Books & Literature

Book Review: Happy Ever After: Escaping the Myth of the Perfect Life, by Paul Dolan

What if education, success, marriage, kids and health weren’t the answers to happiness we’re sold? What if you could find your own path?

Before you make another decision in your life: read this life-changing book!

Professor of Behavioural Science at the London School of Economics, Paul Dolan, is kind-of the punk-boy of popular academia. Well know for his previous work, Happiness By Design, and from his video talks, Dolan is a bluntly spoken, passionate advocate for the re-evaluation of our accepted notions of happiness and fulfilment.

In his latest work, Happy Ever After, Dolan takes the dominant social narratives and exposes them for what they really are: stories that we tell ourselves, that may, or may NOT be grounded in truth. He calls these narrative traps.

The work itself straddles the line between popular socio-psychology and self-help book. Although at no stage does Dolan evangelize, or even give the reader advice, he does begin each section with two simple questions. I found, as I worked through the book, that taking a couple of minutes to answer these questions, gave me a (sometimes quite confronting) insight into how much I buy into these narrative traps.

Dolan divides the work into three parts, grouping each of the narratives into the category of either Reaching, Related or Responsible. In doing so he covers such narratives as: be wealthy, be successful, be educated, get married, be monogamous, have children, be healthy, be volitional and, most interesting of all, be altruistic. In the latter category he pulls apart our obsession with charitable acts having to be completely altruistic, using David Bekham as a prime example. Beckham has given enormous amounts of time and money to children’s charities, but when a private email showed him to be furious that he had not been officially recognized for this work, his star fell rapidly. As Dolan points out “by not recognizing and accepting the importance of self-regard, this narrative can get in the way of the very thing it is trying to promote: namely, less suffering through more kindness.”

Each of the sections of this book contain gems of both information and engaging and witty writing. For example, in the section on marriage, he discusses the interesting statistics that show that sleeping in the same bed as someone else is just not that good for us. Research has shown that most people sleep better on their own, with the effect being especially marked in women. Dolan himself concludes, “you’re asleep for God’s sake: do you really need someone next to you? Certainly not every bloody night, that’s for sure.”

Happy Ever After combines research, philosophy, psychology and witty anecdotes. It doesn’t give answers, but rather asks a whole swag of very uncomfortable questions. But that doesn’t mean that it is an uncomfortable read: quite the contrary. This is an enormously readable and fascinating work. My copy is now dog-eared and underlined!

Before you make another decision in your life: read this book!

Reviewed by Tracey Korsten
Twitter: @TraceyKorsten

Distributed by: Penguin Random House Australia
Released: January 2019
RRP: $35 trade paperback, $45 hardcover

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