The Traps of Social Narratives

no matter how [wealthy we are], we are expected to be reaching for more. The assumption is that ever more happiness is achieved with ever more money and more markers of success. The trap comes from the fact that the happiness hit from adherence to these narratives gets ever smaller the further up the ladder you go and, eventually, can become reversed. To be happier we need to move from a culture of “more please” to one of “just enough”.

Paul Dolan, behavioural scientist questions the social narratives of success in this beefy article, describing many of them as traps, just like we do. It’s good.

about 1% of us are miserable. This would scale up to about half a million Britons. Earning less than £400 per week (or about £20,000 a year) is one of the factors that increases the chances of being in the most miserable 1%. Above £400 per week, the law of diminishing marginal returns kicks in. Once your basic needs are satisfied, your desire for ever-increasing amounts of money generates ever-decreasing returns of happiness.

We said precisely this in Issues Two and Three of New Escapologist. Our figure of £385 came from research collected by John Naish for his 2009 book, Enough. It’s good to know that the magic number hasn’t aged badly over the decade.

Incidentally, £385 now strikes me as an extremely healthy income. I do not make that much money. My current rent is £375, which would be ~25% of such a monthly pay cheque and, as such, healthy. Savings gurus tend to suggest spending “only” 50% of income on accommodation.

This “happiness sum,” by the way, is slightly above the UK’s living wage of £9.30 per hour. Assuming a working week of 37 hours, a weekly living income would be £344. So it seems most bean counters are on the same page here.


Data suggest that being rich can lead to time and attention being directed towards activities that fuel the attainment of more wealth, such as longer working hours and longer commutes, and away from activities that generate more happiness, such as time outside and time with family and friends. This discrepancy between the big effect on happiness that we imagine increased wealth should bring and the small effect we experience goes a long way towards explaining the narrative trap of reaching for wealth.

That’s the money trap in a nutshell.

Dolan goes on to tackle other traps that stem from success narratives. These include certain behaviour and etiquette expectations, marriage, working hours, levels of consumption, and the “quality” of one’s work. It’s worth a read, especially if you’re in a taking-stock sort of mood at the start of a new year.

My suggestion, as ever, is to develop your own code of values based on good thoughts, good reading, and an understanding of one’s impact upon the common good.

You can then (gradually or hungrily, depending on your disposition) work towards a life in which your time and actions — when you rise, the places you go, the stuff you buy, the food you eat, the waste you produce, the people with whom you share your life — are geared towards the realisation of those values.

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Robert Wringham is the editor of New Escapologist. He also writes books and articles. Read more at

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