This book was put under the “self-help” category of BorrowBox. So I began it thinking that there would be a lot of navel-gazing and sheets to fill in somehow. Instead, “Happy Ever After” turns the self-help genre on its head by taking many of the areas in which people want to “improve” their lives by changing their own behaviours to follow a dominate social narrative. Each chapter is devoted to one area in which people often want to transform their life or their behaviour. Everything from marriage, higher education, and higher salaries at work, to weight, free will, and euthanasia is covered in 229 pages. It’s quite a whirlwind!
Dolan begins each chapter by asking two simple questions: would you rather be X, which is the more socially prestigious option and miserable, or would would you rather choose the less socially prestigious option and happy. He then asks which of these options you would choose for your friends. Dolan is keen to emphasis that there is no right or wrong answer to either of these questions, whilst encouraging the reader (or listener, in my case) to think about what motivated them to choose their answers. The rest of the chapter was taken up with statistics and a discussion on what those statistics might be measuring without realising. Then each chapter would end with him saying about what other people had chosen in response to the questions that had been asked at the start of the chapter, and examine how their answers compared to the data given earlier in the chapter.
The thing that really lifted “Happy Ever After” to the next level for me was the fact that Dolan tackles head-on some of the points of class tension, and classism in the UK. The concept that working class people’s successes should not be judged by popular social criteria dictated by the middle classes should not be revolutionary, and yet I know that for some readers this may absolutely shock them. I read some reviews after finishing the first chapter, and found a fair amount of pearl clutching among some reviewers both because of this point of view, and because Dolan swears in his writing.
Once again, people being horrified at hearing a man say “bloody” as a way of emphasising a point perfectly illustrates a difference between middle class values and judgements of what is acceptable vs working class values and judgements of what is acceptable. Less horror, gentle readers, and more acceptance of different groups’ speech patterns please.
Another thing I enjoyed about “Happy Ever After” is that Dolan himself is happy to show where his own points of view have changed in the process of researching this book. The main example of this is in the chapter about euthanasia. Whilst he gives an incredibly balanced view of a controversial subject, he also shows how his own views have changed as he encountered various statistics. This injected a real sense that Dolan practices what he preaches in examining and challenging his own biases to form new opinions.
Overall: An excellent book that will certainly encourage you to think about some dominant social narratives, and whether aiming for them will indeed create your own happily ever after. His plea that we should not only choose the paths in life that make us happy, but should also be equally happy for those who decide to tread different paths to find their own joy is one that has real value.