Social Media Has Totally Warped How You Think About Happiness
Want to be happy? Don't be a gardener. Or so the oddball logic goes. When I was in secondary school, a career counselor came into my class one afternoon and asked if any of us 14-year-olds knew what we wanted to do for a living.
One of my classmates answered, in complete seriousness: “I want to be a gardener”. The counselor snickered softly, asked if he was joking and, upon realising how appallingly tactless she had been, quickly interrogated another student.
That she was bad at her job is evident; but her reaction nevertheless reflected a hierarchy in the value that society assigns to different professions. Being a doctor, a lawyer, a successful businessman? Good. Valuable. Will make you happy.
Except it won’t necessarily – that’s according to Paul Dolan, professor of behavioural science at the London School of Economics (LSE) and writer of Happy Ever After: Escaping the Myth of the Perfect Life. “We have this idea that we need to reward those who are constantly aspiring and advancing professionally,” says Dolan. “But we have to start rewarding people who are successful in professions that we don’t value very highly.” What is wrong, after all, with being a perfectly happy in any kind of work.
And the numbers speak for themselves: according to Dolan, 64 per cent of lawyers agree that they are happy. Sounds like a decent amount? The proportion jumps to 87 per cent when you ask florists.
That higher-status jobs lead to more happiness is only one of the social narratives that Dolan’s book surgically dismantles. Happy Ever After may sound like a cheap self-improvement guide to positive thinking; in reality, it is a pragmatic inspection by an LSE-qualified behavioural scientist.
And it’s not just about securing a good job. Dolan also tears apart the myth of monogamous marriage and of long-lasting marriage; the myth of having children, of going to university or of earning a lot of money. Of owning your own property. Of donating to charity (and not bragging about it). Even of being healthy.
It may sound like a blow to what you have always been taught – but the link between all of these things and happiness is, according to research, extremely loose. Based on data gathered over a decade in the American Time Use Survey (ATUS), which included levels of happiness, meaning, stress, tiredness, sadness and pain, Dolan found, for example, that people earning over $100,000 a year were not happier than those earning under $25,000.
He also found that 40 per cent of students reading English at Cambridge had been diagnosed with depression in 2014. He found that you were twice as likely to get divorced if you spend more than $20,000 on your wedding, and half as likely if you spend less than $1,000. And he found no correlation between higher BMI and lower levels of happiness.
The same goes with buying your own house: “The evidence shows that home ownership is pretty weakly associated to happiness – yet in the UK, the idea that everyone has to own their home is widely accepted,” says Dolan. That’s a cause of suffering for millennials, he continues: with house prices in the UK getting close to ten times the average income, the perspective of owning a property seems more like a distant dream.
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This is why social narratives can be toxic: the more they are promoted as the ultimate goals that we should reach for, the unhappier we are for not achieving them. Because if we don’t, we may get unsubtle snickers from career counselors. “We make judgements about other people that don’t fit into the narrative we think they ought to,” says Dolan. “And we have to reduce those inequalities in judgement.”
That is why Happy Ever After is not a cheap self-improvement guide to positive thinking: because it isn’t about your personal happiness. Rather, it is about stopping you from buying into social narratives of happiness – so that you stop judging others who live their lives outside of it.
Far from calling for his readers to work on being better, compassionate human beings, however, Dolan makes a point of showing that breaking down those narratives is actually a matter of logic. Take obesity. “In a nutshell, we don’t like fat people very much,” he says in the book. The NHS is treating more people for obesity-related conditions and the UK is one of the most obese countries in the world. Obesity doesn’t fit the narrative we are familiar with, Dolan says – being healthy is a way to be happy.
But, he adds, obese people are also at a higher risk of premature death, saving the taxpayer huge costs, and it is possible they put more money into the economy by spending more on food. Smokers? Same deal. In other words, there is no rational reason that we judge them – only the fact that they behave in a way that we believe they shouldn’t.
Dolan is not saying that we should all overeat, stop having children or skip university – “giving an anti-narrative would just be giving a new narrative,” he says. If you are happily married, monogamous and living with your five children in a big house, that is fine; but there is no “one size fits all”. He describes his book as a “social manifesto”; a way to alert people on the potential harm of the stories that are waved as a happiness carrot.
And it is particularly relevant in modern times, as social media sanctifies those narratives, elevating them to a new level. “Social media gives us so many more opportunities to compare ourselves to the people who are magnifying those narratives,” Dolan says. Scrolling down pictures of an expensive wedding on Instagram, for example, will make you feel much worse about being single, or broke, or both.
Research in Canada has shown that in the two years following a large lottery win, the neighbours of those who win large amounts are more likely to file for bankruptcy. We are constantly trying, at all expenses, to keep up with the successes of those surrounding us. With social media bringing the entire world to our smartphones, the consequences of that cannot be understated. “People are going to be disappointed to have made it to second richest man in the world, instead of richest man in the world,” says Dolan.
We are addicted to wanting more – more money, more relationships, more degrees, more muscles. To the point that Dolan suspects that in decades’ time, we would be talking about social media in the same way as we speak about tobacco.
“It is about being made aware of the fact that you might be living in a narrative and it might not be the one that will make you happy,” Dolan says. Take his book as the first step in behavioural therapy – and read it, perhaps, instead of forcing yourself to attend your evening absolute abs class.