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.”