Don’t join a union, pop a pill

Katrina Forrester

  • The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Wellbeing by William Davies
    Verso, 314 pp, £16.99, May 2015, ISBN 978 1 78168 845 8

‘What’s on your mind?’ Each day, the 968 million people who log in to Facebook are asked to share their thoughts with its giant data bank. A dropdown menu of smilies invites you to update ‘how you’re feeling’. ‘Excited’ is the first option, ‘happy’ is the second. If they don’t fit, you can scroll down and pick from 120 other moods, including ‘fed up’, ‘anxious’ or ‘stuffed’. Facebook has made no secret of the fact that it passes our personal information and preferences to ad companies, branding agencies and governments. In 2014, we learned that it also gathers data about our moods, and ran experiments in manipulating them by tailoring users’ newsfeeds to be more happy or more sad. By translating subjective expressions of feeling into objective data, Facebook is in the business of making what goes on in our heads knowable, legible and marketable.

Facebook’s capacity for surveillance may be unparalleled, but its interest in measuring, monitoring and managing our feelings isn’t. Psychologists and behavioural economists gather data about feelings from a range of sources, online and off, in an effort to understand and better predict people’s decision-making. Their findings are used by companies to help them sell things and by governments to make policy. In 2010, the Cabinet Office set up a Behavioural Insights Team (or ‘Nudge Unit’), which used behavioural research to ‘design policies or interventions that can encourage, support and enable people to make better choices for themselves and society’. Now a partly privatised company which sells its research to government departments, the Nudge Unit has been adopted as a model in the US and Australia. Behavioural scientists in such institutions are particularly interested in monitoring levels of ‘happiness’. The view that happiness can’t be quantified – that emotional life is not the stuff of politics, economics or science – is not shared by what William Davies calls the ‘happiness industry’, that constellation of psychologists and economists seeking to maximise happiness; neuroscientists developing increasingly sophisticated tools for measuring it; doctors and psychiatrists prescribing drugs to induce it; and publishers filling their lists with books telling you how to achieve it.

When governments today take an interest in happiness, Davies says, they continue a project that began 250 years ago with Jeremy Bentham’s conviction that political decision-making should be based not on empty philosophical notions – ‘rights’, ‘obligation’, ‘duty’ – but on ‘real entities’, specifically pains and pleasures, which can be apprehended directly. As Davies sees it, Bentham was the inventor of ‘evidence-based policy-making’. The 18th-century forebears of utilitarianism and classical political economy like Hume and Adam Smith had doubted that we could understand much about other people, but didn’t think that that mattered much. Common psychological characteristics could be assumed, and social conventions and rules of exchange would serve to co-ordinate human behaviour and improve citizens’ wellbeing. Bentham was more optimistic: he believed it was possible to get reliable knowledge about human psychology. Happiness in particular, unlike the intangible philosophical categories that he dismissed, had a largely physical basis, its quantity determined by the presence of pleasure and the absence of pain. He proposed a classification of 12 ‘pains’ and 14 ‘pleasures’, which could in principle be measured, compared and aggregated according to his ‘felicific calculus’, which was to be used by legislators to devise policy in accordance with his utility principle: that the ‘greatest happiness for the greatest number … is the measure of right and wrong.’ The reference to the ‘greatest number’ was the salient part of the principle: what benefited the majority mattered more than individual happiness (one thing he thought would increase the general happiness of London was a proper sewage system).

Partly because he was as interested in social reform as in individual psychology, Bentham paid more attention to the classification of pleasures than their measurement. But, according to Davies, the solutions proposed by Bentham and his more mathematically minded heirs to the problem of how to measure our inner thoughts ‘set the stage for the entangling of psychological research and capitalism’. They came up with two possibilities: ‘Money or the body,’ as Davies puts it, ‘economics or physiology. Payment or diagnosis.’ Money could be used to attribute value: when you put a price on something, you assume it has the same value, or utility, as something else with the same price. The body could yield ‘measurable symptoms of what the mind was experiencing’: when a physical diagnosis is attached to a psychological experience, what appears to be unique to one person can be compared with the experience of others. Both methods provide an objective, impersonal measure of subjective, personal experience.

