Review of The Happiness Industry by William Davies
Imagine a corporation. In this corporation, the employees are unhappy. Morale is low, motivation is absent, and burnout rates are high, due to a combination of crushing workloads, impossible schedules, idiotic policies, and lack of substantive communication between managers and those who are managed (fans of the comic strip Dilbert are waiting for the punchline here). Upper management decides that they have two options: they can overhaul the company’s policies and procedures and start listening to employees as if they were valuable human beings, or they can hire a ‘resiliency consultant’ to come and teach employees Five Easy and Amazing Tricks™ for maintaining happiness even in such a toxic environment. Employees who remain unhappy after this training will be fired for noncompliance. Take a guess which option the executives will take (Actually, I wouldn’t be surprised if Scott Adams had in fact done a few Dilbert strips like this. I’ll have to look into it).
With The Happiness Industry (2015, Verso), William Davies joins the likes of Barbara Ehrenreich (Bright-sided), Barbara Held (“The Tyranny of the Positive Attitude in America”), and Julie Norem (The Positive Power of Negative Thinking), among the ranks of critics of applied happiness science. In a 2002 article, Barbara Held connects 21st-Century thought on the power of happiness back to Alexis de Tocqueville’s 1835/1840 Democracy in America, and de Tocqueville’s warning about excessive belief in the ‘indefinite perfectability of man’ among Americans. Davies, a sociologist and political economist who teaches at The University of London, has written articles for Political Quarterly, the New Left Review, Chronicle Review, The Atlantic, and The New Statesman. In The Happiness Industry, he points a bit further back than Held, arguing that our current mania for assessing and elevating happiness goes back to Jeremy Bentham, and his utilitarian ethics. Bentham, whom Davies describes as “the inventor of what has since come to be known as ‘evidence-based policy-making’,” believed that good plans could be differentiated from bad plans on the basis of minimizing pain and maximizing pleasure, without troublesome philosophical considerations regarding the nature of good and evil. Law and public policy were to be crafted according to the principle of the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, with ‘happiness’ defined in terms of pleasure.
But how are we to determine the happiness or unhappiness associated with a particular option? What is needed is an objective method for measuring happiness. Davies traces historical attempts to develop objective happiness indicators, from Bentham’s initial thoughts about pulse rate, through Gustav Fechner’s pioneering perception research, to current neuroimaging methods and research on the action of dopamine, as well as economists’ attempts to make money the ultimate measure of ‘value.’ The aim of all of these various technologies and theories is to bypass the inherent subjectivity in our emotions and create objective ‘mind-reading’ methods. What can be measured objectively can then be manipulated objectively by managers and policymakers, for the benefit of all (with ‘benefit’ defined in Benthamite terms). The development and application of objective happiness science can be seen in marketing, with researchers using devices that track eye movements and facial reactions to determine the optimal way to convince us that we would be happy if we would just purchase a particular product, and in the workplace, with consultants running ‘happiness boot camps’ based on the logic that happy workers are productive workers (while an economist might say that money leads to happiness, an organizational psychologist might counter that happiness leads to money).
The result, Davies argues, is an unsavory entanglement of psychology with big business, big government, and big data. The public is subjected to ever-increasing surveillance on the grounds that our happiness can be optimized if we only can collect enough data. Narcissism is fostered by telling us that our subjective enjoyment is what defines happiness, and that the optimization of our happiness is the primary goal of life. Relationships suffer when those involved believe that the purpose of relationships is one’s individual subjective gratification. Managers decide that they are entitled to know and to manipulate our happiness, because it connects to the company’s bottom line. Happiness experts set themselves up as a technocratic elite, measuring and manipulating well-being according to their vision of well-being, then using the outcomes of their measures as evidence in favor of their vision, justifying their manipulations and keeping themselves in positions of power. “[W]hat often begins as a basis on which to understand human flourishing and progress—fundamental ideas of enlightenment and humanism—suddenly reappears as a route to sell people stuff they don’t need, work harder for managers who don’t respect them and conform to policy objectives over which they have no say.”
In The Happiness Industry, Davies presents us with a narrative of dehumanization and subordination, justified by those who perpetrate it through the claims that science is on their side, and that they have our best interests at heart. As one might expect, an argument that summarizes two and a half centuries of scientific, economic, and political trends in less than 300 pages falls rather short as a work of scholarship. I noticed some errors and oversimplifications in the sections about psychology, and far too many of Davies’ sources are from the popular press. Davies employs the writing style of a polemicist, with frequent parenthetical cheap shots slipped in, biased word choices (scholars with whom Davies disagrees are portrayed as dabbling in dubious* speculations about behavior, while those with whom Davies agrees explore exciting new insights into the human condition), and ‘near constant’ ‘use’ of ‘scare quotes’ just in ‘case’ any ‘readers’ are ‘unaware’ of which ‘ideas’ they ‘are’ ‘intended’ to ‘reject’.** Readers who are already familiar with the histories of utilitarianism and psychology will skim through large sections of the book.
The strength of The Happiness Industry lies in the author’s warnings about those who claim to present ‘hard data’ solutions as if they are free from philosophical assumptions, and those who claim that we can all be happy if we just surrender more of our autonomy to ‘the experts’ (and yes, I realize that now I’m the one using scare quotes). We should train ourselves to question the assumptions of those who claim to have no assumptions, and ask ourselves who truly profits from the vision of the good life that we are being sold. Resistance to these forces, Davies suggests, involves seeing people as valuable agents rather than resources. Instead of employing increasingly-sophisticated technology to try and figure out what people secretly feel, respectfully listen to them. The goal here is to rehumanize humans.
*Recall the wisdom of Ambassador Mollari from the TV show Babylon 5: “The ‘dubious’ part is very important. It doesn’t mean anything, but it scares people every time.”
**Reading aloud a sentence with scare quotes typically involves placing a greater stress on the word that is surrounded by the scare quotes. Some sections of this book have so many scare quotes that, in my head, it sounded like the passage was being read by William Shatner.
The Happiness Industry is available here: https://www.versobooks.com/books/2162-the-happiness-industry
Charles Hackney is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Briercrest College and Seminary, specializing in positive psychology.