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Happy Ever After

Escaping The Myth of The Perfect Life

By Paul Dolan
13-minute read
Audio available
Happy Ever After: Escaping The Myth of The Perfect Life by Paul Dolan

Happy Ever After (2018) asks us to question the powerful social narratives that influence our lives. It shows that many of the ideas that we hold unthinkingly, from feeling we should work hard and earn more money to a desire to be married with children, will not necessarily make us happy. And it offers a powerful argument that we should find our own path to a fulfilled life.

  • People looking to follow their own path in life
  • Anyone interested in social norms and group-think
  • People interested in behavioral science

Paul Dolan is a professor of behavioral science at the London School of Economics. A globally renowned expert on human behavior, he is the bestselling author of Happiness by Design.

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Happy Ever After

Escaping The Myth of The Perfect Life

By Paul Dolan
  • Read in 13 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 8 key ideas
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Happy Ever After: Escaping The Myth of The Perfect Life by Paul Dolan
Synopsis

Happy Ever After (2018) asks us to question the powerful social narratives that influence our lives. It shows that many of the ideas that we hold unthinkingly, from feeling we should work hard and earn more money to a desire to be married with children, will not necessarily make us happy. And it offers a powerful argument that we should find our own path to a fulfilled life.

Key idea 1 of 8

Getting richer is not necessarily a good way to be happy, especially if you compare yourself with others.

Money makes the world go round, as the popular saying goes. Certainly, the pursuit of riches is deeply ingrained in contemporary society. A 2008 poll from the Pew Research Center found that "being wealthy" was important to over half of Americans. Furthermore, a 2014 American Heartland Monitor survey found that half of Americans agreed with the view that being wealthy is not just important, but an actual precondition to living a good life. And in the United Kingdom, the Sunday Times publishes an annual Rich List celebrating those with the highest earnings.

But in reality, acquiring more and more money is not necessarily a guarantee of a happy life.

We have good data on this point, thanks to the American Time of Use Survey. This survey asks around 20,000 people questions about the happiness, sense of meaning, stress and tiredness associated with each of their daily activities. It shows that happiness rises in correlation with income up to a point but then actually falls as people get richer. Happiness peaks among Americans earning between $50,000 and $75,000. People earning $100,000 are no happier than those earning $25,000, and both are less happy than those earning in the sweet spot of $50,000 to $75,000.

So perhaps, rather than striving to earn even more, we should be aiming for the "just-enough" band of $50-75,000. That, for most people, would represent an increase in earnings. But it also shows that great riches won’t make you happier.

That’s particularly the case given that the relationship between wealth and happiness is heavily influenced by comparison. A 2007 study by Bob Frank, an expert on status and consumption, showed that the majority of people would be happier to live in a 3,000-square-foot house surrounded by 2,000-square-foot houses than to live in a 4,000-square-foot house surrounded by 6,000-square-foot houses. Most of us can relate to that. Perhaps you’ve been pleased with your $500 bonus at work. Then you discover that a colleague received $1,000, and suddenly your joy turns to anger.

Being rich is not a route to happiness, particularly if you are surrounded by others who are as rich or richer than you. And as we’ll see now, the same goes for success as it does for money.

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