Don’t worry, be wealthy

Paul Dolan’s Happy Ever After frustratingly fails to address obvious questions about our idea of happiness

Books
Paul Dolan: Wants us to escape the myth of the perfect life (PH!riaalondon CC BY-SA 4.0)

I don’t mind what you do, darling, provided it makes you happy.

This is what many parents say to their children. And it is what Paul Dolan says in Happy Ever After. He wants his readers to escape “the myth of the perfect life”. More particularly, he wants to show that achieving the typical aspirations of modern Westerners won’t necessarily make you happy. You can fail to be rich, successful, educated, monogamous, married, a parent, altruistic, healthy, and self-directed . . . and still be happy.

Dolan is a professor of behavioural science at the London School of Economics, specialising in happiness. Along with Robert Metcalfe and Lord Layard of Highgate, he wrote the methodology document for the Cameron government’s happiness research and the questions about happiness now included in the household survey. Happy Ever After is a sequel to his best-selling Happy by Design.

The book is clearly organised, with a chapter on each of the nine aspirations that Dolan claims trap many people in unhappiness. His argumentative strategy is also clear. He shows that achieving the goal in question — wealth, education or whatever — does not, on average, make people happier. He then claims we would be better off if we didn’t value these aspirations so highly and didn’t judge people who did not aspire to them, or who do not achieve them.

Not judging people is important to Dolan. Indeed, he begins and ends the book with a story about being judged at the “How the Light Gets In” festival in Hay-on-Wye. After he had spoken, a man in his fifties approached Dolan and told him that, although he agreed with his ideas, he wished he would stop playing the “working-class hero”. He was referring to Dolan’s habit of swearing.

This is exactly the kind of thing Dolan is talking about. Because he is a professor, people want to impose middle-class norms on him. But Dolan is working-class and he will swear if it makes him happy. And anyway, research has shown that swearing is rhetorically effective, so “the idea that swearing is bad is a fucking stupid one”.

The book is then laced with swearing and references to Dolan’s working-class background and bodybuilding mates. We also learn that he has a wonderful family: wife Les and kids Poppy and Stanley, who is really good at squash. Dolan has been the star of a TV show, but it didn’t make him rich and he had to work stupidly long hours in the heat of Mexico. He lives in a big five-bedroom house in Hove, though he doesn’t aspire to an even bigger one.

If only every Englishman could be so free of class-based self-consciousness!

Despite the joy of getting to know Dolan and his family, Happy Ever After is frustrating because he fails to address obvious and fundamental questions — questions that he raises himself, if inadvertently. At the beginning of each chapter, he invites the reader to ask himself a question. Which do you prefer:

A. Achieving the goal in question (wealth, education, etc) and often feeling miserable, or

B. Achieving the goal in question and rarely feeling miserable.

After his discussion of the goal and its relationship with happiness, he reveals what proportion of people (independently surveyed) prefer the goal to happiness. It ranges from 10 per cent to 60 per cent, depending on the goal.

The obvious question is: if many people prefer wealth (or whatever) to happiness, why does Dolan recommend changing cultural norms and public policy to make them pursue happiness rather than wealth? Dolan cannot reply that they are suffering from a delusion that wealth will make them happy. They have explicitly said that they prefer wealth to happiness. Dolan must explain why this preference is wrong. But he does not even try to. He simply assumes that placing anything ahead of happiness is a mistake.

Matters become yet worse for Dolan’s pro-happiness agenda. Happy Ever After strongly suggests that, apart from some terrible circumstances — such as poverty and extreme ill-health — nothing makes much difference to happiness. Consider income. Here is the average self-assessed happiness (on a scale of 0-6) of Americans by annual income bracket: $0-25,000 (4.3 happy), $25-50,000 (4.4), $50-75,000 (4.4), $75-100,000 (4.4), above $100,000 (4.3). Similar results are shown for educational attainment and marital status. And in the chapter where Dolan dismisses free will as an illusion (which also means we shouldn’t judge people), he claims that genes are an important determinant of happiness.

The natural response is surely to revise the parental slogan: I don’t mind what you do, darling, because it won’t make any difference to your happiness anyway. Or better: chase money, success and health, darling. Would you rather be 4.3 happy and poor, or 4.3 happy and rich?

I know this darling’s answer.