Inside the Happiness Racket

Can money buy happiness? A new book explores the history of those who have tried to sell it.

Joanna Scutts

Over the past century, the marketing of happiness has become ever more refined. (Shutterstock)

Are you hap­py?” It’s a ques­tion that stops us in our tracks. Hap­py how? Oth­er emo­tions leave us in no doubt: Anger, embar­rass­ment, excite­ment and dis­ap­point­ment con­sume us. But hap­pi­ness is elu­sive — even in the Dec­la­ra­tion of Inde­pen­dence we’re grant­ed not the thing itself, but the pur­suit of it — and if we cap­ture it, that’s sup­posed to be the end of the sto­ry: hap­pi­ly ever after. We’re also told, just as firm­ly, that it is not for sale. And yet, as evinced in William Davies’s astute and far-reach­ing study of mod­ern hap­pi­ness, The Hap­pi­ness Indus­try: How the Gov­ern­ment and Big Busi­ness Sold Us Well-Being, this elu­sive state is now a major pre­oc­cu­pa­tion of the pow­er­ful. Cor­po­ra­tions and politi­cians see con­crete finan­cial ben­e­fits to pro­mot­ing hap­pi­ness among their work­ers and vot­ers. As a virtue that tran­scends our divi­sions of cul­ture and creed (who doesn’t want to be hap­py?), it has become an irre­sistible cap­i­tal­ist prize.

By shuttling between quasi-spiritual mindfulness and quasi-scientific measurement, we shut out the social dimensions of happiness.

Davies’s book begins, as many such sto­ries do, at the World Eco­nom­ic Forum in Davos, Switzer­land. In 2014, the pro­gram at this elite annu­al con­ven­tion includ­ed 25 pre­sen­ta­tions focused on men­tal and phys­i­cal well­ness” — a marked increase since the start of the finan­cial cri­sis, not­ed Bloomberg. The rise of self-help dur­ing an eco­nom­ic depres­sion is not new, nor is the cur­rent insis­tence that hap­pi­ness is an indi­vid­ual — rather than a social or polit­i­cal — mat­ter. Dur­ing the 1930s, when Amer­i­can busi­ness was haunt­ed by fears of social­is­tic upris­ing, an eager cadre of self-help authors offered a way out. Gurus like Napoleon Hill (Think and Grow Rich), Dorothea Brande (Wake Up and Live!), and Dale Carnegie (who, born Car­nagey, blithe­ly renamed him­self to imply a fam­i­ly con­nec­tion to the country’s lead­ing indus­tri­al­ist), pre­sent­ed mate­r­i­al suc­cess as the result of the desire to suc­ceed, and fail­ure as proof of its lack. Only losers cared that the log­ic was circular.

Soft­en­ing this rather bru­tal suc­cess-ori­ent­ed brand of self-help were the writ­ers who encour­aged read­ers to be con­tent with what they had, such as Lin Yutang, a pro­lif­ic Chi­nese author who moved to the U.S. in the mid-1930s. He became known for best­sellers like 1937’s The Impor­tance of Liv­ing, which ped­dled fan­tasies about the sup­posed wis­dom of prein­dus­tri­al cul­tures. Today, we see ves­tiges of this grat­i­tude-ori­ent­ed path to per­son­al hap­pi­ness online, in Insta­gram and Pinterest’s troves of inspi­ra­tional quotes. Mon­ey is a dirty word in this blissed, #blessed arena.

Why has this pri­vate, per­son­al emo­tion gained so much pub­lic impor­tance? In the 19th cen­tu­ry, cap­tains of indus­try wor­ried about the toll that repet­i­tive phys­i­cal labor would even­tu­al­ly take on a worker’s body. Today, in the knowl­edge econ­o­my,” they wor­ry about the grad­ual deple­tion of men­tal pro­duc­tiv­i­ty — the creep­ing of bore­dom, apa­thy, pes­simism and absen­teeism among work­ers that in turn threat­ens a company’s bot­tom line.

When an employ­ee is unhap­py at work, it stands to rea­son that one of two things is fun­da­men­tal­ly at fault: the employ­ee or the work. The hap­pi­ness indus­try exon­er­ates cap­i­tal­ism. It’s not that the job is under­paid, the hours unrea­son­able or the prod­uct point­less. It’s that the employ­ee is just unhap­py. She should be encour­aged to eat bet­ter, exer­cise and prac­tice mind­ful­ness. Or, if those things fail, seek a phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal rem­e­dy. In the Amer­i­can Psy­chi­atric Association’s 1980 revi­sion of the Diag­nos­tic and Sta­tis­ti­cal Man­u­al of Men­tal Dis­or­ders, the num­ber of offi­cial” forms of men­tal ill­ness bal­looned by more than half, fol­lowed by a sim­i­lar rise in the num­ber of anti­de­pres­sant drugs approved to treat them.

