Book Review - The Happiness Industry

Social media offer a platform for us to acknowledge our changing moods and encourage an unnatural obsession with how our wellbeing and happiness affect our working lives. Today, we can buy gadgets and apps that measure our sleep or assess the benefits of our physical activities. Self-help books about how to be happy proliferate and ensure that we remain fixated on the subject. There are even organisations which use cameras to track our smiles. Rather more worryingly, this technology and knowledge is being harnessed by corporations, policy makers and governments. According to William Davies, the science of happiness “has now penetrated the citadel of global economic management … the future of successful capitalism depends on our ability to combat stress, misery and illness and put relaxation, happiness and wellness in their place”.

In his impeccably researched book, Davies traces the history of the happiness industry back to the work of the utilitarian Jeremy Bentham, a British philosopher and social reformer who believed human actions should promote happiness for the greatest number. Davies also examines the work of Gustav Fechner, a theologian and physicist who founded psychophysics; the economist William Stanley Jevons; the physiologist and philosopher Wilhelm Wundt; and the animal psychologist John B Watson whose research eventually led him to join the U.S. advertising agency J. Walter Thompson. He illustrates how these disciplines overlapped and how happiness studies became entangled “with economic and medical expertise”.

His main criticism of “the science of well-being” is that it encourages us to blame ourselves while ignoring political and economic contexts, Futhermore, those in power exploit the science for “private profit” or “social control”. As Davies underlines, “unhappiness and depression are concentrated in highly unequal societies with strongly materialist, competitive values”. The opinion poll Gallup estimates that “the unhappiness of employees costs the US economy $500 billion a year in lost productivity, lost tax receipts and health care costs.” No wonder wealthy states are so interested in measuring happiness. But the solutions offered, Davies argues, further isolate the poor.

It’s an erudite and far-reaching study but, because Davies covers so much ground, The Happiness Industry can be difficult to unpack. Davies suggests that the positive psychology movement (aimed at improving everyday happiness) has advanced to the detriment of more subjective methods geared towards identifying what constitutes emotional wellbeing. His conclusion is that only through “understanding the strains and pains that work, hierarchy, financial pressures and inequality place upon human well-being” can we challenge them. Rather than allowing our emotions to be bought and sold, we need to stop focusing on our inner lives and train our minds “outwards upon the world”.

 A shortened version was published by the Independent on Sunday