Interview: Manel Baucells, Author of Engineering Happiness

Manel Baucells was the favourite Professor amongst students when I did my MBA at IESE Business School.  He taught Decision Analysis.  There are certain types of situation under which humans will take poor (rational) decisions.  We study this subject so that we can reduce the likelihood that we will take similar poor decisions under similar situations.  Examples of situations that cause poor decisions are sunk costs, loss aversion, prediction of low frequency events.

Manel’s new book “Engineering Happiness: A New Approach for Building a Joyful Lifehas just arrived to my Kindle.  I asked him to answer a few questions about the book, and about how a Microsoft Excel geek could end up at the fluffy end of psychology…  writing about happiness 😉

Interview with Manel Baucells

Engineering Happiness,
by Manel Baucells


What most surprised you in learning about happiness?
How much happiness depends on our attitudes, rather than on external circumstances.

What led you to write the book?
As professors, our audience are the students that attend our lectures and the colleagues that read our academic papers. There is a moment in our careers that we want to expand our audience, and publish a book for a broad audience. It is critical to choose a time that is not too early in one’s career, and ideas are not yet mature; or too late. Rakesh and I felt that this is a good time in our careers to write a book of this characteristics.

Who will benefit from reading the book?
Any one interested in being happier, or readers of popular science books. I feel that the audience for non-fiction, research based books is expanding. This increase is due, no doubt, to the growing quality and relevance of the research done in the social sciences.

What are the 3 most damaging things people do that reduce happiness?
The fundamental starting point of the book is that happiness equals reality minus expectations. There are three key things one needs to understand:

  • The first is that expectations shift. The moment one increases his or her living standards, one get adapted quite soon, and going back down is very painful.
  • The second is that our happiness is greatly influenced by how we compare with our peers, our comparison group.
  • The third is that happiness can be engineered by using a “less to more” approach. Always start low, and then increase.

What 3 things have you changed in your own life since writing the book?
Managing expectations better, create less to more (crescendo) patterns, and engage in activities that accumulate.

The book is accessible for anyone interested in the latest science on the field of human happiness: Engineering Happiness: A New Approach for Building a Joyful Life.


Have you read the book?  Did you have Manel as a professor?  What are your thoughts about the concept of mathematically measuring and improving “happiness”?

Rhetorical Fallacies: Sliding down a Slippery Slope with Pigs

“I learned long ago, never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.” George Bernard Shaw
Beware of Pigs

One tool of “pigs” in manipulative persuasion is the rhetorical fallacy.  A fallacy is a deliberate mis-use of logical argument.  You’ll find them regularly in political, social and family “discussions”.  Don’t get drawn in to a debate centered on a fallacy.  Ignore the fallacy and re-connect with the argument.

Here are eight common rhetorical fallacies:
  • Slippery slope – “If we let Europe regulate our banks, next we will all be speaking German“. This fallacy connotates a small (reasonable) step with a much larger (unreasonable) outcome.
  • Sweeping Generalization – “Smoking kills; therefore all smokers are suicidal“. This generalizes one element of a decision to smoke in absence of the broader set of reasons for smoking.
  • Hasty generalization – “Everyone I know likes chocolate; therefore everyone likes chocolate“. My sample is not representative of the larger population.
  • Straw man – “If we just open up our borders, every beggar, lazy and crazy will be here tomorrow.”   This is a false argument that avoids the real issue.
  • False choice – “You’re either with us, or against us.”  This statement presents 2 options when in reality 3 or more choices exist.  Another common example: “If you really loved me, you would…
  • Argument from authority – “Because I’m your father“.  There is no logic involved.  This is not an argument.  
  • Argument from force – “Give me the toy or my big brother will beat you up.”  No argument, just the threat of force.  It can be subtle.  
  • Ad hominem attacks – “Vote for me because the other guy is a liar.”  A personal attack, ignoring the actual argument.


Beware the Pigs Inside

These are used by other people, but I sometimes find that some of my own inner reasoning falls into the fallacy structure.  As I reflect on my own thinking processes, I watch carefully for use of these fallacies.  My ego loves to come up with self-serving but false logic to prove my “rightness”.

Have you spotted any fallacies today?

"You are not doing that right!"

When someone tells me that I am wrong, what do I learn?

“You are not doing that right!”

“How did you let this happen?”

Do I learn what is intended?

I don’t think so.  I don’t often know what is intended – that I should feel bad or guilty; or that I need to see the world in a different way, act in a different way?  However, what I really learn; being honest is something quite different.

What do I really learn when you tell me I am wrong?

I do often learn one of three things:

  1. You are stupid
  2. You are blind
  3. It is no fun talking to you
Jake Lacaze tells a simple story of a time his mother didn’t tell him he was wrong, but allowed him to learn from a situation.
I have regularly focused on my “rightness” in conversations; and in winning the battle of “rightness”, I lost days of friendship.  
Marshall Goldsmith tells us to question “Is is worth it?” as I begin to get into a proof of how another is wrong.  I can learn to use the Japanese “Yes”:  I hear you, I understand that you see it that way from your point of view; but I don’t accept or deny the statement.  I don’t enter into a battle for truth, only accept that 2 different people are guaranteed to have 2 different points of view.  
There is a story about blindfolded kids and an elephant that I remember.  I am sure you can google it if you haven’t heard it.
If you think you are good at listening without judging try this 1 day listening challenge 😉
So, do you think I am wrong?  Or the bigger question, if you did think so, how could you really engage with me in a way that might allow me to open up to the possibility?

5 Basic Laws of Human Stupidity

Carlo Cipolla

These laws were identified and developed by Carlo M. Cipolla who was Professor of Economics at UC Berkeley up his death in the year 2000.  The full description and implication of these 5 basic laws can be read in his article

The 5 Basic Laws of Human Stupidity

The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity.

