The Happiness Industry: How Government and Big Businesses Manipulate Your Moods For Profit

The following is an excerpt from William Davies' new book The Happiness Industry: How the Governmen and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being (Verso Books, 2015):


Since the 1960s, Western economies have been afflicted by an acute problem in which they depend more and more on our psychological and emotional engagement (be it with work, with brands, with our own health and well-being) while finding it increasingly hard to sustain this. Forms of private disengagement, often manifest as depression and psychosomatic illnesses, do not only register in the suffering experienced by the individual; they are increasingly problematic for policy-makers and managers, becoming accounted for economically.

Yet evidence from social epidemiology paints a worrying picture of how unhappiness and depression are concentrated in highly unequal societies, with strongly materialist, competitive values. Workplaces put a growing emphasis on community and psychological commitment, but against longer-term economic trends towards atomization and insecurity. We have an economic model which mitigates against precisely the psychological attributes it depends upon.

In this more general and historical sense, then, governments and businesses ‘created the problems that they are now trying to solve.’ Happiness science has achieved the influence it has because it promises to provide the longed-for solution. First of all, happiness economists are able to put a monetary price on the problem of misery and alienation. The opinion-polling company Gallup, for example, has estimated that unhappiness of employees costs the US economy $500 billion a year in lost productivity, lost tax receipts and health-care costs. This allows our emotions and well-being to be brought within broader calculations of economic efficiency.Positive psychology and associated techniques then play a key role in helping to restore people’s energy and drive. The hope is that a fundamental flaw in our current political economy may be surmounted, without confronting any serious political–economic questions.

Psychology is very often how societies avoid looking in the mirror. The second structural reason for the surging interest in happiness is somewhat more disturbing, and concerns technology. Until relatively recently, most scientific attempts to know or manipulate how someone else was feeling occurred within formally identifiable institutions, such as psychology laboratories, hospitals, workplaces, focus groups, or some such. This is no longer the case. In July 2014, Facebook published an academic paper containing details of how it had successfully altered hundreds of thousands of its users’ moods, by manipulating their news feeds. There was an outcry that this had been done in a clandestine fashion. But as the dust settled, the anger turned to anxiety: would Facebook bother to publish such a paper in future, or just get on with the experiment anyway and keep the results to themselves?

Monitoring our mood and feelings is becoming a function of our physical environment. In 2014, British Airways trialled a ‘happiness blanket’, which represents passenger contentment through neural monitoring. As the passenger becomes more relaxed, the blanket turns from red to blue, indicating to the airline staff that they are being well looked after. A range of consumer technologies are now on the market for measuring and analyzing well-being, from wristwatches, to smartphones, to Vessyl, a ‘smart’ cup which monitors your liquid intake in terms of its health effects. One of the foundational neoliberal arguments in favor of the market was that it served as a vast sensory device, capturing millions of individual desires, opinions and values, and converting these into prices. It is possible that we are on the cusp of a new post-neoliberal era in which the market is no longer the primary tool for this capture of mass sentiment. Once happiness monitoring tools flood our everyday lives, other ways of quantifying feelings in real time are emerging that can extend even further into our lives than markets. 

Concerns about privacy have traditionally seen it as something which needs to be balanced against security. But today, we have to confront the fact that a considerable amount of surveillance occurs to increase our health, happiness, satisfaction or sensory pleasures. Regardless of the motives behind this, if we believe that there are limits to how much of our lives should be expertly administered, then there must also be limits to how much psychological and physical positivity we should aim for. Any critique of ubiquitous surveillance must now include a critique of the maximization of well-being, even at the risk of being less healthy, happy and wealthy.

To understand these trends as historical and sociological does not in itself indicate how they might be resisted or averted. But it does have one great liberating benefit of diverting our critical attention outward upon the world, and not inward upon our feelings, brains or behavior. It is often said that depression is ‘anger turned inwards.’ In many ways, happiness science is ‘critique turned inwards’, despite all of the appeals by positive psychologists to ‘notice’ the world around us. The relentless fascination with quantities of subjective feeling can only possibly divert critical attention away from broader political and economic problems. Rather than seek to alter our feelings, now would be a good time to take what we’ve turned inwards, and attempt to direct it back out again. One way to start would be by turning a skeptical eye upon the history of happiness measurement itself.

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