Whose life are you living?

Sad and happy icons.
Are you happy with the choices you’ve made in life?

Whose life are you living? How concerned should you be by other's opinions? My column in last week's Southern Star is reproduced below.  


How concerned should you be by the opinions of others? Are you happy with the choices you’ve made in life, or were those choices swayed by social pressures? 


Those questions came to mind after reading a recent article by Paul Dolan, author of a new book called Happy Ever After: Escaping the Myth of the Perfect Life. Dolan, who comes from a working-class background, is a respected happiness expert and Professor of Behavioural Science at the London School of Economics. However, that brings its own expectations. He relates how he was once involved in a panel discussion at a festival. Afterwards, a man approached him to say how he liked Dolan’s first book, Happiness by Design, before pointedly adding: ‘But why do you have to play the working-class hero?’ Dolan, he said, had twice cursed during the panel discussion. ‘When you reach a certain level’, he was told, ‘you have to modify your behaviour’.


This was not an isolated example. Dolan previously wrote a Guardian article about what makes him happy and what doesn’t. In it, he mentioned he had never read a novel and had no intention of starting, playfully adding: ‘Each to their own, eh?’ Apparently not – he was ‘judged very harshly for this by other academics as well as in the press’ (if you read the insulting online comments accompanying that article, you’ll see he’s not exaggerating). Not only is he expected to conform to images of how professors should behave when working, ‘I am expected to use my leisure time in ways that conform with the stereotype, too’.



Happy florist.
A job that makes you miserable is not a good job.

Dolan wants people to resist social pressures and do whatever makes them happy, but that can be tricky. He tells the story of a friend who worked for a prestigious media company. Over dinner, the friend spent hours describing how miserable she was at work, complaining about her boss, colleagues and commute. At the end of dinner, she said; ‘Of course, I love working at MediaLand’. 


The story ‘highlights the very common inner conflict between the social narrative of success, which values status and recognition in a job, and personal experiences of happiness in the job’, Dolan writes. ‘My friend was experiencing pain and pointlessness at work, but the narrative she told about her job was totally unrelated. A job that makes us miserable is not a good job, but we can convince ourselves it is if it has high status. MediaLand is somewhere my friend had always wanted to work, her parents were proud of her, and her friends were a little bit jealous. So the narrative she created for herself comes from the broader social narrative of status’.


To repeat: a job that makes us miserable is not a good job. What is? One way of answering this question is to ask how happy your job makes you day to day. In one major survey, Dolan notes 87 per cent of florists said they were happy compared to 64 per cent of lawyers. Were the florists happier to begin with than those who chose to become lawyers? Maybe, but Dolan points out aspects to jobs like floristry that make them more conducive to happiness than other jobs – for example, working with nature, regularly seeing the fruits of your labour, generally being around people who want to be with you, and feeling like you have control over your workload. Focusing on the likely day-to-day experiences of work ‘can help us avoid the unnecessary pain and pointlessness that often accompany adherence to the narrative of what a “good” job looks like’, adds Dolan.



Happy woman on mountain.
'To be happy, we must not be too concerned with others'.

Do what makes you happy – simple advice, but it’s not always easy to follow. People often make the wrong choice in life – because it is expected of them, or to make others jealous, or to keep up with the Jones’s. Try to resist these impulses. ‘Each of us has to decide for ourselves when we conform and the circumstances under which we want to stand out’, says Paul Dolan. ‘We can each live our lives in ways that reduce our own misery as much as possible’. Or, to quote the late French writer Albert Camus: ‘To be happy, we must not be too concerned with others’.