  • Law 1: Underestimation Always and inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.
  • Law 2: Independence The probability that a certain person be stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person.
  • Law 3: Loss A stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses.
  • Law 4: Cost Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals. In particular non-stupid people constantly forget that at all times and places and under any circumstances to deal and/or associate with stupid people always turns out to be a costly mistake.
  • Law 5: Danger A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person.
From law 3 we have four basic categories of human action: helpless, intelligent, bandit and stupid.

The 4 Basic Categories of Human Action

If Dan does something that causes him loss, but gain to Sarah this is helpless.  If Dan does something that causes gain to him and gain to Sarah, this is intelligent.  If Dan does something that causes gain to him and loss to Sarah, this is bandit.  Now…  If Dan does something that causes loss to himself, and loss to Sarah…  this is true stupidity.

In many economic theories a human is assumed to act rationally.  In such theories, Dan would never knowingly cause loss to himself.

In real life we all regularly come into contact with Stupid Dan.

How can economists build models that take into account Stupid Dan?  How can we predict if the person in front of us, our colleague, our boss is about to choose Stupid rather than Helpless, Bandit or Intelligent action?


How can we reduce the possibility of Stupid Action?

Simple Rules for Effective Meetings

Here’s a new rule for people who wish to create a meeting:

Al Pittampalli asks “What difference could you make that requires no one’s permission other than your own?”  Do that first.  Don’t call the meeting until you have done that.

What do you think?  Feasible?

A Vaccination for The Meeting Virus?

“Lets meet to discuss it”  Black holes.  Time sinks.  They feel like progress, but they really are avoidance of the real work.

The average man spends 4.34 hours each week in meetings, the average woman 2.28.  75% say that these meetings were ineffective (NY Times research).

In my years as a management consultant with Accenture I was privileged to live 10 corporate cultures.  I worked in oil, retail banking, insurance, government department, monopoly telephone and mobile telephony.

Nowhere was the culture of meetings more widespread nor more ineffective than the ex-monopoly telephony company.  There were many employees whose concept of a job was attending meetings.  They did nothing except travel to meetings, sit through meetings, plan meetings and complain about having to attend so many meetings.  However, they spent so much time in meetings because it was far easier than the alternative of actually taking a decision, justifying it and getting on with implementation.  Meetings were used as an escape from personal responsibility.

“What difference could you make that requires no one’s permission other than your own?” 

If you have done that, and now need further resources you can call a meeting.

The leader’s role is to take the difficult decisions.  The meeting’s role is to present that decision and plan execution.  The leader’s role is to keep the meeting on track.  Anything that does not contribute to refining the decision or executing the decision should be taken offline.  Writing side issues up on a big flip chart in the room can be a great way of showing that these side issues have not been ignored, but this is not the time and place to debate them.

If the leader does not know what decision to take, a group meeting will not help.  1-to-1 sessions with affected people, peers, consultants can help the leader shape the criteria for the decision.  Often the most powerful tool is a blank sheet of paper and some time alone reflecting and thinking.  No meeting should be called without the basic criteria for taking the decision already in place.

How to solve Problems

Problem solving in business should be systematic.  Intuition has a role, but only within a systematic framework that ensures you are looking at the whole picture before jumping to an overly simplistic solution.  Here are 6 Steps for Business Problem Solving.  Work through these 6 steps before asking others for input.

My New Rules for Meetings…

  • There Must be an Agenda – No plan, no meet; How? and What? are both important; Plan together, agree agenda;
  • Hard edges – start and end on time. The end time is as important as the start time; don’t accept drift – leave. Don’t waste people’s time, finish when done.
  • Provide work for meeting – Don’t let people just wander into the meeting and say “Hey, so what is this all about then?”  Give pre-reading.  Give questions to consider before people attend the meeting.
  • Chair the Meeting – Participate, get focus, maintain momentum and reach closure;
  • Bring Tools – Each person must have pencil, paper, agenda;  Meetings are REAL WORK.  Require preparation. Give people things to read or do before the meeting, and if they don’t, kick them out.
  • Parking Lot – Send off-topic ideas to the Parking lot.  Do not allow drift.  It is not just your time that you are abusing.
  • Demand Presence – Mobiles off?
  • Include Everyone – End asking “Did we miss anything?” to every participant
  • End with Actions –  Distribute minutes (who was there, key items discussed, actions agreed with completion date); The organizer of the meeting is required to send a short email summary, with action items, to every attendee within ten minutes of the end of the meeting.
  • Seth Godin’s Rule – If someone is more than two minutes later than the last person to the meeting, they have to pay a fine of €10 to the coffee fund.


And 3 bonus ideas… but not quite in the category of Rules

  • Start with something interesting – A story, Music, a video, One word from each person… something that breaks with mundane and says that this meeting will be different
  • Preparation 10 minutes before – Every participant should be taking the 10 minutes before the meeting begins to think through how they can participate, what a good outcome looks like, what questions they have.
  • Sometimes…  Remove chairs – Don’t allow people to be comfortable – keeps discussion short and focusses on getting closure and action.

Can we put these rules to work?  Any thoughts?  Would love for you to join the discussion here on the LinkedIn Group.  Have a great Friday.

6 Steps for Business Problem Solving

The 6 steps for Business Problem Solving

  1. What is the Problem?
  2. What Alternatives exist?
  3. What Criteria are important?
  4. Analyse alternatives against criteria
  5. Choose the Best Option.
  6. Define the Execution Plan.

These steps come from the IESE MBA Course Analysis of Business Problems (ABP).  Wikipedia has a great section on Structured Decision Making models.