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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The hidden joy of charity shops

Mary saw her colleagues at the charity shop every day, but she didn't tell them she was sleeping on the 31 bus.

Camden is a bric-a-brac kind of place – market stalls, blaring music, occasional offers of weed. But the back room of the Sue Ryder charity shop on Parkway is immaculate, with hooped petticoats waiting to be steamed and crockery stacked neatly on the shelves. I’ve come to talk to the shop’s manager, Oya, and one of her volunteers, Mary*, and they are waiting for me with milky tea and chocolate-chip cookies.

Mary is nervous. She is afraid of having her real name printed. “It’s shaming to tell you my story but I believe if I tell people at the right time, good things will happen,” she says. Now in her fifties, she arrived in Britain four years ago from Italy, without friends or savings, having left her husband. The jobcentre gave her an Oyster card and told her to volunteer at a charity shop to improve her English. “So we put her on the tills,” says Oya. “That’s what we do with anyone who gets sent to us to learn English.”

But Mary had a secret. She couldn’t find anywhere to live, so every afternoon, when she finished her shift at the shop, she would go to the jobcentre and laugh and joke with the staff there to cover up the reality that she didn’t have anywhere else to go. When the jobcentre closed, she would ride the 31 bus through the night, from White City to Camden and back again. It was the best way to stay warm. Then, every morning, she would arrive at the shop early, brush her teeth in the staff bathroom and change into fresh clothes – washed in a friend’s hostel room. No one else knew.

The charity Crisis calls people such as Mary “the hidden homeless” and says that it is almost impossible to estimate how many of them there are in Britain today. Most homeless people don’t qualify for accommodation in shelters but eke out their time shuttling between friends’ sofas, insecure rented accommodation, bed and breakfasts or sleeping rough on the streets.

Eventually, the shop manager – Oya’s predecessor – asked Mary what was wrong and her story tumbled out. Between them, with help from the jobcentre staff, Mary found a studio flat and moved from volunteering on the tills to working at a nearby convenience store, where she is now a supervisor. Both she and Oya have to stop to reach for tissues while telling me this story. “Sue Ryder is my family,” says Mary. “Sometimes I want to cry but there are no tears left. And Allah would be angry if I dared to cry now, with all that I have.”

Despite having a paid job, Mary still volunteers at the charity shop on Friday mornings. She leaves at 3pm to work the evening shift at the convenience store. She and Oya are firm friends outside work. Mary brings in home-cooked lasagne for Oya and her daughter – “She says, ‘Eat some tonight, freeze the rest for Ella’” – and Oya invites her round and cooks her Turkish food on Friday nights. “She’ll say working here saved her life,” says Oya. “I’ll say I made a friend for life.”

The reason I’m here is a selfish one. Volunteering for a charity is the perfect antidote to a culture that can often feel mercenary, cynical and ruthlessly individualistic. I wish more people did it. I’m also here because in December, I wrote a piece defending charities from accusations that many do not turn every penny of donations into outlay on their projects. But running charity shops requires upfront investment – on electricity, rent and wages – so it’s too simplistic to demand that all the money they receive should go straight back out of the door.

That article prompted the management of Sue Ryder, which operates 457 shops with 12,000 volunteers, to get in touch and invite me in. Some of their volunteers, like Mary, need to learn English and other skills before they can get a paying job; some are serving prison sentences; others are youngsters sent unwillingly by their schools for work experience. (Jackie, who now manages one of the charity’s shops in Aberdeen, had previously been imprisoned three times.)

Not that everything is rosy in the charity shop back room. Oya says that some people use them as a “dumping ground”. I tell her that I once read a story about a donation of tights that had a used sanitary towel still stuck to the crotch and they nod: “We had that.” Oya is very proud, however, that the store “doesn’t smell like a charity shop”.

As well as providing jobs and raising money, stores such as this one provide a useful social barometer. There are around 9,000 charity shops in the UK and their number rose 30 per cent in the five years following the financial crash of 2007. Since then, the economic downturn has increased trade significantly. Last year at the shop in Camden, the number of donation bags increased by 52 per cent and takings went up by 8 per cent, yielding a net profit of £65,000.

In Camden, close to chichi Mornington Crescent and Primrose Hill, the donations can be eyewateringly expensive (recent finds include a £1,200 clarinet and a £980 Prada handbag), while the cheapest brands stocked are Marks & Spencer and Next. “More people are charity shopping,” says Oya. “And not the people you’d expect. They’re suited and booted. Sometimes they’re famous.” Mention is made of an EastEnders actress spotted in the store.

Because of her work, Oya has been invited to a garden party at Buckingham Palace on 12 June and naturally she is taking Mary. A trip to buy hats is coming up and their enthusiasm is infectious. Here in the back room of a north London charity shop, as the three of us – a Turkish-British Muslim, an Eritrean-Italian Muslim and plain old white agnostic me – drink milky tea, I feel the most British I have all year. These guys really love the Queen. And they love being friends. Stepping out into the sunshine, my overwhelming feeling is: maybe we’re all going to be OK.

*Her name has been changed

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster