Don’t join a union, pop a pill

Katrina Forrester

  • BuyHappiness 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.

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