Singers and dancers perform to Pharrell William's 'Happy' during celebrations at Universal Studios. Photo: Getty
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The book that will make you quit your job

Paul Dolan believes all humans strive for happiness, which he defines as a combination of pleasure and a sense of purpose. The problem is that we are often very bad at maximising our own well-being.

Bosses who find their staff reading copies of Paul Dolan’s Happiness by Design should feel wary. “The social media person at Penguin read the book and quit,” Dolan tells me. “Someone else read the draft and dumped her boyfriend of eight years.”

I have come to meet Dolan in his office at the London School of Economics, where he is a professor of behavioural science. He relaxes into an armchair and offers me a sofa. Recently a student has helped him redesign his workspace using research into how physical environments affect behaviour. The soft furnishings were chosen to help promote easy conversation. His desk is oval to resemble a boardroom table and encourage discussion.

Dolan, who is 46, is wearing earrings and has styled his grey hair into a quiff. His shirt strains a little at the shoulders – evidence of his love for bodybuilding, which he describes earnestly in his book.

Dolan believes that all human beings strive for happiness, which he defines as a combination of pleasure and a sense of purpose. The problem is that we are often very bad at maximising our own well-being. In the passage that prompted my question about readers leaving their jobs, he describes how a friend who works for a media company spends a whole evening moaning: she dislikes her boss, her colleagues, her commute. At the end of dinner she tells him, “Of course, I love working for [the company].” (Incidentally, this friend, too, has now left her job.) “I use that story a lot in talks,” Dolan says. “I get a bit bored of saying it now, but when I tell the story, everyone nods.” He believes we often cling to the belief that our work or relationships are making us happy, perhaps because the job is prestigious, or our partner is “our type” – even when our day-to-day experience tells us otherwise.

For a start, the pursuit of success rarely leads to happiness, in part because not everyone achieves what they set out to do. “Lost happiness is lost happiness for ever. If you’re sticking with something that’s making you miserable, you’d better be pretty sure that you’re going to make that back in happiness units.” Dolan says he’d prefer it if his children – he has two, aged five and six – became builders, not bankers, because statistics show that, on average, the former are happier.

Dolan grew up on a council estate in Hackney and was the first in his family to go to university. “I knew I was going to do a job I wouldn’t like, so I thought I might as well put that off,” he says. It turned out he liked this “learning malarkey”. His first research job was at the Centre for Health Economics at the University of York, where he studied the impact of health conditions on quality of life.

He says his background has influenced his view of happiness and made him more “open-minded”. “There was this huge contrast between my working-class background, where I saw lots of experiences of pleasure and not a great deal of purpose, and the academic environment – especially LSE – where there’s lots of purpose but people don’t seem to be having much fun.”

He believes that upward social mobility often affects happiness because it can leave people feeling isolated. So he does his best to straddle his native and adopted worlds. “I’m sitting in my office in LSE,” he says, “but I’ll be back in my muscle-boy gym back in Brighton later, with all builders and doormen.”

From 2004 to 2005 Dolan worked with Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize-winning behavioural economist, and he was a member of the UK government’s “Nudge Unit” until 2011. This work has also made an impact on his outlook: he considers research into how people can, in effect, “nudge” themselves into being happier.

He offers sensible-sounding tips, including spending money on experiences rather than splurging on material goods: these rarely make you as happy as you think they will. A few suggestions seem banal, such as his observation that listening to music will boost your mood, but then medical advice on mental health is often similarly boring: eat your vegetables, do exercise. Some ideas seem a little selfish: surround yourself with happy people. Others are wacky – if a tidy house keeps you happy, why not invest in a lemon air freshener, as studies show that citrus scents encourage cleanliness?

“It may sound a bit smug, but I think I do a pretty good job of using my time and designing my environments in ways that mean I’m more likely to experience pleasure and purpose,” Dolan says. He certainly seems upbeat in our interview, often guffawing at his own jokes. As we part, he asks what I think of the book and adds: “So, are you going to leave your husband?” (I’m not.) And he throws back his head and laughs. 

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The new caliphate

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Daniel Hannan harks back to the days of empire - the Angevin Empire

Did the benign rule of some 12th century English kings make western France vote Macron over Le Pen?

I know a fair amount about British politics; I know a passable amount about American politics, too. But, as with so many of my fellow Britons, in the world beyond that, I’m lost.

So how are we, the monolingual Anglophone opinionators of the world, meant to interpret a presidential election in a country where everyone is rude enough to conduct all their politics in French?

Luckily, here’s Daniel Hannan to help us:

I suppose we always knew Dan still got a bit misty eyed at the notion of the empire. I just always thought it was the British Empire, not the Angevin one, that tugged his heartstrings so.

So what exactly are we to make of this po-faced, historically illiterate, geographically illiterate, quite fantastically stupid, most Hannan-y Hannan tweet of all time?

One possibility is that this was meant as a serious observation. Dan is genuinely saying that the parts of western France ruled by Henry II and sons in the 12th century – Brittany, Normandy, Anjou, Poitou, Aquitaine – remain more moderate than those to the east, which were never graced with the touch of English greatness. This, he is suggesting, is why they generally voted for Emmanuel Macron over Marine Le Pen.

There are a number of problems with this theory. The first is that it’s bollocks. Western France was never part of England – it remained, indeed, a part of a weakened kingdom of France. In some ways it would be more accurate to say that what really happened in 1154 was that some mid-ranking French nobles happened to inherit the English Crown.

Even if you buy the idea that England is the source of all ancient liberties (no), western France is unlikely to share its political culture, because it was never a part of the same polity: the two lands just happened to share a landlord for a while.

As it happens, they didn’t even share it for very long. By 1215, Henry’s youngest son John had done a pretty good job of losing all his territories in France, so that was the end of the Angevins. The English crown reconquered  various bits of France over the next couple of centuries, but, as you may have noticed, it hasn’t been much of a force there for some time now.

At any rate: while I know very little of French politics, I’m going to go out on a limb and guess the similarities between yesterday's electoral map and the Angevin Empire were a coincidence. I'm fairly confident that there have been other factors which have probably done more to shape the French political map than a personal empire that survived for the length of one not particularly long human life time 800 years ago. Some wars. Industrialisation. The odd revolution. You know the sort of thing.

If Daniel Hannan sucks at history, though, he also sucks at geography, since chunks of territory which owed fealty to the English crown actually voted Le Pen. These include western Normandy; they also include Calais, which remained English territory for much longer than any other part of France. This seems rather to knacker Hannan’s thesis.

So: that’s one possibility, that all this was an attempt to make serious point; but, Hannan being Hannan, it just happened to be a quite fantastically stupid one.

The other possibility is that he’s taking the piss. It’s genuinely difficult to know.

Either way, he instantly deleted the tweet. Because he realised we didn’t get the joke? Because he got two words the wrong way round? Because he realised he didn’t know where Calais was?

We’ll never know for sure. I’d ask him but, y’know, blocked.

UPDATE: Breaking news from the frontline of the internet: 

It. Was. A. Joke.

My god. He jokes. He makes light. He has a sense of fun.

This changes everything. I need to rethink my entire world view. What if... what if I've been wrong, all this time? What if Daniel Hannan is in fact one of the great, unappreciated comic voices of our time? What if I'm simply not in on the joke?

What if... what if Brexit is actually... good?

Daniel, if you're reading this – and let's be honest, you are definitely reading this – I am so sorry. I've been misunderstanding you all this time.

I owe you a pint (568.26 millilitres).

Serious offer, by the way.

 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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