Then, of course, there’s retail ther­a­py,” based on the hope that mon­ey real­ly can buy hap­pi­ness. The British econ­o­mist William Stan­ley Jevons the­o­rized that the val­ue of a com­mod­i­ty might lie in whether we believe it will make us hap­py, rather than in any inher­ent qual­i­ty, such as the labor that went into pro­duc­ing it. The sup­pos­ed­ly objec­tive cap­i­tal­ist mar­ket was sud­den­ly trans­formed into a vast psy­cho­log­i­cal audit.”

But what makes us hap­py? Ask some­one and they will most like­ly answer with fuzzy metaphor­i­cal lan­guage rather than quan­tifi­able data. For treat­ment pur­pos­es — such as get­ting a mis­er­able, unpro­duc­tive patient back to work — such nar­ra­tives are time-con­sum­ing and sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly use­less. Nor are they much help to mar­keters: Any view­er of Mad Men is famil­iar with the idea that ads work best when they appeal to the desires we didn’t even know we had.

It’s not just adver­tis­ers who want to tap into the secrets of what real­ly dri­ves us to act (that is, to spend). We want to know for our­selves. Is it pos­si­ble that we could be hap­py — or unhap­py— with­out know­ing it?

Jere­my Ben­tham, the father of util­i­tar­i­an­ism, believed that if hap­pi­ness could be dis­pas­sion­ate­ly gauged — per­haps by pulse rate — it would pro­vide a clear guide for pub­lic pol­i­cy. Spurred on by the mar­keters of Fit­bits, we now seem to have returned to this far­fetched idea. The Fit­bit device, worn as a bracelet, mon­i­tors all kinds of phys­i­cal process­es — blood pres­sure, sleep cycle, heart rate, dis­tance walked — and pur­ports to pro­vide clues to our well­be­ing. We’re encour­aged to become our own lab rats, while behind the maze, big data com­pa­nies gath­er as much as they can to build up the big­ger picture.

Data col­lec­tion, Davies argues, has always been a some­what shad­owy and coer­cive prac­tice, with many land­mark psy­cho­log­i­cal stud­ies found­ed on the assump­tion that sub­jects should not under­stand exact­ly what they’re being asked to do, or why. So his objec­tions to ram­pant social-media data gath­er­ing focus less on the ethics of sur­veil­lance than on the under­ly­ing assump­tion that human beings are always unre­li­able judges of their own hap­pi­ness. It’s true that how hap­py peo­ple say they are can be affect­ed by cul­tur­al and oth­er prej­u­dices. Yet if we want to arrive at a rich­er under­stand­ing of this elu­sive emo­tion, Davies urges, it’s our words that mat­ter, not our Face­book likes” or work­out stats.

The mod­ern hap­pi­ness indus­try, as Davies explains it, encour­ages us to mon­i­tor our bod­ies and minds to the point of obses­sion. But by shut­tling between qua­si-spir­i­tu­al mind­ful­ness and qua­si-sci­en­tif­ic mea­sure­ment, we shut out the social dimen­sions of hap­pi­ness. To Davies, the entwined his­to­ry of cap­i­tal­ism and psy­chol­o­gy ends up blam­ing — and med­icat­ing— indi­vid­u­als for their own mis­ery, and ignores the con­text that has con­tributed to it.”

It may well be eas­i­er to change our atti­tudes than our cir­cum­stances. But unhap­pi­ness has pow­er, too, if we treat it not as a dis­or­der to be med­icat­ed but as the root of polit­i­cal cri­tique that may push us toward improv­ing soci­ety. Asked out of gen­uine respect and con­cern, Are you hap­py?” can be a source of empow­er­ment — if the answer, in the subject’s own words, is trust­ed and heard.

Joan­na Scutts is a free­lance writer based in Queens, NY, and a board mem­ber of the Nation­al Book Crit­ics Cir­cle. Her book reviews and essays have appeared in the Wash­ing­ton Post, the New York­er Online, The Nation, the Wall Street Jour­nal and sev­er­al oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. You can fol­low her on Twit­ter @JC_Scuttsr.
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