The happiness industry

  The current obsession with attempting to quantify happiness is having a detrimental effect on society said Will Davis speaking at the RSA today in a talk entitled: how Government and big business sold us wellbeing. 

There are myriad examples of the kind of quantification he is talking about :

  • The rise of happiness statistics 
  • The rise of wearable technology and mood quantification 
  • The rise of new methodologies in fields like Neuroeconomics which seek to show that dopamine, for example, has a direct impact on economics
  • The rise of face and voice scanning technologies collecting data on moods
  • And the notorious Facebook experiment on whether mood can be influenced by manipulating what people see in their news feeds

So why is this happening particularly now? For three reasons he says:

1. The rising importantance of psychological engagement in workforce. 

2. The dramatic rise of depression and anxiety increasingly framed as illnesses rooted in physical causes

3. The fact that we now live in a society where experiments can be run in everyday life. 

His belief is that we need to challenge the argument that it is self-evident that happiness can and should be measured.  

The roots of this trend go back to Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism at the end of the 19th Century. 

Bentham was concerned about the danger of abstract language which he felt could be used to manipulate- terms like the “devine right of Kings” or the “rights of Man”. But Davis believes there are philosophical contradictions with Bentham’s approach. 

Happiness was being simulataneously being asked to fill two roles; in one the ethical status of happiness is of being good in itself, in the other it is also measurable and empirical. Davis says the concept constantly flips between the two.

Mindfulness is a good example. The current trend for mindfulness bolts together the metaphysical and the supposedly empirical and scientific.

The risk is that the capacity to explain what we feel is undermined and unhappiness is increasingly seen as being capable of remedy by medial intervention.
We therefore end up granting external authorities power over us – such as the The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders which defines quite specially things like depression.  

What is needed he says is a reauthorisation of people to describe how they feel in terms which transcend the purely empirical. We need to be free to be the “authorised narrators of our own happiness.”

“Settling ethical questions by resorting to matters of fact is dangerous,” he says, as is locating sources of unhappiness in individual bodies and brains rather than in the world around them (inequality, for instance).

“Sometimes its important for people to have something to be unhappy about.”

Towards an economy that works for us

We are now living in an age of total bureaucracy says David Graeber, anthropologist and leading figure in the Occupy movement, speaking at the RSA last week. There is now a web of planetary organisations including global corporations, NGOs, institutions like the IMF and Workd Bank which has merged into a single web-like bureaucracy.  

Bureaucratic institutions are really about limiting imagination, implying that there is simply no alternative to the global capitalism system.

This has profound consequences, he believes. Take the Liberal Democrats volte face in 2010. Graeber points out the LibDems promised free education before they ended up in the coalition government, but subsequently backed tuition fees. The argument was that we had to raise the money because we owed money and the bond-holders wouldn’t trust us if we defaulted on our loans. So rather than break a promise to international financiers which might mean they wouldn’t lend in the future, the LibDems broke a promise to the electorate which might mean they wouldn’t vote in the future. “They would rather break democracy than break the financial system.” 

So what’s to be done?

Graeber believes there are three things that need to happen.

First, develop true democracy. His time with the Occupy movement taught him just how threatened the global bureaucracy is with groups congregating, discussing and making decision. Very challenged. Changed laws anything to stop free association.

Second, return to valuing real work, rather than “bullshit jobs“. Capitalism is supposed to remove non-productive jobs, but this simply hasn’t happened, Graeber argues. What has happened is a redefining of work as good in and of itself. “The more pointless and unrewarding your job, the more like a ‘real’ job it is.”

People are complaining that robots will replace work, he says. “If ever there was a sign that an economy is stupidly organised.”

Third, start forgiving debt. Debt has achieved a sanctity which puts it above democracy and humanity. 

He also spoke about what he called the “war on imagination”. 

Old fashioned bureaucracies were good at creating eccentrics, he said – the Manhattan Project was full of them. “Modern bureaucracies can’t tolerate them” he says, and that’s the reason our rate of invention of genuinely significant innovations has fallen so dramatically and hence why economic growth is so lacklustre.