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

(available now; reprinted with permission from Verso Books)

The following is a section of the eighth and last chapter of The Happiness Industry, a book that seeks to answer: Why are we so interested in measuring happiness?

What was a Buddhist monk doing at the 2014 World Economic Forum in Davos lecturing the world’s leaders on mindfulness? Why do many successful corporations have a ‘chief happiness officer’? What can the chemical composition of your brain tell a potential employer about you? In the past decade, governments and corporations have become increasingly interested in measuring the way people feel: ‘the Happiness index’, ‘Gross National Happiness’, ‘well-being’ and positive psychology have come to dominate the way we live our lives. As a result, our emotions have become a new resource to be bought and sold. 

In a fascinating investigation combining history, science and ideas, William Davies shows how well-being influences all aspects of our lives: business, finance, marketing and smart technology. This book will make you rethink everything from the way you work, the power of the ‘Nudge’, the ever-expanding definitions of depression, and the commercialization of your most private feelings. The Happiness Industry is a shocking and brilliantly argued warning about the new religion of the age: our emotions.


from Chapter 8: "Critical Animals"

Why do people become unhappy, and what should anyone do about it? These are questions which concern philosophers, psychologists, politicians, neuroscientists, managers, economists, activists and doctors alike. How one sets about answering such questions will depend heavily on what sorts of theories and interpretations one employs. A sociologist will offer different types of answers from a neuroscientist, who will offer different types of answers again from a psychoanalyst. The question of how we explain and respond to human unhappiness is ultimately an ethical and political one, of where we choose to focus our critique and, to be blunt about it, where we intend to level the blame.

Beren Aldridge’s insight, on which the structure and ethos of Growing Well is based, is an important one. Treating the mind (or brain) as some form of decontextualized, independent entity that breaks down of its own accord, requiring monitoring and fixing by experts, is a symptom of the very culture that produces a great deal of unhappiness today. Disempowerment is an integral part of how depression, stress and anxiety arise. And despite the best efforts of positive psychologists, disempowerment occurs as an effect of social, political and economic institutions and strategies, not of neural or behavioural errors. To deny this is to exacerbate the problem for which happiness science claims to be the solution.

Beyond the various behaviourist and utilitarian disciplines that have been explored in this book, there are a number of research traditions which share this focus on disempowerment. The community psychology tradition, which emerged in the United States during the 1960s, insists that individuals can only be understood within their social contexts. Clinical psychologists have been among the most outspoken critics of the medicalization of distress, and the role of the pharmaceutical companies in encouraging it. Allied to a critique of capitalism, these psychologists – such as David Smail and Mark Rapley in the UK – have offered alternative interpretations of psychiatric symptoms, based on a more sociological and political understanding of unhappiness.(1) Social epidemiology, as practised by Carles Muntaner in Canada or Richard Wilkinson in the UK, tries to understand how mental disorders vary across different societies and different social classes, correlating with different socioeconomic conditions.

At various points in history, these more sociological approaches even found their way into the thinking of business. As Chapter 3 explored, there was a period during the 1930s and 1940s when market research acquired a quasi-democratic dimension, seeking to discover what the public wanted from and thought about the world. Sociologists, statisticians and socialists became instrumental to how the attitudes of the public were represented. As Chapter 4 discussed, the emphasis which management came to put on teamwork, health and enthusiasm from the 1930s onwards has occasionally produced more radical analyses which highlight the importance of collective power and voice in the workplace as contributing factors to productivity and well-being. This potentially points towards whole new models of organization, and not simply new techniques of management.

At each point in the history of happiness measurement, from the Enlightenment through to the present, hopes for a different social and economic world flicker into view, as unhappiness becomes a basis to challenge the status quo. Understanding the strains and pains that work, hierarchy, financial pressures and inequality place upon human well-being is a first step to challenging those things. This emancipatory spirit flips swiftly into a conservative one, once the same body of evidence is used as a basis to judge the behaviour and mentality of people, rather than the structure of power. Hope is not so much dashed as ensnared. Critique is turned inwards. This is not necessarily how things have to be.

Once the critical eye is turned upon institutions, and away from the emotion or mood of the individual who inhabits them, things start to look very different indeed. Among wealthy nations, the rate of mental illness correlates very closely to the level of economic inequality across society as a whole, with the United States at the top.(2) The nature and availability of work plays a crucial role in influencing mental well-being, as do organizational structures and managerial practices. One of the most important findings in happiness economics is that unemployment exerts a far more negative effect on people psychologically than the mere loss of earnings would suggest.(3)

Meanwhile, types of work where individuals have no ‘skill discretion’ or ‘decision authority’ have been repeatedly found to trigger the release of cortisol into the blood, which leads to hardening of arteries and heightened risk of heart disease.(4) It is scarcely surprising that employee well-being is higher in employee-owned companies, where decision-making is more participatory and authority more distributed, than in regular, shareholder-owned firms.(5) In their extensive analysis of how recessions affect public health, David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu demonstrate the precise ways in which austerity policies have led to deteriorating mental and physical health, and unnecessary deaths.(6) They also indicate alternatives in which recessions can be an opportunity for improvements in public health. Which route is chosen is ultimately a political question.

While economists and policy-makers focus only on whether or not an individual has work or not, there is considerable evidence to suggest that the structure and purpose of an organization are crucial to its psychological and physiological effects on employees. For instance, people find work more fulfilling in not-for-profit organizations than in private businesses, leading to lower stress levels.(7) To view work as some contributor to well-being, as policy-makers now tend to do, without considering the purpose of work, is to fall into the behaviourist fallacy of viewing people as lab rats, just with slightly more developed 'verbal behavior'.


1     In Spring 2011, the British Psychological Society published an open letter, authored by clinical psychologists, criticizing the DSM-V. 
2     See Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett,
 The Spirit Level.
3     One calculation produced by the British happiness economist Andrew Oswald suggests that an unemployed person would need benefits of £250,000 a year to compensate them for the negative psychological impact of unemployment. 
4     Sally Dickerson and Margaret Kemeny, ‘Acute Stressors and Cortisol Responses: A Theoretical Integration and Synthesis of Laboratory Research’, Psychological Bulletin 130: 3, 2004; Robert Karasek and Tores Theorell, Healthy Work: Stress, Productivity, and the Reconstruction of Working Life, New York: Basic Books, 1992.
5     Ronald McQuaid et al., 'Fit for Work: Health and Wellbeing of Employees in Employee Owned Business.', employeeowner- ship.co.uk, 2012.
6     David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu, The Body Economic: Why Austerity Kills, New York: HarperCollins, 2013. 
7     See the CIPD Absence Management Annual Survey, cipd.co.uk, 2013.