Thursday, May 7, 2015

The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold us Well-Being

Title:  The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold us Well-Being
Author:  William Davies
Publication Information:  Verso. 2015. 320 pages.
ISBN:  1781688451 / 978-1781688458

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Jeremy Bentham was sitting in Harper's Coffee Shop in Holborn, London, when he shouted, 'Eureka!'"

Favorite Quote:  "These were and remain the options:  money or the body. Economics or physiology. Payment or diagnosis. If politics were to become scientific from abstract nonsense, it is through economics, physiology or some combination of the two that the project would be realized."

The subtitle of the book - How the Government and Big Business Sold us Well-Being - indicates the author's stand on this topic. The author's note describes the style of this book as "polemical,' which implies a contentious or controversial argument. The evidence presented supports the thesis that the industry has been created and led to unforeseen results as we see depression and anxiety related disorders on the rise despite the increased focus on supposed happiness.

The book begins and focuses considerably on the work of Jeremy Bentham and the theory of utilitarianism. "This is the theory stating that the right action is whichever one produces the maximum happiness for the population overall." Tied into this is the concept of monism, which states "that all pleasures and pains can be located on a single scale." The trick is, how does one define and measure happiness? What is the scale that can capture it? The happiness industry has attempted this, to a varied degree of failure.

The dictionary defines happiness as "the state of being happy" - not a very descriptive definition. The word "happy" has many different definitions including:
  • feeling or showing pleasure or contentment
  • having a sense of confidence in or satisfaction with (a person, arrangement, or situation)
  • satisfied with the quality or standard of
  • willing to do something
  • fortunate and convenient
The happiness industry seems focused on that first definition - inner feelings and the concept of contentment. Many books such as Hacking Happiness: Why Your Personal Data Counts and How Tracking it Can Change the World speak about the concept of a happiness economy in which economic satisfaction is not based strictly on income or profit but on other measures of satisfaction. The conundrum remains. What defines happiness? What measure captures it? Can that measure be universally applied? The happiness industry seems to think so.

This book takes a historical look at how this came about. It sites research and anecdotal evidence of the increasing focus on subjective measures of well being in organizations and even economies as a whole. It includes a look at psychology, neuroscience, management and economics and the role they play in measuring happiness and in turn how metrics of happiness are used as tools in these arenas. The evidence presented ranges from scientific studies to the fact that the latest smart phones have gadgets to measure physical activity and reactions and the ability to manage money and pay for goods and services - focusing once again on physiology and economics as potential measures of well being.

This book is considerably more academic than either the cover or the description would indicate. As such, it is at times dry reading. I learned a lot, but I am unclear on what the author's call to action is, or if this books is even a call to action. As a historical perspective, this book is a great compilation for those interested in the topic. The research and project descriptions are interesting, but I feel that I am missing a prescription. If the happiness industry paradigm is being "sold" to the world and not leading to results, what is the alternative?

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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