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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Bomb Isil? That's exactly what they want

The government appears not to answer the nature of its enemy, warns Maria Norris.

As MPs are set to vote on further airstrikes in Syria, it is difficult to shake off the feeling that the government does not fully appreciate the complexity of the problem Isil poses. Just a cursory glance at its magazine, the pronouncements of its leaders and its ideology reveals that Isil is desperate for Western bombs to fall out of the sky. As Martin Chulov argues, Isil is fighting a war it believes was preordained since the early days of Islam. Isil’s obsession with the city of Dabiq, in Northern Syria, stems from a hadith which prophesises that the ‘Crusader’ army will land in the city as a precursor to a final battle where Islam will emerge victorious. Dabiq is also the name of its magazine, which starts every issue with the same quote: "The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify -- by Allah's permission -- until it burns the crusader armies in Dabiq". Isil wants a war with the West. If we don’t negotiate with terrorists, then we also should not give them what they want.

Further, bombs are indiscriminate and will inevitably lead to the suffering of those trapped in Isil territories. Isil is counting on this suffering to swell their ranks. Civilian suffering from airstrikes only underline the narrative that the West is at war with Islam, which plays directly into Isil’s hands. And despite misleading headlines and the genuine government concern with individuals fleeing to Syria, Isis is supremely unpopular. It is no wonder that its magazine is filled with glossy adds begging people to move to its territories.  You cannot be a state without people. Terrorist attacks such as Paris thus have a two-pronged purpose: they provoke the West to respond with its military, and they act as a recruitment drive. The fact that fake Syrian passports were found around the sites of the Paris attacks is no coincidence as Isil are both seeking to stem the flow of refugees from its territories and hoping to provoke an Islamophobic backlash. They hope that, as more Muslims feel alienated in the West, more will join them, not just as fighters, but as the doctors, nurses and teachers it desperately needs.

In addition to this, airstrikes overlook the fact that Isil is a result of what Fawaz Gerges calls a severe, organic institutional crisis in the Middle East. In a lecture at the London School of Economics earlier this year, Gerges pointed out the dysfunction created when a region that is incredibly resource rich also is also deeply undemocratic, riddled with corruption, food insecurity, unemployment and poverty. This forms an institutional vacuum that is filled by non-state actors as the population does not trust its political structures. Further, the civil war in Syria is also the site of the toxic soup of Middle Eastern state dysfunction. Iran supports Assad, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, fund anti-Shia groups in Syria. Throw in the Kurdish conflict, Turkey’s ambiguous position and Russian bombs, it is difficult to see how airstrikes will solve anything.

Finally, it is crucial that Isil is seen as a direct result of the Iraq war. The American-led invasion destroyed the institutions, giving the Shia majority power almost overnight, creating deep dissatisfaction in the Sunni regions of Iraq. On top of this thousands of foreign fighters flooded Iraq to fight the invaders, attracting disenfranchised and angry Sunnis. The result is that since 2003, Iraq has been embroiled in a sectarian civil war.  It is in civil war, inherently connected to the Iraq War, that you find the roots of Isil. As even the Prime Minister concedes that ground troops are necessary, albeit it regional ground troops with its own set of problems, it is important to consider what further monster can arise from the ashes of another ill-thought out military intervention in the Middle East.
We have had decades of military intervention in the Middle East with disastrous consequences. Airstrikes represent business as usual, when what we actually need is a radically new approach. Who is funding Isil? Who is buying its oil? How to curb Isil’s recruitment drives? What can be done about the refugees? How to end the conflict in Syria? What happens to Assad? These are questions hopefully being addressed in talks recently held in Vienna with Russian, Ira, the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states. Airstrikes do not answer any of these questions. What airstrikes do is give Isil exactly what it is asking for. Surely this is reason enough not to bomb Syria. 

Maria W. Norris is a PhD candidate and a teacher at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her PhD is on the UK counter-terrorism strategy since 9/11 and its relationship with identity. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.