Hello! The podcast has brought lots of new visitors to my blog, so I wanted to quickly introduce myself again:
My name is Annie Muir and I am a poet. I have been handing out poems on the street outside local libraries, recording my encounters with strangers and their opinions about poetry on this blog, since 2017. Last year I made a podcast, Time for one Poem, aimed at complete beginners to poetry. In the first part of each episode I interview one poet about how they got into poetry, and in the second part I talk to a poetry-sceptic about why they didn’t. We then go through a poem together and see what we can make of it.
Before I set out to make my podcast, I was lucky enough to be able to talk to Paul Dolan – Professor of Behavioural Science at the London School of Economics, and author of two bestselling books. In the interview, he explains how his books are trying to help people live happier lives, and I tell him how the approach to happiness in his book Happiness by Design inspired me to carry on with my project.
(Annie Muir) First of all, how would you describe your job to someone you’ve just met in a pub?
(Paul Dolan) I do research into human behaviour and happiness. I try to understand what things influence how people behave in certain environments, for example when they’re in the pub! And I also look into how we might measure and capture the wellbeing effects of what people do, and how happy they feel – be that moment to moment or as they reflect upon their lives – and I think about how we can use all or any of this evidence to inform policy decisions.
(Annie) What I really loved about Happiness By Design when I first read it – as you know, I sent you a long fan-email about how much I loved it and how much it has influenced my life – was just that introduction: the simplicity of a definition of what happiness is… the idea of it being the moments that make up your life rather than something you’re aiming for.
(Paul) There are two things to distinguish there. One is – as you rightly say – happiness is located in people’s experiences, day to day, moment to moment, and not in the narratives or evaluations they might have about their lives. Just to illustrate that with an example which really became quite resonant with people was telling the story of a friend who worked at a company that she moaned about the whole time that we were at dinner with her, like literally every moment she was with us she was telling us about how horrible it was: her colleagues, her commute, her boss… Everything about her job was miserable. And we were leaving dinner and she stood up and said, without any hint of irony: “Of course I love working at MediaLand.” And it wasn’t inconsistent with what she was saying. She was on the one hand talking about her experiences which were making her miserable, but the story of her job was that it was a place she had always wanted to work, her parents were proud, her friends were jealous. When she thought about whether it should make her happy, then it ought to.
And so, what I’ve tried to do is locate happiness much more in that experiencing self and not in the evaluating self. But also, beyond that, it’s not just experiences of joy or pleasure or contentment or the typical adjectives of emotion – which have many more negative adjectives for them like anxiety, worry or stress – but also a set of experiences that are associated with how purposeful, meaningful, or fulfilling the activities feel. Or equally how pointless and futile they feel. And I argue that happy lives are ones where individuals work out for themselves – its not for me to tell them – what the right balance between pleasure and purpose is. There will be things in our lives that we do that are mostly fun, and there’ll be things that we do that are mostly fulfilling, and its for us to work out that balance between pleasure and purpose.
What I try to do in Happiness By Design is to give people the tools to be able to implement some of the behaviour changes that they might like to do for themselves in order to be happier.
(Annie) When I read the book the line that stood out to me was: “Your happiness is determined by how you allocate your attention”. And I think maybe I took that line and interpreted it to fit what I was doing at the time. I had just started my project Time for One Poem – handing out poems on the street outside local libraries – and I thought that line was perfect because my whole idea for the project was that while you read one poem you’re allocating your attention fully to that, so you’re not thinking about anything that’s going on in your life. You might have a really busy and stressful life, but while you read that poem you’re allocating your attention and for that short time you can kind of be happy because your focusing on something, trying to understand it. So, I took that to mean: poetry can make you happy!
(Paul) Well, you should. I mean, you should take that to mean that, because poetry does for you make you happy. I don’t prescribe anything about what people ought to be doing, I just try to set out a framework that would make it helpful for them to decide. And I think that we are, all of us, generally happier when we’re paying attention to what were doing, when we’re engaged in our activities, when we’re, you know, lost in things. And that can come from poetry, it can come from music, it can come from watching a film, it can come from anything – being in the pub having a drink with your friends can be engaging in a pleasure sense. Or in a much more purposeful sense it could be doing the gardening or watching an intense documentary. All these things that we work out for ourselves…
(Annie) What about you – If someone says to the word poetry to you, what is your general reaction?
(Paul) I don’t know, it’s an interesting thing. You know, I just come back to the idea of: whatever floats your boat. Poetry doesn’t resonate with me in any great way. Although I have to say, our kids are 12 and 11, so they’re in year 7 and 8 at school, and they’re both really good at English, and really good at writing poems. My son listens to rap, and has started writing rap songs. And, through that, I’ve come to see poetry in a bigger way than how I might have stereotyped it before, which is sitting reading old poems. But actually, there’s a lot of poetry in rap, and more modern forms of poetry, so I suppose that has kind of opened my eyes to poetry being a broader and richer conception that I might otherwise have thought.
I’ve got my own podcast called The Duck-Rabbit podcast – which is about the idea that we get polarized into different positions, and it happens with so many things. The idea that: you have to agree with me, or if you don’t, you’re taken as an extreme representation of someone who disagrees. And most of the time were sort of muddling our way through these things… And I think with poetry, again, like everything, you haven’t got to pick a side, as being all-in or all-out. I would suspect that some form of poetry, in whatever form that takes – poems in the traditional sense of how I’ve thought about them, or lyrics in rap songs – would probably be of interest to anybody. I mean…the right kind of poetry for them.
(Annie) What I want to do is – like you say, I don’t want to force anyone to read poetry who just doesn’t like it. Someone might just not like poetry, I’m ok with that! But when I stand out on the street handing out poems, I’m hoping that I will give a poem to someone who has never tried it. I want to tell them that they don’t need to think about poetry as a whole, just think about this one poem, for a minute – it takes a minute to read it – think about it while you have a cup of tea, and decide if you like that poem. Don’t decide if you like poetry in general, just decide if you like that poem, or if you have any thoughts about it.
(Paul) Well listen, I wish you every success with that. Giving people more opportunities to decide on what they like and don’t like isn’t a bad thing. We know from the happiness literature that new experiences are good for us, they help to slow time down. It’s one of the reasons why time passes so slowly for children compared to adults, its because they’re constantly having new experiences. The worst that you can do is try it and not do it again…
(Annie) So if I send you a poem, would you read it, and see if you like it?
(Paul) Aha you got me there! How could I say no to that? I can’t say no to that. Keep it short. I promise to read it at least once if its short.
I sent Paul one of my favourite poems: ‘One Art’ by Elizabeth Bishop, which I handed out at Fallowfield Library in Manchester nearly four years ago! (And he liked it!)