Escaping the myth of the perfect life

A new book challenges the narrative traps we live in which may or may not make us happy.

Mental Health - a women holding her head


What stops us from being happy? For Paul Dolan it is often the dominant narratives of success which can trap us into chasing things that contradict our own experience. We should, he says, be alert to the fact that these narratives can harm as well as help.

Dolan has spent a lot of time as a health economist evaluating the benefits of health interventions so resources can be used most effectively. He became concerned that looking at the statistics was not a very good way of predicting and forecasting how interventions affect us in the long term and felt it made more sense to directly assess their impact by asking people how they made them feel. After years of doing this he felt he had enough material to write a book about how to design a happier life.

Although that first book, Happiness by Design: Finding Pleasure and Purpose in Everyday Life, is closely related to his new book, Happy Ever After: Escaping the Myth of the Perfect Life, Dolan says they are not chronological and either could be read first. The first book deals with how we can make our lives happier while the second gives an insight into the kind of social narratives that stop us being happy.

Happy Ever After begins with an anecdote about Dolan, a Professor of Behavioural Science at the LSE, being essentially told by a member of the audience at a philosophy festival that he should behave in a more middle class way. “He felt uncomfortable that I did not conform to the academic norm,” he says.

Dolan says his book is about questioning norms such as going to university, climbing the career ladder and having children, not about making people behave in certain ways. ”If the norms suit them it’s fine, but we should be aware that they might not be for everyone,” he says.

The problem is compounded when people who buck the norms are judged and when society is organised in a way that doesn’t recognise difference.  For instance, society is organised around the idea that success means money and status, says Dolan. “There is an evolutionary advantage to status, but we do not have to measure success in material gain,” he comments, citing how there are many rich lists in contrast to those ranking the world’s highest taxpayer. “There is nothing stopping us making more of the good things people do with their time and money,” he says.

Work life balance

In the section on success Dolan also discusses our long hours culture, which often results in burnout. He admits it is hard to counter the narrative and find work life balance. “Sometimes we recognise that working long hours is not making us happy, but we don’t know how to stop. It’s like an addiction,” he says.

He admits it is harder for women because the expectations on them with regard to work life balance are greater. Research shows, for instance, the impact on wellbeing of commuting is far greater for women with children than men or single women because the expectations on – and the judgement of – them as carers are greater. Dolan, a dad to two children, thinks this is changing, but says transition periods can be challenging, even if they mean we end up in a better place.

The book questions a whole range of other norms. For instance, the pressure to procreate. Dolan says many parents have children because they think it will make them happy and find it difficult to admit if it doesn’t. And social conventions mean people who don’t have children are treated differently to those who do and as if there is something wrong with them.

One of the norms he addresses in the book is the idea that education is a path to social mobility. Being working class, he is very aware that working class kids rarely succeed in the traditional ways society measures success and often feel excluded from the middle class university environment. He had assumed education was mainly a good thing, but his research shows that this is not always the case. As in other sections of the book, he questions how society might organise itself if it were more open to different narratives. Perhaps more spending on further education and investing in the living wage would be more effective forms of social mobility for some than an academic path, he argues.


Dolan would like to see a society that is more accepting of different points of view and ways of being. He says diversity in the workplace tends to be seen as being about different visible characteristics. “But if all these different people think the same way what is the point of diversity?” he asks. “There is no diversity of values or attitudes.”

Class is one issue that tends to get left out of current diversity discussions, he says, and current social norms dictate that working class people have to become middle class in order to be successful and take on middle class values. “It’s sort of like women having to become men in the workplace,” he states, returning to the comment made to him at the philosophy festival. Why should he behave in a certain way as an academic? he asks.

He adds that the debate on gender diversity tends to focus too much on middle class issues of leadership and the professions and not enough on those working in lower-income jobs, for instance, how to get more men into these and how to challenge the norms and improve conditions.

He states: “Genuinely embracing diversity can enhance personal experiences and broaden professional gains. This requires more than simply wider demographic representations 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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