How Design Thinking Can Help You Create a Happier Life.

Learn how to create a happier life by applying design thinking principles. Discover five steps that will help you connect the dots, recognize your gravity problems, brainstorm your possible futures, try stuff, and choose well to design a life that facilitates creativity, productivity, change, evolution, and new opportunities.
Mark Waltenburg
7 min.

Table of contents.

Bill Burnett is the Executive Director of the Product Design Program and an adjunct professor at Stanford. He's also the co-founder of the Life Design lab and the co-author of the books "Designing Your Life" and "Designing Your Work Life."

In his TEDxStanford Talk, Bill Burnett shares 5 steps to help you create a happier life by applying design thinking principles. Let's take a closer look at these 5 principles. But before we do that, we need to address three common dysfunctional beliefs that hold us back.

Dysfunctional beliefs.

Dysfunctional belief #1: "Knowing your passion will tell you what you need to do with your life."

While having a passion is great, less than 20% of people have a single identifiable passion, according to Stanford professor Bill Damon's research. Therefore, it's a dysfunctional belief that you need a passion to start designing your life. Instead, reframe it as "You are okay, just where you are."

Dysfunctional belief #2: "By the time you're out of college, you should know where you're going. And if you don't know, you're late."

This belief is no longer applicable in today's dynamic and fluid society. You have the opportunity to explore different versions of yourself and your life. Reframe this belief as "Let's start from where we are. You're not late for anything."

Dysfunctional belief #3: "You should try to optimize the best possible version of yourself."

There is no evidence that life is a linear progression towards one singular "best" version of yourself. In fact, life is anything but linear. Instead, reframe this belief as "Life design is a journey. Let go of optimizing an end goal, focus on the process, and see where that brings you.

"Now that we've reframed these beliefs, let's explore the 5 principles that can help you create a happier life.

The 5 principles.

#1 Connect the dots.

Your life becomes more meaningful when you connect the three essential identities that shape your life: who you are, what you believe, and what you do. To do this, write down why you work and your ideas on the meaning of life. When you can connect your work and life views, you will start to experience your life as meaningful.

#2 Recognize your gravity problems.

Some problems in life are called "gravity problems," which means they are circumstances you are unwilling to work on. Accept these problems and decide whether you need to reframe and "work with" them or find a "workaround" and do something completely different.

#3 Brainstorm your possible futures and make three Odyssey Plans.

Imagine living in all the multiverses simultaneously and knowing what your life would be like in each of them. On average, most people can think of 7.5 really good lives they could see themselves living. So, let's go on an Odyssey and explore those other lives.

Life #1 is your current life and job, but make it better by doing all the bucket list items and exciting things you've thought about doing.

In Life #2, imagine your job no longer exists because AI and robots have taken over. What will you do instead? What will you do if Life #1 goes away?

Life #3 is your wild card plan. What would you do if money wasn't an issue, and nobody would laugh at you? There are no limits.

The exciting thing about ideating Odyssey Plans is realizing that these parallel lives are all fascinating and doable. You'll recognize that there are things, life ideas, that you have always wanted to do that are within your reach.

#4 Try stuff.

The only way to know if you like something is to try it. Create small experiments to test your assumptions and hypotheses. You don't have to make major life changes right away, but start small and try new things. Experimentation can help you identify what you enjoy, what you're good at, and what gives you purpose and meaning. Try things like taking a new class, joining a club, or volunteering for a cause you're passionate about.

#5 Choose well.

When people make decisions, they sometimes end up not being happy with them. Many experience FOMO, the fear of missing out, and worry a lot. "What if I didn't make the right choice?" "I'm worried about whether or not I made the best decision." "What if I change my mind?"

You can use the old rational pros and cons list technique to narrow down your choices. When choosing between options, you must consider your gut feeling and how your emotions play out. To make good decisions, you must be honest with yourself and listen.

Psychology tells us that making a good choice that is irrevocable will make you happier than if it wasn't irrevocable. When the choice has been made, you must let go of all the other options and move on. This is probably the most challenging part, but there is evidence that going "all in" is the best way to choose.


Summarizing the points of this article:

1) Connect the dots to find meaning and purpose, 2) Acknowledge the importance of gravity problems, 3) Do three Odyssey Plans, or three ideations for your life, 4) Prototype everything, and 5) Choose well and make your choices emotional and irrevocable.

The idea of designing your life is simple: Get curious, talk to people, try stuff, and tell your story. That's how you can achieve a well-designed life that facilitates your ability to be creative, productive, changing, evolving, and looking for new opportunities.

This post was adapted from a TEDxStanford Talk. You can watch it here.


Mark Waltenburg
Mark is a driven professional with a BSc in International Business from CBS, excels in leveraging data insights to unlock the potential of future leaders, creating a positive impact on employee well-being.

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