The Bristol Cable

Will Davies is a senior lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London and writes on mental health, political economy and modern Capitalism.  His book The Happiness Industry takes a critical look at how the concept of ‘mental well being’ can be used by governments and big business to monitor and control people at work and in society. The Cable recently spoke to Will as part of our series on mental health and to ask some questions about his book:


Bristol Cable: Hi Will, Could you begin by introducing us to the concept of The Happiness Industry and discuss some of its methods, technologies and ideologies?

Will Davies: In the last 20 years or so, there’s been growing optimism amongst economists, marketers, neuroscientists, psychologists and managers that it is possible to know objectively what makes people happy. There are various reasons for this, including the growing use of survey methods amongst economists and statisticians aimed at discovering how happy people are, and more sophisticated forms of brain-scanning technologies, which can identify indicators of emotion in the brain. Within business, managers have become increasingly concerned by stress and depression amongst employees, but rather than focus on them as such, have preferred to aim at promoting their opposite, i.e. ‘happiness’. And marketers have become very focused on ‘emotions’ as drivers of purchasing behavior. At the cutting edge, methods are becoming computerized, able to automatically read emotion from facial movements or social media communication.

Knowledge of this kind is never entirely innocent, and inevitably leads to new types of interventions by those with power and authority. If research on happiness was purely used to bring suffering to light, as many of the earliest surveys on mental health and wellbeing did, then one might say that it served a politically progressive, or even emancipatory, service. It remains the case that there are many campaigners and critics who use such data to demand political and economic change. The problem is that it is typically far easier (and less threatening to the status quo) to demand that people change their behaviours and attitudes, and give up on the idea of changing society. For example, there is fairly good evidence that endless testing in schools causes stress for teachers, parents and children, resulting in rising anxiety and depression levels. This evidence could be the basis for change. But more commonly, happiness gurus suggest that mindfulness and happiness be put on the school curriculum.

BC: Could you elaborate on how The Happiness Industry treats different people in society?

WD: The usefulness and economic value of happiness differs significantly across different areas of the population. If one thinks of the ‘happiest’ type of workplace, then one imagines something like Google, which employs a Jolly Good Fellow to spread happiness, offers delicious and healthy food for free the whole time, and tries to inculcate a fun atmosphere. But each member of staff carries huge value to Google, in terms of their ideas, enthusiasm and cost of replacement. Caring about their happiness is good business sense. But the employee happiness that a call centre is concerned with is very different. Call centres have a tight economic logic, of seeking to handle as many calls-per-hour as possible, and focus on a very simple index of customer satisfaction. As a result, the main thing is that staff behave enthusiastically and staff turnover is not too high. To achieve this, surveillance of behavior makes perfect sense, to ensure productivity is high and to catch out those not demonstrating happiness to customers. Similarly, staff in coffee chains are compelled to behave in an upbeat fashion, as part of their job.

One of the most worrying areas at the moment is workfare, where positive psychology and ‘behavioural activation’ are used to cajole job-seekers to apply for more jobs, and present themselves differently to potential employers. This completely ignore the various social factors inhibiting people, such as dependent family members, and macroeconomic factors, such as low economic growth.

In certain cases, positive psychology is being used to bully people, with the opposite of the desired effect, leading them to feel even more guilty and responsible for their failures.

BC: You talk about how most people are apathetic or even miserable at work and this results in techniques to encourage engagement and productivity as well as accepting stress as something normal to be ‘dealt’ with (Bristol City Council has recently signed up to the Workplace Wellbeing Charter for example).  Is there a relationship between these management techniques and wider politics, such as austerity and cuts to local services?

WD: Austerity is a central part of the story here. The proposed logic of austerity is that it is possible to make drastic cuts to the public sector (especially in local government) but without damaging outcomes. Obviously this is ultimately not possible, but the politics of austerity means that the social costs are hidden as much as possible. One way in which this is done is to expect public sector productivity to make up for massive shortfalls in funding, so it is inevitable that stress levels rise significantly (see Cable exclusive). Then there is the phoney expectation that various people living in dependent situations are actually far more independent than they appear or believe, and can become active job-seekers. This is a brutal policy ideology, driven largely by Department of Work and Pensions, and leads to policies such as the bedroom tax and benefit sanctions.

These conditions place huge burdens on both the users of government services and the providers, in terms of maintaining ‘resilience’ and energy levels, despite receding forms of support.

Realistically, what might produce more resilient employees and citizens would be the possibility to get away from this constant demand to work harder and try harder.

But the logic of austerity and the logic of wellbeing mean that people find it harder to switch off. When the pursuit of happiness becomes entangled with the pursuit of economic efficiency, then it becomes part of the problem not the solution.

BC:  In the book you make several references to the difference between ‘changing ourselves’ and a society based on ‘alternative ways of understanding human beings and alternative forms of political and economic representation’ to improve mental health and end individual isolation.  What are these alternative methods, and what could this society look like?

WD: Ironically, positive psychologists point towards the answer, but never pursue it. A great deal of positive psychology is aimed towards getting people to notice the world around them, be altruistic, stop comparing themselves to others, stop focusing on themselves and their own consumption. It’s impossible to disagree with any of that. The problem is that the happiness industry leaves all of that at the status of behavioural and cognitive habits, to be undertaken to make oneself feel better.

We need to re-conceive of human beings as social, communicative, verbal creatures, who need to express themselves. They need to be in institutions and contexts where they are heard by others, and not simply evaluated, tested, ranked, diagnosed. Therapy is one such situation, but it’s worth asking what a school or workplace would look like which treated dialogue as intrinsically valuable, and not simply some way of (at best) trying to alter some underlying cognitive or biological substrate and (at worst) some inefficiency to be circumvented with some form of emotion-sensing device. In my book, I use co-operative governance as one example of this. The obvious critique of co-operatives (and democracy generally) is that it leads to incessant dialogue, with no decisions being reached. Of course this critique captures a real problem, but the opposite problem is that of management and policy that refuses dialogical engagement of any kind, and that’s where I think we’re heading, thanks partly to the exaggerated claims of experts who claim they can detect what makes people happy, without having to ask them.

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