Happy Ever After

by Paul Dolan

Cover image

Publisher: Penguin
Copyright: 2019
ISBN: 0-241-28445-7
Format: Kindle
Pages: 186

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Paul Dolan is a professor of behavioral science at the London School of Economics, but grew up a working-class kid in a council estate (UK public housing; the US equivalent is the projects) in London. This intentionally provocative book looks at a list of nine things that we have been taught to believe will make us happy and presents evidence against that assumption. Dolan's goal is to question social narratives of success and to advocate for a different philosophical basis for life decisions: minimizing misery (negative utilitarianism), rather than trying to maximize happiness.

Happy Ever After is an argument against rules and, specifically, against judging people by rules rather than outcomes:

There is nothing inherently good or bad in a social narrative in itself; it can only ever be judged according to the costs and benefits of adhering to it in a given context. I therefore adopt a consequentialist position in contrast to a deontological one. A consequentialist's view on theft would be that it is only ever wrong when it causes more misery than it promotes happiness, whereas a deontologist would be duty bound to argue that theft is always wrong because moral value lies in certain rules of conduct. A deontological perspective typically does not allow for the importance of context. And yet I would contend that it is morally right to steal to feed your hungry child.

This is obviously a drastically simplified explanation of a complex philosophical debate, but those of you who know my political beliefs probably see why I picked up this book.

Before I dive into the details, though, one note about accuracy. One of Dolan's most provocative claims is that marriage does not, on average, make women happy, a claim repeated in an article in The Guardian (now amended to remove the claim). This claim is not supported by the data he references in this book. It was based on a misunderstanding of the coding of results in the American Time Use Survey and has been subsequently retracted by Dolan.

This is a good caution to have in the back of your mind. Dolan, as is typical for a book of this sort, cites a lot of surveys and statistics. At least some of those citations are wrong. Many more are probably unreproducible. This is not a problem unique to Dolan; as the Vox article points out, most books are fact-checked only by the author, and even academic papers have fallen prey to the replication crisis. Hard factual data, particularly about psychology, is hard to come by.

How fatal this is for Dolan's book is a judgment for the reader. Personally, I'm dubious of most psychological studies and read books like this primarily for opportunities of insight into my own life and my own decision-making processes. Whether or not statistics say that marriage makes women happier on average, Dolan's actual point stands: there is no reason to believe that marriage will necessarily make any specific woman happier, and thus pursuit of marriage as a universal life goal is on dubious ground. The key contention of Happy Ever After, in my reading of it, is that we measure ourselves and others against universal social narratives and mete out punishment for falling short, even if there is no reason to believe that social narrative should be universal. That in turn is a cause of unnecessary misery in the world that we could avoid.

Dolan divides his material into three meta-narratives, each with three sub-narratives: reaching (composed of wealthy, successful, and educated), related (married, monogamous, and children), and responsible (altruistic, healthy, and volitional). For each, he provides some data questioning whether following that narrative truly makes us happy, and looks at ways where the narrative itself may be making us unhappy. Each chapter starts with a simple quiz that asks the reader to choose between a life (first for oneself and then for one's friend) that fulfills that narrative but makes them feel miserable frequently and a life that does not fulfill that narrative but in which they rarely feel miserable. At the end of each section, Dolan shows the results of that survey, all of which show at least some support (surprising to me) for choosing the narrative despite the cost of being miserable.

Some of these chapters I found unsurprising. I'm unmarried and don't intend to have children, so the chapters on marriage and children struck me as relatively obvious. Similarly, the lack of positive happiness benefit of wealth beyond a rather modest level is well-known, although I thought Dolan failed to engage sufficiently with the risk of misery from being poor. A significant motivation for pursuing modest wealth for many people is to acquire a form of self-insurance against financial disasters, particularly in the US with our appalling lack of a safety net.

I had the most mental arguments with Dolan over education. Apparently (and not very surprisingly) this is the social narrative that I buy into the most strongly. But Dolan makes good points about how pushing a working-class kid to go to a middle-class or upper-class university can sever them from their friendship ties and emotional support network and force a really miserable adjustment, and it's not clear that the concrete benefits of education in their life are worth that. This would be even clearer if we hadn't started using college degree attainment as a credentialing system for many jobs that are not reliant on specialized education only attainable in college. (I'm looking at nearly the entire field of computing, for example.) Dolan goes farther than I would in arguing that no college education should be state-subsidized because it's inherently unfair for working-class people to be taxed to pay for middle-class educational structures. Still, I keep thinking back to this chapter during US political discussions about how important it is that we create some economic path for every US child to attend college. Is that really the correct public education policy? (See also Hofstadter's point in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life that some of the US obsession with college education is because, by comparison to Germany, our high-school and middle-school education is slow, relaxed, unchallenging, and insufficient.)

Altruistic and volitional may require a bit of additional explanation. Dolan's point with altruism is that we value a social narrative of giving for its own sake, without ego or reward. (I personally would trace this to Christianity; this was the interpretation of Matthew 6:6 that I was taught.) He argues that letting people show off their good deeds encourages more good deeds and helps others increases personal happiness. People who are more self-oriented in their motivations for volunteering stick with volunteer projects for longer. I thought of free software here, where self-interested reasons for volunteering are commonplace and accepted (scratching your own itch) rather than socially shunned, and considered part of the healthy texture of the community.

The chapter on volition recaps some of the evidence (which I've also seen in other books) that less of our life and our decisions stem from individual choice than we would like to think, and that some of our perception of free will is probably a cognitive illusion. Dolan isn't too interested in trying to undermine the reader's own sense of free will, but does want to undermine our belief in the free will of other people. His target here is the abiding political belief that other people get the life outcomes they deserve, and that poor people are poor because they're lazy or make bad choices. If we let go of the social narrative of volition and instead judge interventions solely by their results, we have fewer excuses to not collectively tackle problems and fewer justifications for negatively judging other people for their own misery.

I'm not sure I recommend this whole book. It's delightfully contrarian, but somewhat slim on new ideas (particularly if you've read broadly about happiness and life satisfaction) and heavy on studies that you should be somewhat dubious about. I'm still thinking about the chapter on education, though. How much you get out of it may depend on how many of Dolan's narratives you agree with going into the book.

Also, although I didn't discuss it in detail, mad props to Dolan for taking on the assumption that striving to be healthy is a life goal that should override happiness. We need a lot more questioning of that specific narrative.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2019-11-09

Last modified and spun 2019-11-10