In the late 19th century, economists started to formulate increasingly technical models of consumer choice and exchange. For these early ‘neoclassical’ economists, the question of what it was possible to know about individual wants and desires was central. Francis Edgeworth thought the new science of experimental psychology would give us access to people’s minds as well as information about particular psychological qualities. He proposed a tool – a ‘hedonometer’ – that would measure utility in the mind and body; the results would be fed into equations and used to decide social policy. Another influential economist, William Stanley Jevons, wasn’t convinced: ‘Every mind’, he wrote, is ‘inscrutable to every other mind, and no common denominator of feeling seems to be possible’. So far as Jevons was concerned, if you couldn’t do it scientifically, you shouldn’t do it at all. Inner thoughts were relevant only to the extent that they explained the value of external objects – of goods to be consumed.

Economists after Jevons distanced themselves from psychology, starting instead from the idea that man is defined by his preferences. If his choices are consistent, we can take him to be rational: what is required isn’t access to the mind, merely observation of behaviour. Utilitarianism in its classical, psychological, Benthamite form hadn’t lasted long. Instead, the foundation of economics became the much simpler picture of man as a blank slate and rational decision-maker: homo economicus. New ‘maximising’ theories gained currency: individuals, according to economists, sought to maximise their utility; governments, according to political philosophers, sought to maximise the general welfare of their citizens. The state, here, wasn’t concerned with citizens’ happiness: how they felt wasn’t any of its business.

Such psychological scepticism didn’t stop governments and businesses trying to find out as much about people as they could. One of the major ideological divides in 20th-century politics was over what kinds of knowledge were possible, how they could be gathered and used, and who should do the gathering – experts or the market. On one side were those, like Hayek, who brought the scepticism of economic theory to bear on politics, arguing that since we couldn’t know much about what individuals want, it was best to leave decisions to them. Individual knowledge couldn’t be collected and co-ordinated by a central authority; instead, the price mechanism would dictate the allocation of resources. Systems of exchange – above all, the market – universalised individual subjective experiences: there was no need for a cadre of experts to manage them. On the other side were those who thought that states, corporations and businesses had the means to acquire knowledge about what made individuals tick. The psychology of workers, the desires of consumers, the habits of housewives, the wellbeing of citizens: all could be measured through surveys, polling and other data-gathering instruments. The popularisation of psychoanalysis made the workings of the mind seem more accessible, and amenable to manipulation by the ‘hidden persuaders’ of the advertising industry. Over the course of the century, experimental psychologists came to treat individuals like animals, tracking people’s behaviour as if they were rats in a lab. The task of experts was to amass and use knowledge about what people were like and how they could be improved – allowing businesses to be made more efficient, production optimised, economies planned.

According to Davies, the old faultlines have now dissolved. Psychology and economics were reunited forty years ago with the emergence of behavioural economics, which acknowledges that humans are not only or not always self-interested utility-maximisers (Amartya Sen described homo economicus as a ‘rational fool’), but social, moral and emotional animals too; studies of economic ‘irrationality’ now proliferate.

Experts and the market are no longer seen to be alternatives as collectors of data. We are complicit with our own surveillance, willing to give information about what makes us happy to anyone who asks and even to those who don’t, through smart watches, fit-bits, Facebook and Twitter. Social media platforms and websites hosting viral content such as Buzzfeed are renowned for ‘click-bait’ marketing techniques that amass more knowledge about us than 20th-century pollsters and surveyors could have dreamed possible. The internet allows markets to seep into places they weren’t always able to reach, and makes the kinds of psychological information once thought irrelevant to markets readily available to them.

