The big soup

A new happiness for the new normal.

by Ornella Sinigaglia

Culture 24 June 2021

What is happiness today? What were we chasing before capitalism? Why are we so interested in measuring happiness? The political and sociological theorist William Davies explores how well-being influences all aspects of our lives: business, finance, marketing and smart technology in a fascinating investigation combining history, science and ideas. The results of this research are collected in one of his latest book, The Happiness Industry.

What is your definition of happiness?

I don’t know if I have my own definition of happiness. The term ‘happen’ actually relates to the concept of happiness. Taken more literally, happiness is something that happens to you. It’s an accident, something not planned or necessarily predicted, that comes over you. A momentary phenomena. Which obviously is quite different from the benthamite idea of happiness. I think happiness in the unmeasured, non-behaviorist sense is something that often takes people by surprise, something that happens as sort of ‘happenstance’.

If happiness is related to something that happens to us, what do you think about what has been happening over this last year? What will happen to us once we get out of this current situation?

The problems of this past year relate mainly to the loss of traditional public space. We’re stuck in our homes, we’re talking online, we have to treat the people we instinctively like with suspicion because we have not to mix and imagine that we’re all dangerous to each other in some way. That’s obviously very bad for human sociality. And it’s been bad for politics in lots of ways.
The other thing is that having to turn everything into a screen-based, platform-based or an interface-based interaction, is very depriving — in education, work, social relationships and so on. The more time we spend interacting digitally, the more opportunities there are to capture data about our mood.

What brought you to write The Happiness Industry?

There was a period between the financial crisis of 2008 and up to 2015 where there was a huge interest in what you could call ‘economic psychology’ and happiness economics. Ideologically, 2008 represented the failure of the idea that markets were adequate to coordinate everybody, and in order to make sense of that failure, a lot of elite institutions, such as the World Economic Forum, turned towards happiness, science, neuroscience, and behavioral psychology in an effort to say: ‘Is there some sort of trick or hack or defect that can be alleviated somewhere in the brain or the mind? If we could find it and fix it or tweak it, we could get back to making things work again.’
There were various manifestations of that ambition, many of which I discussed in my book. There’s this idea that, surely with all this money, we should be happier than we are now. Or that we need to learn about mindfulness, and how to sort of switch our brains off and sleep better. And ‘How can we encourage consumers to want our product?’ Or, if we were a government, ‘How can we encourage consumers not to want unhealthy products’ or ‘how can we encourage consumers to make more rational financial decisions?’ So there was this sort of general sense that the free market could survive only if these weird idiosyncrasies and defects that tend to be located in the brain can be found and improved.
At the beginning of the book I talk about a monk who is considered the happiest man and the fascination many people in the Silicon Valley and elsewhere have with him as someone who perfected the optimization of his own brain through meditation. That, I think, is really telling of a certain ideological moment when the general idea was that business problems and problems of economic policy can be answered and solved through a better science of the brain, the mind and the neurochemicals. And that’s a big part of the Silicon Valley mentality. ‘You can become more productive and richer only if you can get better at learning how to micro sleep, or if you eat the right diet, or if you follow the idea that the brain is a machine and it can be improved, and we can become engineers of happiness.’

What brought you to investigate the patterns between philosophy and neuroscience?

Neuroscience has become a popular discourse in the 1990s, and it picked up from then. I am not someone who could claim to be an expert in neuroscience, but it is at least interesting and possibly troubling when neuroscience is used to try and answer problems of ethics and politics, meaning and culture, and neuroscience starts to become used as a way of tackling problems that are philosophical. There’s a behavioral psychologist and economist at LSE called Paul Dolan, who is extremely eminent and very influential. I think he’s one of the worst exponents of this kind of thing; he’s got no philosophical consciousness, really. He thinks that there are no questions that can’t be answered using data and I’ve heard him speak about how Aristotle thought that happiness meant this, this and this, but we now know that that’s not right and we now know what’s actually true.
In a kind of faintly romantic way, I was eager to challenge the sort of hubris and worldview that believes data can provide the answer to what are ultimately existential and ethical questions. What those individuals never do is to factor in the power of their own institutional resources. Happiness science is expanding through things like facial analytics, algorithms in CCTV and the ability to analyze email traffic within a workplace. And they don’t show any interest in whether or not this stuff is good or bad. They just want to sort of analyze more data. So there’s a narrowness of focus that I wanted to challenge. My previous book, called The Limits of Neoliberalism, was also about how quantitative science of economics had infiltrated spheres or become used to answer questions of things like justice and authority. For a while, I’ve been interested in how these kinds of empirical scientists overstep their legitimate limits.

Why did you choose Jeremy Bentham to start telling the history of happiness?

Bentham wasn’t just a philosopher. He was actually trying to come up with a program to design the kind of policy, infrastructures and technologies which could create a society scientifically geared towards the maximization of pleasure. Happiness was something he saw as an assembled absence of pain and expectation of pleasure and so he was really trying to strip politics back to its most basic, empirical and physiological component, and to get ideas and philosophy out of the way altogether.
It was neither left wing or right wing. It was neither traditional and conservative, nor did he sort of believe in some sort of God-given human rights or anything. It was simply about trying to turn politics into a kind of science. In some ways, it was a utopian project. What my book is really about is the recurrence of that kind of dream in various guises: the tradition of behaviorism, neoclassical economics, neuroscience, neuroeconomics. The Happiness Industry is about the different manifestations of that benthamite kind of dream.

