The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being by William Davies - review by John Gray

John Gray

Politics of Pleasure

The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being


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‘Happiness is the ultimate goal because it is self-evidently good. If we are asked why happiness matters we can give no further external reason. It just obviously does matter.’ Richard Layard, an economist and advocate of ‘positive psychology’, made this pronouncement in his book Happiness: Lessons from a New Science (2005). It epitomises an influential current of contemporary thinking. For Layard and others like him, it is obvious that the purpose of government is to promote a state of collective wellbeing. What this condition consists of is taken to be unproblematic; a feeling of pleasure or satisfaction in life is plainly what all human beings want. The only question is how to achieve it, and here positive psychology – a putative science that not only identifies what makes people happy but also allows their happiness to be measured – can show the way. Equipped with this science, governments can secure happiness in society in a way they never could in the past.

It is an astonishingly crude and simple-minded way of thinking, and for that very reason increasingly popular. Those who think in this way are oblivious to the vast philosophical literature in which the meaning and value of happiness have been explored and questioned, and write as if nothing of any importance had been thought on the subject until it came to their attention. Here they resemble Jeremy Bentham, who more than anyone else invented this way of thinking. For Bentham it was obvious that the human good consists of pleasure and the absence of pain. Aristotle may have identified happiness with self-realisation, Stoics may have subordinated happiness to duty, and thinkers throughout the ages may have struggled to reconcile the pursuit of happiness with other human values, but for Bentham all this was mere metaphysics or fiction. Without knowing anything much of him or the school of moral theory he established – since they are by education and intellectual conviction illiterate in the history of ideas – our advocates of positive psychology follow the founder of modern utilitarianism in rejecting as outmoded and irrelevant pretty much the entirety of ethical reflection on the human good to date. As William Davies notes, when he cites Layard’s observation, the view that happiness is the only self-evident good is actually a way of curtailing moral inquiry.

One of the virtues of this rich, lucid and arresting book is that it places the current cult of happiness in a well-defined historical framework. Rightly, Davies begins his story with Bentham, noting that he was far more than a philosopher. During the 1790s, Davies writes, ‘Bentham’s activities were those of what we might now associate with a public sector management consultant’. He wrote to the Home Office suggesting that the departments of government be linked together through a set of ‘conversation tubes’, and to the Bank of England with a design for a printing device that could produce unforgeable banknotes. He drew up plans for a ‘frigidarium’ to keep food fresh. His celebrated design for a penitentiary in which prisoners would be kept in solitary confinement while being at all times under observation was very nearly adopted. (Surprisingly, Davies does not discuss the fact that Bentham meant his Panopticon not just as a model prison but also as an instrument of control through continuous surveillance that could be applied to other institutions – schools, factories and poorhouses, for example.)

Bentham was also a pioneer of the ‘science of happiness’. Measuring happiness is a problem for any public institution that aims to maximise it, and Bentham suggested two ways in which this difficulty might be overcome. Viewing happiness as a complex of pleasurable sensations, he suggested that it might be quantified by measuring the human pulse rate. Alternatively, money could be used as the standard of measurement: if two different goods have the same price, it can be postulated that they produce the same quantity of pleasure in the consumer. Bentham was more attracted by the latter measure. By linking money so closely with inner experience, Davies writes, he ‘set the stage for the entangling of psychological research and capitalism that would shape the business practices of the twentieth century.’

The Happiness Industry is concerned to show that the project of a science of happiness has become integral to capitalism, with defects in the economy being redefined and treated as psychological maladies. This focus on the ways in which the cult of happiness serves the prevailing economic system is both a strength and a limitation of the book. On the one hand, we learn much that is interesting about how the belief that inner states of pleasure and displeasure can be monitored and quantified has informed management studies and advertising. The tendency of thinkers such as J B Watson, the founder of behaviourism in psychology, was to view human beings as assemblages of conditioned responses that could be shaped, or manipulated, by policymakers and managers. As Davies notes, Watson had no factual basis for his view of human action. When he became president of the American Psychological Association in 1915, Watson ‘had never even studied a single human being’: his research had been confined to experiments on white rats. Yet Watson’s reductive model is now widely applied, with ‘behaviour change’ becoming the goal of governments: in Britain, a ‘Behaviour Insights Team’ has been established by the Cabinet Office to study how people can be ‘nudged’, at minimum cost to the public purse, to live in what are deemed to be socially desirable ways.

Davies tells a fascinating story, but recording how an ersatz ‘science of happiness’ has been seized upon by governments in their attempt to manage the dislocations of contemporary capitalism captures only one of many ways in which the promotion of happiness has featured in modern politics. The former Soviet Union embodied a project of happiness promotion that was stupendous in scope and ambition – ironically, as Davies notes in passing, it employed capitalist tools of business management, such as Taylorism, the American time-and-motion theory of industrial efficiency presented by F W Taylor in his Principles of Scientific Management (1911), which Lenin much admired and attempted to implement in Soviet factories.

From the start, the Soviet system was organised on the basis that any type of unhappiness would in future be a form of subversion. A society in which happiness is compulsory is the target of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel We, begun in 1920 and banned by the Soviet censor in 1921. It is one of the greatest and most influential 20th-century dystopias – an English translation appeared in New York in 1924 and it is hard to believe that Zamyatin’s seminal work did not have a formative influence on Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), though it was Benthamism rather than Bolshevism that Huxley was attacking. Whatever its intellectual pedigree, the idea that government should be responsible for promoting happiness is always inimical to individual freedom.

At the end of the book, Davies looks hopefully to ‘alternative forms of economic-political organisation’ as a remedy for the ills that the cult of happiness attempts to address in capitalist economies. But the desire for some such cult seems to be just as urgent among the enemies of capitalism, if not more so. Whatever economic system they end up with, modern industrial societies appear to need a secular religion of ever-increasing happiness to sanction and bless their unending labours.

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