Paul Dolan: ‘My visits to the gym are the only moments when my mind never wanders.’ | Photograph: Elena Heatherwick
‘I have never read a novel in my life. There are only so many hours in the day and I have decided to fill them with activities rather than made-up stories’
As someone who has spent the last decade or so studying the science of happiness, I am often asked what makes me happy. Not being asked that question is a good start. You want more? OK, then how about working, working out and going out? Oh, and sometimes my kids make me happy, although much of the time they are a pain in the arse.
I contend that happiness should be defined and measured in terms of experiences of pleasure and purpose over time. It is situated in what we do and who we spend time with. It does not reside in some (often silly) story we tell ourselves about what we think should make us happy. We will often tell ourselves we are happy because, on the face of it, we have a great job or partner but our day-to-day experiences at work or with that person, if only we listened to them, are telling us that we are actually quite miserable.
My own work brings me a huge amount of purpose as I get to learn more about the vagaries of human behaviour and happiness, tell my research assistants what to do, and impart some of my pearls of wisdom to the next generation of opinion leaders or losers (depending largely on how lucks shines on them). Working out brings me a great balance between pleasure and purpose as I focus on lifting that next set of weights. My visits to the gym four times a week are about the only moments when my mind never wanders elsewhere – I am in the flow of the experience. And going out …well, that is pure pleasure, and I’m bloody good at it too. Just ask my best mate, Mig, who lives in Ibiza. If I was an island, I would be Ibiza, to paraphrase Will in About a Boy. And just to be clear, I got this from the film and not the book: I have never read a novel in my life. There are only so many hours in the day and I have decided to fill them with activities other than reading made-up stories. Each to their own, eh?
What about the kids, then? Well, Poppy (aged six) and Stanley (five) do bring pleasure from time to time but I was a pretty good pleasure machine before they came along. And they have given me something important to worry about, and not in a good way. But they do bring me a huge amount of purpose. Not as I reflect on my life as a father but as I live my life as one, listening to them read or helping with their times tables. These are hardly fun activities, but they are fulfilling ones. I am differently happy since they came along and the shift from pleasure to purpose quite suits me as I get older.
As I get older, time will feel like it’s passing even more quickly than it does at the moment. So I’m trying to slow down my perception of time by having new experiences, which is the reason that time passes so slowly for children. Fortunately, this is not too much of an effort for me as I am a neophile. Bring on a new experience – what’s the worst that can happen? I don’t like it, or its impact on other people, and I don’t do it again.
It’s not just about the big new experiences like skydiving. I like talking to strangers in my day-to-day life. I have had some of the best laughs in recent times in the back of a black cab putting the world to rights with the cabbie. Giving my time to help colleagues and students also makes me happy, and I am generous with my money as well as my time. I especially enjoy paying for drinks and dinner when I am out with friends. In my experience, this is one of the great advantages of being working class (I grew up on council estates in Hackney and Harlow and was the first person in my family to go to university). There is evidence to show that working-class people are more generous, trusting and helpful than their middle- or upper-class counterparts. OK, so I’m not working class any longer but a lot of my values still are.
Spending money makes me happy – on those new experiences but on material purchases too. There are some studies suggesting that experiential purchases make people happier than material ones, but the boundaries between the two types of purchase are very blurred. Take our ridiculously expensive – and unnecessarily big – Bang & Olufsen TV. It could be thought of as a material purchase but I can tell you that it is well nice sitting watching The Killing on a crystal-clear 55in screen. And the sounds of the Jools Holland show through those speakers – pure experience.
There are a couple of things that would not or do not make me happy. Long holidays away with young kids, for a start. Why would my wife and I want to take the kids away from their friends and fun activities in Brighton – and ourselves away from the great gyms we train at – for two weeks? Long holidays are a good example of the stories people tell about their happiness. “Oh, we simply love our two weeks every year in Marbella,” so goes the story. No, you bloody don’t: it’s too hot and the kids get on your nerves more than they do at home. Go away for a few days here and there rather than two weeks once a year.
I also hate weddings. Why on earth would I want to spend a load of my own money watching a couple who have wasted a shedload of their own delude themselves into believing that their self-indulgence somehow reflects how much they love each other? If you love someone, you can show them – quietly and without a fuss. Have a party by all means, but don’t waste 20 grand on it, and don’t expect me to traipse across the country so that your Uncle Frank (who you hate anyway) can get drunk and sleaze all over my wife.
Yeah, of course, my wife. (We got married for a hundred quid, by the way.) She makes me happy. Most of the time. And I make her happy too. Some of the time. We both genuinely feel lucky to have each other. And therein lies the most important and yet most underappreciated ingredient to being happy – luck. I am a very lucky man: not because I have a great job and family and all that stuff but because I have a sunny disposition. Now, that makes me happy.
A U T H O R
Paul Dolan is professor of behavioural science at the London School of Economics and author of Happiness by Design: Finding Pleasure and Purpose in Everyday Life, published by Allen Lane