracking its progress. Economic indicators such as GNP focus largely on market transactions and thus are biased in favor of production and consumption. In contrast, GNH attempts to measure the quality of human experience and well-being in its totality. Along with living standards, GNH includes education, health, good governance, ecology, culture, time use, community vitality, and psychological well-being in order to measure the progress of a country. His Majesty King Khesar, the fifth Druk Gyalpo of Bhutan, ended his coronation address with a prayer "that the sun of peace and happiness may forever shine on our people."

Culture and Happiness

Surveys over several years have consistently revealed that Danes are happier than Americans. Though one can speculate about the reasons why Denmark and other Scandinavian countries score near the top in level of satisfaction, one must be cautious about cross-cultural comparisons. Researchers have examined, for example, whether the word satisfied in English and tilfreds in Danish could convey different meanings.

An intriguing finding from the survey data is that, in spite of an endowment of more favorable objective factors that are usually associated with well-being, such as vacation days, health care availability, and income per capita, French people show a lower level of life satisfaction than Danes. We do not resolve the question of whether Danes are truly happier than French, which someday may be settled through neurobiological methods; instead, we focus on how an individual living in Denmark or in France could improve his or her level of happiness through choices that are informed by our laws of happiness.


Surveys are the easiest and most widely used method to measure total happiness, but we would like to have a closer view of how happiness changes during the day. In other words, we would like to observe how the happiness seismogram goes up and down over time.

The Nobel Prize–winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman pioneered a new kind of happiness measurement approach, based on measuring, analyzing, and comparing how people spend their time and what kinds of affective experiences they have during distinct activities. Participants keep a diary of everything they do during the day, from reading the paper when they wake up to commuting, and even arguing with their bosses. Then they list their activities from the previous day, noting whom they were with, and rate the episodes on a range of feelings on a seven-point scale. The method aims to learn about people's daily lives and to rate how satisfied or annoyed, sad or joyful they felt.

A study using the day reconstruction method given to more than nine hundred women in Texas produced some surprising results. The women ranked the five most positive activities as being (in descending order) sex, socializing, relaxing, praying or meditating, and eating. Exercising and watching TV were not far behind (ahead of shopping and talking on the phone), but at the other end, curiously, taking care of their children ranked below cooking and only slightly above housework. Commuting was the lowest ranked activity.

This order may seem surprising, considering that parents tend to say their children are their biggest source of joy. Does that mean that parents are systematically lying about how much they enjoy raising their children? It is more likely the case that the joy of raising children is derived more from looking back and considering a lifetime of achievements rather than performing the day-to-day tasks of parenting. In other words, the daily grind of taking care of children—cleaning up after them, making sure they brush their teeth, and so on—is not necessarily a primary source of happiness, but the overall experience of being a parent may ultimately create a great deal of happiness.

Your happiness depends on not only what you are doing but also with whom. The same study that ranked the happiness derived from certain activities found that, on average, people enjoy their friends' company the most and, not surprisingly, their boss's the least. As we have all experienced, good company enhances the quality of any good experience. You enjoy the view from the beach, the concert, or even the cup of coffee more if you share those experiences with the right people.

The day reconstruction method takes all of these activities and social factors into account—as well as other factors, such as how well rested you are, which greatly influences day-to-day happiness—and determines an average rating of happiness throughout a given day. Looking at the evolution of happiness during the day, we conclude that the subjects of this study are not morning people, they really enjoy their lunch hours, and their happiest time is at the end of the day. Sound familiar?


Excerpted from Engineering Happiness by Manel Baucells, Rakesh Sarin. Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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From the Publisher
In approach and in its creativity, Engineering Happiness is one of the best books on happiness in many a moon!"—Spirituality & Practice

Meet the Author

Manel Baucells is Professor of Business and Economics at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona. Rakesh Sarin is Paine Professor of Management at the Anderson School of Management at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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