The Happiness Industry by William Davies

Have you noticed recently in bookshops how the shelves are groaning with self-help guides on happiness? This is accompanied by endless newspaper and magazine advice columns on how to be a happy (or happier) bunny. Whereas at one time the church and religion instructed us on how to pursue a rich and fulfilling life, now secular pundits of every hue are eager to serve up their recipes. Counselling, psychotherapy, Prozac, Western Buddhism, mindfulness, meditation, weekend retreats, acupuncture, aromatherapy, holotropic breathwork, ear candling, iridology, Ohashiatsu, Reiki, radiesthesia, crystal healing – is to name but a few.

Have you ever wondered, though, what’s behind this new tidal wave of compassion? Dr. William Davies’s ( new book shows how ‘managing our happiness’ is in fact an increasingly lucrative and insidious industry. He shows how powerful interests benefit from our increased willingness to monitor and meddle with our mental states. The Happiness Industry (2015) begins with Jeremy Bentham and his principle of ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’. His ideas about the state and the free market working to punish and reward, through pleasure and pain, set the stage for ‘the entangling of psychological research and capitalism’ that would shape twentieth-century business. Davies argues that current ‘happiness science’ is the latest iteration of an ongoing project which assumes the relationship between mind and world is amenable to mathematical scrutiny.

Unfortunately, sad and apathetic people are a threat to capitalists and profit-makers. We all, therefore, have to be made to be happy, bouncy little workers and consumers. Gallup has estimated that the unhappiness of employees is costing the US economy $500bn a year in productivity, lost tax receipts and health-care costs. Britain has an even greater productivity crisis on its hands, when stress, depression and anxiety accounted for 39 per cent of all work-related illness in 2013-2014. Unhappy people must either be blamed, ‘medicated’ or else ‘therapied’ back to usefulness. If therapy is refused at the Job Centre, the hapless depressive will be ‘sanctioned’. It’s always the fault of the individual on this account, never that of the social/political context in which the person happens to live.

Davies sees this whole project – founded on the utopian assumption that we can resolve all moral and political questions with the help of a pulse monitor, brain scanner, pharmacology, or the iPhone 6 Health App – as profoundly mistaken. He has given us a book here that traces the origins and permutations of this mistake, and argues that we are falling increasingly into its thrall.

So the next time you’re feeling depressed, cling to that feeling. Relish it. At least it’s authentically human. Cling to it before it’s designated a crime. Understand the whole insidious masterplan to make you happy by enquiring at your local library, or consult   for full bibliographic detail.

The thesis of this work fits exactly with that of Madelaine Bunting in her book Willing Slaves (2005) (reviewed by me here ). Bunting argues that millions of workers have been hoodwinked in a kind of second wave of exploitation since the Industrial Revolution into serving up their lives for the profits and enrichment of others. For that to happen best, they have to be made to feel happy and co-operative.

One final thought. Findings released by The Office for National Statistics this year ( show that one of the happiest places in the UK is…. The Outer Hebrides! 300 miles from any large shopping centre. A very long way from the reach of the marketing men. A very long way from the manipulative, social control mechanisms of the happiness industry. Time for re-location?

320 pages in Verso Books

First published 12 May 2015

ISBN  978-1781688458

Dr. William Davies

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