Monday, July 3, 2017

Book Review: 'The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being' by William Davies

Review by David Wineberg

This remarkable tour through the painful evolution of behavioral economics, management consulting, advertising and psychiatry fills us with the realization that happiness has always been a factor (not necessarily respected, appreciated or understood) in numerous fields. Now suddenly, it is front and center as giant corporations focus on it, the better to get more out of employees and customers. Happiness has made it to the front burner of multinationals. Look out. 

Rather than deal with the causes, happiness consultants actually advise companies to find the unhappiest 10%, and lay them off for being unhappy, somehow inspiring everyone else to become “super engaged.” Get happy or get out.

It has come to the point where capitalism itself is under review: can measures of happiness replace market pricing as the main measure of the economy? Davies cites the Davos conference, where the who’s who of capitalism now actively pursues this approach. 

Over a third of Westerners suffer from some sort of mental health problem, he says, usually undiagnosed. It leads to inactivity, non productivity, lower government revenues and higher costs as the unhappy tap government services. It may already reduce GDP by 3-4%. Now a far greater cost than crime, it’s expected to double in the next 20 years. It currently costs the American economy half a trillion dollars.

There is an undercurrent of cynicism throughout The Happiness Industry, as Davies relates crackpot theories and crackpot theorists. Then he comes clean with force: “Once social relationships can be viewed as medical and biological properties of the human body, they can become dragged into the limitless pursuit of self optimization that counts for happiness in the age of neoliberalism.” He says disempowerment is at the bottom of stress, anxiety, frustration and mental problems. Not knowing if you have adequate income or even work is the most stressful condition in society. And it is now a way of life. By promoting happiness, companies deflect these anxieties without addressing them. It is a power play over employees and customers; companies want everyone’s decisions to be predictable, so they frame everything to maximize that, creating a new normal for both happiness as a state of being, and for data collection.

The book takes a very dark turn, as happiness requires a surveillance society to work properly. How happy were you yesterday, Davies asks? We can tell you exactly by your tweets, facebook posts, texts, pins and instagrams. Also your health-recording wristband. “They” no longer care what people say in surveys; raw data is far more trustworthy.

It is a fascinating turnaround for happiness, and well worth understanding, because it’s coming to company near and dear to you.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right. 

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