The charity sector and the Happiness Industry

William Davies’ The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Wellbeing (London: Verso, 2016, 314 pp) is a fascinating tour of the history of happiness and its political uses — and offers a series of challenges to ideas of wellbeing used in the charity sector and beyond.

The Happiness Industry

Today, Davies argues, we are living in a period where unhappiness is a problem. Instead of recognising the legitimate external reasons why we might be unhappy, unhappiness is seen as a failing of the individual’s ‘resilience’. In other words, it is caused by a deficiency of internal resources. At worst, Davies contends, the individual is then blamed for their own unhappiness or depression and exhorted to use cognitive behavioural therapy or mindfulness techniques to improve their situation. The political causes of unhappiness may in this way be occluded. Given the wide use of notions of resilience in the third sector, this starting point is directly relevant to many in the third sector and marks the start of a thought-provoking challenge to unreflective uses of happiness measures.

Davies begins his history of happiness with an account of Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism (an idea whose twenty-first century incarnation, ‘effective altruism’, is becoming increasingly popular), which saw human experience as constituted only by pleasures and pains. Bentham argued that the role of society is to minimise the former then maximise the latter. Davies moves on to discuss aspects of the history of economics, psychology, market research, and management science. In each case he is interested by what these disciplines saw as important about human experience, and how they argued it could be measured. This historical background is extremely important today in the context of claims that brain scans can show us what our emotions ‘really mean’ by pinpointing the physiological processes correlated with different feelings or experiences. Davies makes an interesting and subtle point here: if we try to make ‘subjective’ emotional states completely ‘objective’, then we lose the voice of the individual in interpreting their experience and explaining it to us. If questions of mood become completely reduced to physical reactions, whether pulse rates or brain waves, then we do not need to talk to people to know how they feel. Further, if these physical states can be correlated to certain actions then the behaviourist circle is complete. Davies here mentions wearable tech: our heart rate is constantly monitored and consistently correlated with certain consumption behaviours, which begins to reduce the consumption decision to a straightforward stimulus-response model.

A number of interrelated themes emerge from Davies’ discussion. Happiness, as understood by Bentham, originally held a radical universalist promise: no one person’s happiness matters more than anyone else’s, and maximising overall happiness is a way to treat people as equals. But Davies explains that over the course of the twentieth century happiness became increasingly used for other ends. Management science made the case that happiness is valuable in the workplace because happier workers are more productive. Market research started off as a way to give a voice to those who might otherwise be ignored; however, it soon combined with a form of behaviourist psychology to focus on the link between happiness and consumption behaviour. Happiness then became a good for market researchers because it held the promise not just of explaining consumption behaviour but also controlling it.

The conclusions of Davies’ argument raise a number of interesting questions for the third sector as a whole. Measures of wellbeing or happiness are used by many charities who want to demonstrate that their activities have improved the lives of their beneficiaries. One focus of Davies’ book is how happiness has been used instrumentally by business — to improve productivity or to sell more — with the ultimate aim of maximising profit. But this critique does not apply to charities, who hold up increasing wellbeing as an end in itself rather than as a route to profit-making. The role that charities can play, then, is a crucial one. In his conclusion, Davies refers to the potentially radical possibilities of the power to listen in a society increasingly organized around objective psychological measurement — it is the way that we can privilege the role of speech and move to a full understanding of someone’s total experience. Combined with an understanding that unhappiness is not a medical condition but may have political causes, Davies suggests new directions for thinking about happiness in the third sector and wider society.