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We are, Davies believes, riding a new wave of scientific optimism. Advances in behavioural psychology and brain science have sparked fresh enthusiasm for the belief that there is a psychological state called happiness, and that it can be quantified. A digital hedonometer has been built: hedonometer.org takes a sample of ‘roughly a hundred million words per day’ from Twitter and other data sources, and assigns all of them a ‘happiness score’, in order to measure ‘patterns of happiness’. Part of the impetus for measuring happiness is the perception that the metrics currently used to measure socio-economic activity are insufficient. GDP measures economic performance, not wellbeing or ‘national happiness’. According to the OECD’s guidelines, issued in 2013, on how to measure and use data on subjective wellbeing, happiness is influenced by income, but only up to a point. Happiness indices are strategically useful to the likes of climate-change activists and anti-growth ecologists. If putting an end to climate change requires us to adopt a low (or zero) growth economy, and we don’t need economic growth to be happy, then the case can be made that slowing growth to the point necessary to save the climate needn’t be at the cost of our wellbeing. To take another example, we know that being unemployed has a bad effect on self-esteem, so if a government’s aim is to maximise happiness, it should pursue a policy of full employment. This, though, is an example of how the argument can cut both ways. If Cameron’s happiness agenda came to anything (and it didn’t come to much) it was to supply a neat justification for workfare: if work itself is what makes us happy, then there’s no need for work to be waged.

In any case, what exactly is it that’s being measured? Happiness remains a slippery idea. When we talk about ‘wellbeing’, health is usually what we have in mind, but philosophers and economists have for centuries used it as a more general term to describe things that are ‘good for’ people – the personal, social, cultural, political and economic factors that make our individual and collective lives worth living. In contemporary ‘happiness studies’, definitions focus more on the individual than the collective, and are more directly concerned with psychological experience. The psychologist Daniel Kahneman defines ‘objective happiness’ at a given moment as the extent to which you want the experience you are having at that point to continue. ‘Subjective wellbeing’ is a broader metric, encompassing ‘general satisfaction with life’ and balance of ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ feelings. Or, as Richard Layard, the behavioural economist who did much to increase provision for mental health services as New Labour’s ‘happiness tsar’, put it in a lecture in 2003, ‘By happiness I mean feeling good – enjoying life and feeling it is wonderful. And by unhappiness I mean feeling bad and wishing things were different.’

The surveys and first-person reports that supply the data for happiness studies suggest that most people are broadly satisfied with their lives. Happiness is normal: if you are happy, you are healthy. But to see happiness in this way is also to think of unhappiness as a pathology, a psychological or mental state amenable to behavioural and medical intervention. This is the logic that underpins the growth of the ‘happiness industry’. It is increasingly influential in health and education policy: if you’re not happy, wish things were different, or find it hard to adapt to the conditions of modern life, you may be diagnosed as suffering from a mental illness. Today depression is the most common pathology of happiness (though there are many other anxiety disorders), and many cases will be treated either with antidepressants, or with cognitive behavioural therapy designed to help sufferers get back on their feet quickly – software now exists that cuts out the need for a therapist. A cluster of new approaches to psychological health have lately become popular. ‘Positive psychology’ is a technique for challenging negative thinking. ‘Mindfulness’ makes use of Buddhist forms of meditation to reduce stress and promote wellness (at the World Economic Forum in Davos last year, 25 of the conference sessions addressed questions of ‘wellness’ and delegates were invited to meditate every morning). ‘Resilience’ training, intended to help individuals cope and adapt in difficult situations, has been introduced in some schools. For Freud, the ‘pathological’ was on a continuum with the ‘normal’; making the sick well didn’t mean making them happy, but as he famously said, turning ‘hysterical misery into common unhappiness’. Many people are unhappy for good reasons, which the new therapeutic practices of the happiness industry largely ignore. They prefer to deal with symptoms rather than causes, and aim not to cure people but to enable them to live fitter, happier, more productive lives.

