Happiness for Sale: Dispatches from the Happiness Industrial Complex

The Happiness Industry is Big Business. But are we being sold a bill of goods?

Credit: Studiostoks via Shutterstock

Americans are obsessed with happiness. It is literally written into the foundational ethos of the country that Americans have the right to pursue happiness.

Yet despite pursuing happiness with a patriotic zeal, Americans are not a particularly happy bunch. According to the United Nations’s 2018 World Happiness Report, the U.S. came in 18th place, an impressive drop from 2007, when the it was ranked as the third happiest nation in the world.

Other measures support this drastic decline in happiness, such as the astronomical increases in the number of Americans — approximately 1 in 6 — taking anti-depressants or other psychiatric drugs, and the fact that for some Americans, life expectancy is actually declining after years of increases.

In response to this happiness deficit, an entire industry has sprung up to address it. The Happiness Industrial Complex , which includes everything from the self help industry to positive psychology seminars and retreats has seen explosive growth in recent years. Other wellness offshoots have been similarly successful, with consumers paying millions for wellness seminars, mindfulness meditation retreats, yoga, spa vacations, and other “products” that promise happiness on demand.

Even American industry — traditionally not associated with a focus on feelings— has jumped on the bandwagon, with companies such as Google employing “chief happiness officers” tasked with keeping company spirits up, in recognition of the fact that happy employees are more productive.

But ironically, the exponential growth in these products and industries coincides with a continued decline in happiness.

What is going on? Why is it that just as we pursue happiness with increasing fervor, we actually seem to be moving away from it?

While there is no one “right” answer to this question, it appears that we are focusing on the wrong things.


Happiness is Not A Commodity

Everyone “knows” that you can’t buy happiness — in the same way we all “know” that there is no magic weight loss pill or anti-wrinkle cream.

But when faced with the promise of these things, our defenses weaken because we want so badly for it to be true. So, we are willing to spend our precious time and money on products or services that dangle such promises. And of course, where there is demand, there will always be sellers.

And do we have demand. Self-improvement is a $10 billion-a-year industry, about the same as Hollywood, and consumers spend additional millions on all types of other products and services that either promise happiness directly, or that people have believe will bring happiness.

While these products and services may not result in increased happiness for the consumer, the commodification of happiness undoubtedly makes its purveyors wealthier.


Focusing on Happiness

Part of the issue may also be the fact that, paradoxically, a constant focus on trying to “achieve” happiness can actually make people feel less happy.

Moreover, the constant pressure to be (or at least to seem) happy can also have negative effects as people may feel they have “failed” if they are experiencing normal emotions such as sadness or anger.

The truth is that life is complex and full of difficult situations, bringing forth the whole array of human emotions. Feeling that it is socially required to wear a mask of happiness when one does not actually feel that way can actually make the experience of negative emotions more pronounced. This may be partly because, in addition to feeling the initial negative emotion, the individual is left with additional negative emotions, including feelings of inauthenticity.


Happy All Alone

One factor that many of the happiness products and courses have in common is the concept that happiness is an individual endeavor, and that you can “find your bliss” independent of your life circumstances, community, or other social factors. The general message is that if you can just reframe your perspective, and focus on the positive, then happiness is just around the corner.

This is perhaps a uniquely American approach to happiness based on the cultural preeminence of the ethos of the individual. It is also compelling, since it holds out the promise that you are entirely in control of your own happiness.

But this belief is a double edged sword. If you are the only one in charge of your own happiness, then implicitly, failure to achieve it is a uniquely individual failing.

Moreover, framing happiness as a solitary pursuit actually runs against research that indicates the greatest predictors of happiness are genuine ties to community and spending time with loved ones.

But in our modern world, as we live farther away from family, move more frequently, and marry later (or not at all), this has become more difficult to achieve. More sinister still, we have replaced these real-life connections for social media connections, which trigger comparisons and make us feel less, not more connected — and thus less happy.


Structural and Socio-Economic Factors

Perhaps the most pernicious element of the Happiness Industrial Complex is that, in focusing almost exclusively on individual mindset, it allows us to ignore significant social issues that will never be solved by positive thinking.

The World Happiness Report noted, for example, that health issues in the United States played a role in declining rates of happiness, and other socio-economic issues, including lack of job security, health care, and other benefits presumably also play a role. Isolation and long working hours can also play a role in making people unhappy.


There isn’t a magical formula for happiness, and there never will be. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with practicing mindfulness or yoga or doing any number of things that are associated with the Happiness industry — and there are real benefits to some of them.

But if we do want to set ourselves on a path towards true happiness, it seems that a good place to start is to simply care more for others — our families, friends, neighbors, co-workers, employees, and broader community and nation.

Caring for others can mean many things. It may mean working less and spending more time with your children, or an aged relative, or a neighbor who is lonely. It may mean volunteering. It may mean being a CEO who pays a living wage. We all have something to offer each other.

Maybe once we stop focusing so much on ourselves, we may find we are happier — not as a means to an end, but as a byproduct of a better, more connected society.