Do the stories we tell ourselves actually make us happy?

My question is whether the stories we tell ourselves actually make us happier.
- Professor Paul Dolan
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Stories are an important way for us to understand our lives. But Professor Paul Dolan’s latest book urges us to question the narratives that shape our choices if we want to find our own true happiness.

One of the most common ways we make sense of our lives is through stories. From the earliest cave paintings depicting spirits or symbols, to the fairy tales that offer moral messages to children, stories are a universal reference point helping to guide most people’s choices about how they live.

Professor Paul Dolan new book, The Happiness Myth, follows his bestselling Happiness by Design by looking at the narratives at the heart of our idea of wellbeing.

“Life is pretty chaotic without some structure and coherence, so narratives can make our lives easier to navigate. My question is whether the stories we tell ourselves actually make us happier.”

Professor Dolan writes that we use narratives to navigate every aspect of life — shaping our views on relationships, the pursuit of wealth, education, careers and our lifestyles. Each narrative suggests we will be happy if we achieve a certain status, and that no matter how much we already have, we are expected to be reaching for more.

This is based on the assumption that more happiness is achieved with the further accumulation of the markers of success. One of the problems with this idea is that the evidence shows that the returns on happiness get ever smaller the further up the ladder you go, and can eventually start to make us unhappy. Professor Dolan calls this the ‘narrative trap’. 

“The trap means we often make mistakes about what might make us happy. The logical question to ask ourselves about this constant pursuit is: why do things that actually make you miserable?”

In his book, Professor Dolan finds that while we are aware of narrative traps, we often succumb to them. He draws on studies consistently showing that when it comes to our friends, we are comfortable for them to pursue lives that are more likely to make them happy. But with ourselves, we are unable or unwilling to adhere to these same values.

Professor Dolan says: “The cynical explanation for this is that we like to see our friends fail and not achieve success because it makes us feel better about ourselves. But I think the truth is that it’s often easier for us to imagine our friends freeing themselves of these narratives than it is ourselves.

“Everyone knows it’s easier to give advice about how others should live their lives rather than taking advice ourselves. It’s difficult to go against the grain and change is hard.”

Although we often have a clear-eyed perspective on our friend’s lives, Professor Dolan notes that we are just as likely to make judgements about other people’s unconventional lifestyles. He says: “Some of the ways we behave towards others can be hugely damaging. This may be because we genuinely do not like what they are doing, but it can also be motivated by jealousy, envying how other people are free and wanting to be more like them.”

“For example, we judge single people very harshly, discriminating against them in a way that would be totally unacceptable if it were race or gender. Single people are seen as less grown-up somehow, and face different expectations in the workplace. There could be many reasons behind their situation, and projecting our narratives can be harmful.”

The book includes a number of personal anecdotes from Professor Dolan, who works in the Psychological and Behavioural Science Department and is one of relatively few academics at LSE who retains many of his working-class roots. He says his experiences of confounding other people’s expectations of how an academic should look and behave were a motivating factor in researching the power narratives have over our lives.

For his own two children, Poppy and Stanley, who he also writes about in his book, he hopes that they will find their own version of happiness. “I want my own children to be happy and pursue whatever lifestyle they want, but I know this will be tested.

“I’d love my kids to be different and choose different lives, but maybe that’s my own stories and my own values.”

Behind the article

Happy Ever After: Escaping The Myth of The Perfect Life by Paul Dolan is published by Penguin.