Davies’s concern is to show that by making us more resilient and more productive, the happiness industry tricks us into settling for too little. It encourages us to address social and economic problems with bodily fixes, ‘blaming – and medicating – individuals for their own misery’ and ignoring ‘the context that has contributed to it’. This is true whether the causes are personal or socio-economic. The new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM-V) classes grief following a bereavement, if it lasts for longer than a couple of months, as a mental disorder. Where once the solution to unhappiness at work was social reform and collective action, now it’s individual uplift and ‘resilience’; when we want to resist, we don’t join a union but call in sick. If you lose your job and feel demoralised at the prospect of looking for a new one, that too might be a diagnosable condition. The government has plans to place therapists in Job Centres, and will offer online courses of CBT designed to help the unemployed think more positively; the DWP has denied that claimants would be sanctioned for refusing psychological treatment, the Guardian reported in June, but the Tory election manifesto said the opposite. A recent report backed by the Wellcome Trust described the rebranding of unemployment as a psychological disorder. ‘Claimants’ “attitude to work” is becoming a basis for deciding who is entitled to social security,’ one of its authors, Lynne Friedli, told the BBC. ‘By repackaging unemployment as a psychological problem, attention is diverted from the realities of the UK job market and any subsequent insecurities and inequalities it produces.’

Davies perceives in all this the final triumph of Bentham’s ‘utilitarianism’ (a term he uses to describe an ideological tendency encompassing forms of behaviourism and neoliberalism, rather than a moral, political or economic theory of decision-making). He links the rise of happiness – and its twin, depression – to the competitive excesses of capitalism, which has established individual fulfilment, freedom and responsibility as norms. This explanation collapses a more recent, and more complicated, story about the origins of the happiness industry in the mid-20th century, when states became increasingly concerned with their populations’ welfare, and psychological and physiological health became more closely entwined. The historian Rhodri Hayward has pointed to the busmen’s strike of 1937 as a turning point in the British version of this story. The strike was settled with reference not to rights or custom but to concerns over the effects of stress on the workforce, as evidenced in company sickness returns. In the face of worries about morale and the possibility of mass psychiatric breakdown in the Second World War, the bureaucratic machinery of the welfare state turned to new ways of aggregating personal data, drawing on insurance claims and doctors’ records. Since then, the categories of mental health have been transformed by changes in drug licensing, in the beliefs of medical and psychiatric professionals (particularly the decline of psychoanalysis), and consumer marketing strategies. In wealthy countries, health has become an ethical imperative. Through diet and exercise we are more and more concerned with our own bodies. As the pharmaceutical industry continues to generate new disorders and the means of curing them, we consume more of its products than ever before.

Davies sees these forms of interference by experts and the surveillance apparatus they make possible as an affront to democracy. His antidote, proposed more in hope than expectation, is more democracy in the workplace. ‘Businesses which are organised around a principle of dialogue and co-operative control’ would, he writes, be a ‘starting point for a critical mind turned outwards on the world, and not inwards on itself’. Employee-owned businesses are ‘far less reliant on the forms of psychological control that managers of corporations have relied on since the 1920s’. There are difficulties in pitching the battle this way. Distrust of expertise can slip into a general squeamishness about quantification and measurement. Doubtless the tools of scientific and economic analysis have penetrated too deeply into our psychological and emotional lives, but without quantification it’s hard to draw up any kind of policy, let alone policies that might work for the benefit of the majority. Medicine is a particularly hard case. The links between health and profitability are difficult to cut: the drug companies which profit by pathologising ordinary experience, and which are largely to blame for the rise in diagnoses of depression, are also the entities best placed to bear the risk of creating and testing new drugs. Happiness and depression are tied up with capital in ways more concrete and more intractable than Davies allows.

Yet his analysis does also point beyond the opposition between democracy and expertise. Greater workplace democracy is an institutional solution to problems which, as Davies recognises, are no longer confined to traditional institutional frameworks. Surveillance is no longer simply something done to ‘us’ by ‘them’. Markets want to know more about us than the choices we make, and we are all too willing to give them the information they seek. We collaborate in our own surveillance; we rush to join new markets and ‘sharing economies’; we identify with the psychological categories that are marketed to us. The course of these developments cannot be altered by small-scale redistributions of power. Controlling the experts will itself require new forms of expertise.