You don’t have to explore too far into the topics of consumerism or postgrowth economics before you bump into happiness metrics. It’s a popular theme, pointing out that happiness levels have been more or less the same for decades, despite a doubling of income and rising consumption. That has led some people to call for the government to measure happiness as well as GDP, and there’s been a healthy debate about this. Richard Layard has been a leading voice for happiness studies, and I reviewed his book here.
There are real problems with the flatlining of happiness critique. For one thing, GDP can grow, whereas happiness is always reported on a scale and can’t go above 10. Then there’s the fact that health outcomes and life expectancy have improved since 1950, when we were apparently at our happiest. We know that health is one of the biggest factors in wellbeing, so advances in medicine should have made us happier. If happiness levels haven’t gone up, then either our research into health is wrong, or the whole business is a bit more complicated than some are suggesting. Besides, the endless growth of happiness is just as absurd a proposition as endless economic growth, if not more so. Just how happy can we be? And while we can all agree on ending unavoidable misery, shouldn’t we be able to honour the whole of human experience, rather than narrowing in on one rather slippery emotion?
Anyway, I wasn’t really in the market for a book on happiness, but Verso Books had a 95% off day on their ebooks. And since I have a rule that I can’t buy any new books until I’ve read the ones I bought last, here’s Williams Davies’ The Happiness Industry: How the government and big business sold us well-being.
Like Richard Layard’s book, this one begins with Jeremy Bentham and his utilitarian philosophy. Bentham believed that the success of a society should be measured by the happiness of its citizens, and that policy decisions could be made on the basis of what caused the most people the most amount of good. It sounds fairly common sense as an approach, claiming to be able to cut through ideology and politics, even contested definitions of morality, and offer a more scientific basis for decision making.
For it to work though, one has to be able to measure happiness, and the book traces some of the psychological experiments and breakthroughs that made this possible, such as personality testing.
Unlike Layard, Davies is more sceptical about the science of happiness. For a start, the idea of scientific decision-making has implications for democracy. If the government can claim to know what we think and what will make us happy, then why do we need to be consulted? Happiness research might look like it has our best interests at heart, but it can also serve as a way of closing down arguments and hiding political decisions behind a cloak of science. “Taken to its logical conclusions,” Davies worries, we may end up with a society in which “experts and authorities are able to divine what is good for us without our voices being heard.”
Businesses can do this as well as governments. Davies looks back at Taylorism and the fine tuning of industrial processes to get the most out of human labour. That was an approach for industry, and happiness research can do the same sort of thing for those working with their minds rather than their hands. A huge amount of research has gone into wellbeing and worker satisfaction, but not necessarily because employers care about the health and welfare of their employees. Happy staff are more productive, and ultimately the ‘happiness engineers’ hired by silicon valley tech giants are there to boost the bottom line.
If “an unhappy worker was also an unproductive worker”, then unhappiness becomes a problem, and Davies explores where psychology has gone in search of solutions. He looks at the developing understanding of depression or stress, and how these very recent terms came to be understood. Strangely enough, he argues, the medical definition of depression emerged in response to pharmaceutical companies developing an anti-depressant. Unhappiness became a medical disorder that could be treated with drugs.
This medicalisation of stress and depression obscures other solutions. As Davies writes, “stress can be viewed as a medical problem, or it can be viewed as a political one.” So perhaps we could take anti-depressants and press on with our work. Or we could work less, reduce inequality, or look at workplace democracy or employee ownership, or any number of other things that would empower and enhance life and work in the 21st century. By making unhappiness a clinical problem, we close the door to progressive political ideas that would serve workers more than big business, or enhance wellbeing rather than economic growth.
That’s quite a striking conclusion, and The Happiness Industry is, eventually, quietly radical in its own way. It’s also quite technical in places, has a tendency to drag, and it’s esoteric – this is a book that includes a section on the history of door to door surveys. That’s honestly more interesting than it sounds (no, really) but I can understand your scepticism and I’m not going to say it’s a must read. If you are interested in happiness research and how it can be used and misused, or if you’ve read some of the books in praise of the idea and want a counter-argument, then The Happiness Industry may be worth picking up.