Benjamin Eskola

Review: William Davies, The Happiness Industry (2015)

reviewswilliam davies, economics, psychology

William Davies, The Happiness Industry (Verso, 2015). 320pp.

I don’t think I entirely knew what to expect when I began reading this book: some sort of critique of the way mindfulness and similar concepts seem to be pushed more and more often as a solution to every sort of problem? It is that, too, but it goes much deeper, exploring the interactions between economics, psychology, and management.

It begins by discussing Jeremy Bentham, and his desire for government on the basis of “the greatest happiness for the greatest number” (that is, utilitarianism). Obviously, a problem is encountered: just how do we measure happiness? Can happiness even be quantified? Davies traces two recurring assumptions back to Bentham: first, that yes, happiness can be quantified, somehow, and second, that people can’t be trusted to simply report their own level of happiness, but that some objective measure is needed instead. Bentham hypothesized that this might be heart rate or money (which provides the starting point for the economic part of this book); in the 21st century, fMRI and sentiment analysis, for example, have come to the fore.

The result is a technocratic politics whereby individuals aren’t trusted to make decisions for themselves, and instead have decisions made for them by experts (and what, asks Davies, happens when an individual’s own perception of their mood differs from the expert’s analysis? The model seems to leave no room for this). At the same time, an increasing tendency towards ‘medicalization’ occurs — treating more and more mental states as if they are illnesses, coincidentally often just as a drug is found that could treat that illness. Each time, the root of the problem is shifted from society, into the brain; if you’re unhappy, it couldn’t possibly be due to problems at work or in your personal life, but simply a chemical imbalance. Similarly, concepts like ‘resilience’ shift the focus away from altering a situation which causes stress or unhappiness, and towards simply learning to tolerate it better. All of these processes involve interactions between business, government, and academia; it’s not a suggestion of a conspiracy theory, but of emergent tendencies given certain conditions and assumptions.

This isn’t really an anti-capitalist book. Many of the problems could just as easily exist under socialism, and conversely, the potential solutions do not necessarily require the abolition of capitalism (indeed, he notes that even a straightforward market would be preferable to some of the extremes of manipulation discussed in the book). It’s an argument for individual agency: people are happier at work when they have more control over their workplace (genuine control, and not simply the illusion of control that is increasingly popular). More broadly, what’s called for is simply taking people seriously, allowing them to express their own opinions and desires rather than assuming that their ‘real’ opinions and desires are different, subconscious, and only discoverable by experts.