In talking about Bentham and Fechner’s contributions, you say that “the work of these two polymaths points to a society in which experts and authorities are able to divine what is good for us without our voices being heard.” Are governments able to achieve that?

I don’t think governments are remotely close to achieving that goal. I think the frontier of that project is now occupied by the likes of Amazon, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, the Big 5 giant tech platforms. If you have an Amazon Alexa, it is trying to build up psychological profiles of the different members of the household based on their tones of voice and so on. This is really happening.
Potentially, so is to gear adverts in the right way to push products in the right way. Amazon is also going to move into prescription medicine fairly soon. This is one of the next things they want to do, presumably to get more biomedical data on people. So it will have a sort of increasingly all-encompassing vision of a human being that can access through various data points and ultimately for sales purposes. It’s utopian and dystopian at the same time. Mostly dystopian to me. Of course governments would like to be able to harness things like AI and that kind of thing in order to try and make health services systems more efficient and get better value for money out of the data that they’ve got. Will private companies be allowed to kind of scan it and scrutinize it and so on? These are big controversies. I think in security terms there’s another issue. Which is about creating discipline and conformity than it is about creating happiness. And, and I think there are cases of facial recognition cameras being used in public places in liberal societies or supposedly liberal societies, particularly in places like airports, where you know there are various behavioral analytics algorithms that predict if someone is more likely to be a terrorist on the basis of how their behaviours look.

‘If capitalism is being ground down by the chronic unspecifiable alienation of those it depends on, then surely solving that problem may also open up possibilities for political reform.’ We are certainly experiencing alienation these days. Do you think we’re getting any closer to solving that problem?

It depends where. In some ways, that quote is more about how you would govern things like schools and workplaces or regulate platforms in ways that recognize that misery is a social phenomenon, not a sort of numerous neurological or behavioral defect.
Countries that rank high on happiness charts, like New Zealand, tend to be quite small. There’s possibly certain advantages in governing small countries. That suggests then that the answers are often local and municipal. Look at Sao Paulo and its ban of public outdoor advertising.
The power of platforms has grown and since I published the book in 2015, their power has been rising in terms of what they can detect and predict. They have the greatest ambition and capacity to monitor our behavior.

At some point in your book, you list four adjectives: hardworking, happy, healthy and rich. Together, these four words put us in a loop where the activities that might result in happiness, such as socializing or relaxing, are only valuable to the extent that they might restore the brain and body to a level of fitness to leverage for the next business challenge. Can we get out of this loop?

It is difficult. Partly because we’re always switched on the whole time, with our technologies. Go back to the 1950s. There were places where you worked, places where you socialized, places where you lived with your family. Those three things were utterly separate and they had different gender norms. There were differences of roles and places which had come to these quite strict divisions and identities attached, like different workplaces. Middle class people went to the office, working class people went to the factory.
All of that has collapsed. At the moment, it’s collapsed into the homes. We socialize in the home, we work in the home, we do homeschooling. The feeling that we’re trapped in this constant, uninterrupted cycle partly has to do with the dissolution of different spaces into one another, which the pandemic has made acute.
But I think even before the pandemic, there was this idea that you could kind of work anytime or anywhere. And the division between the middle class work environment and the working class one has also dissolved, because a lot of people do jobs that on paper look quite middle class and sort of creative and professional, but they come with a lot of monotony, little task discretion and very little prospects for progression or security. There’s a sense that we are in this kind of big soup the whole time.
The loss of a disaggregated, disintegrated life where you used to be able to do one thing in one place and then one in another (if you’re no longer at home, you’re no longer being a parent; if you’re no longer in the office, you aren’t working) has been pretty bad. People now have to impose their own routines on themselves, but a self-imposed routine is not the same as a routine in a more literal sense.

How do you think that the rules of the happiness game have changed in this past year?

There’s been some signs that people have come to appreciate the more meaningful things in life. This was very early on in the lock down, everyone was very aware of who were the essential workers, which work really deserved recognition. Then there’s also been people changing their attitudes towards nature. People spend more time outdoors. That’s probably good. People have had to learn how to be more creative in relation to how they interact with their children. That’s good in lots of ways.
I’m questioning what’s happened with schools. It often strikes me that there’s all this attention to mental health and well being in schools and how to teach children to be happy. Which is sort of asking the question in the wrong way. What children need from school is friendship and play time, and support of someone who isn’t there, like their parents. Once you see that, you might then start to think of education completely differently and not see it as something that is the sort of transmission of certain kinds of behaviors and learning abilities from one person to another. Instead, see it as a space in which people feel safe and can flourish.
But people have been saying that for years and no policymakers have been paying any attention outside of some places again, like Finland. The problem right now is that policymakers are terrified about this huge hit to the economy. But I think a greater attention to human flourishing is what is possibly coming out of it.