How to be happier

Professor Paul Dolan’s book on happiness challenges the social norms that underpin the way we live and work.

man at desk with head in hands plus open laptop and cup of coffee


Are you happy or do you feel trapped in a constant quest for money and status? Professor Paul Dolan says we need to rethink the ‘narrative traps’ that limit our definition of success and often make us unhappy.

His new book, Happy Ever After: Escaping the Myth of the Perfect Life, he examines some of the norms that are associated with a happy life, including wealth, education and marriage.

His contention is that happiness needs to be measured by how something makes us feel rather than by what we think should make us happy. Dolan says his intention is to provoke a conversation about happiness and to challenge the bases on which society is constructed. He asks, for instance, whether happiness is about always reaching for more – more money, more status, more ‘success’ – or is a culture of ‘just enough’ better?

Taking wealth as one example, he says happiness surveys seem to show that people are happier if they have a middle income than if they earn excessively. This seems to go against the subliminal messages we receive that not striving for more make us unambitious and lazy as well as those promoted in articles about wealthy lifestyles and wealth rankings.

Golden handcuffs vs personal growth

In a chapter on success, Dolan tackles our addiction to long working hours and status. He says students are heavily marketed to by the big consultancy firms which paint a glamorous picture of success, although these jobs may turn out to be ‘golden handcuffs’ for some.

He thinks schools and universities should do more to frame career choices in terms of personal growth rather than earnings and to encourage students to ask questions about the everyday reality of a job, such as what the hours are, whether they will be able to use a variety of skills, how much autonomy they might have and whether they will receive feedback. Employers, he adds, could do more to use happiness feedback to enhance employee well being and productivity.

Dolan suggests that by questioning the status-driven narrative of work we could change what we think of as success, for instance, valuing jobs which benefit society most over those which pay the most. He says following the ‘just enough’ approach could lead to a redistribution of resources away from consumption and away from those with more than enough towards those with little.

Social norms

The book also devotes chapters to a range of other social norms, including marriage, relationships and children. On education it shows that having more higher education does not necessarily make people happy and often makes people feel they have to fit a middle class norm.

For Dolan it is important to unpick our understanding of what such norms mean and question the pressure to conform to them if they don’t make us happy. He writes: “Our experiences are what matter, and not the stories we tell about them.”

The book ends with a call for greater openness to different ideas and approaches. Dolan states: “Genuinely embracing diversity can enhance personal experiences and broaden professional gains. This requires more than simply wider demographic representation in decision-making, which is where most of the discussions of diversity are focused. It requires diversity in attitude and opinion too, and an inclusive approach to properly allow for difference.”

*Happy Ever After: Escaping the Myth of the Perfect Life by Paul Dolan is published by Allen Lane, price £20.00.

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