The money, job, marriage myth: are you happy yet?

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The ‘success’ narrative is at the heart of our idea of wellbeing, but the evidence tells a different tale, argues behavioural scientist Paul Dolan in this extract from his new book

There are countless stories about how we ought to live our lives. We are expected to be ambitious; to want to be wealthy, successful and well educated; to get married, be monogamous and have kids. These social narratives can make our lives easier, by providing guidelines for behaviour, and they might sometimes make us happier, too. But they are, at their heart, stories – and ones that may not have originated with present-day people in mind. As such, many of these stories end up creating a kind of social dissonance whereby, perversely, they cause more harm than good.

Since we’re talking about stories, let’s start with an experience of mine. It’s about a working-class kid who becomes a university professor and who is expected to change his behaviour in accordance with a (harmful) narrative about how academics ought to behave. A couple of years ago, I took part in an interesting panel discussion on “emotion versus reason” at the HowTheLightGetsIn festival in Hay-on-Wye. Walking across the field to get some food, I was approached by a man in his 50s. Our interaction started with him saying how much he liked my first book, Happiness By Design. Then he asked, pointedly: “But why do you have to play the working-class hero? You do it in your book and, look at you, you’re doing it now.”

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