by Edgar Cabanas*
Happiness is one of the most pervasive, fast-spreading, and controvertible phenomena of the twentieth century. Grown into an obsessive pursuit, a lucrative industry, and a flawed albeit very popular science, the pursuit of happiness has woven itself deep into the very fabric of power, decision-making, organizational management, and therapeutic culture on a global scale. Whereas commonly presented as a natural and supreme goal of enormous social and psychological benefits, happiness nonetheless might well not be either the universal and self-evident good that experts claim, nor the alleged remedy for the most pressing ailments of our time but their very symptom ―as well as the cause of some novel forms of anxiety, depression, and suffering. Aiming to contribute to the ongoing debate on happiness studies from a critical sociological perspective, Manufacturing Happy Citizens: How the Science and Industry of Happiness Control our Lives documents how happiness has developed into an oppressive and exhausting lifestyle that stresses personal responsibility, normalizes self-absorption, fosters consumption, and shapes individuals of advanced capitalist societies in the image and likeness of the neoliberal worldview.
The book starts with arguing against the legitimacy of the science of happiness as science and, by extension, against the validity of happiness as a scientific, measurable, and objective concept. To put it bluntly, the science of happiness has proved to be a weak and highly reductionistic science ― and, as such, so too is the rationale behind the individualistic, ethnocentric, and ideologically saturated notion of human happiness that this science postulates. The repeated affirmation that the science of happiness is a “young science” serve no longer as an excuse: Almost twenty years have already passed since this movement ―with positive psychology at the forefront― presented itself as a revolutionary field aimed at discovering, once and for all, the scientific keys to human happiness. And yet, over 64.000 research studies later, these keys are still nowhere to be found. On the contrary, if something has become clearer is that we are not anywhere nearer a deeper or more consensual understanding of happiness today than we were two decades ago.
But whereas happiness scientists and experts have not discovered the much-hyped keys to happiness, the market nevertheless seems to have found the keys to selling it. Indeed, twenty-first-century capitalism has given birth to a huge and powerful economy of happiness. This is not a figurative expression. Happiness has itself become the main commodity of a global and trillionaire industry that thrives around the offer of and demand for a prolific myriad of highly profitable ‘emodities’ ―that is, emotional services, therapies and commodities produced and consumed qua scientific techniques and psychological management aids to effect some sort of personal transformation. Coaching, mindfulness, self-help literature, positive psychotherapy, or smartphone happiness-apps are just but a few examples of a powerful economy that, taken together, amounts to a $4.2 trillion market that grows 6.4 percent annually. It might well be the case that none of the uncountable happiness products deliver the easy-to-achieve and the long-term beneficial outcomes on health and personal attainment that they so insistently promise. But it is unquestionable that these products have been rather successful in normalizing the obsession with happiness by instilling in consumers the idea that the most functional way of living is to be fixated on our inner and authentic selves, to be continuously preoccupied in managing our emotions, and to be permanently concerned with our personal transformation and betterment.
The stratospheric figures of this market also include the $48 billion that corporations worldwide invest in workplace happiness each year. As documented in the book, the reason why corporations are so interested in happiness goes beyond the widespread albeit unproven organizational mantra that happy employees are more productive: It is not only that. The reason is that happiness has proved to be a useful strategy to justify implicit organizational hierarchies of control and submission to corporate culture. Workplace happiness has indeed come in handy to push responsibility downwards; to get more commitment and performance from workers, often for relatively fewer rewards; to sideline the importance of objective working conditions when it comes to job satisfaction, including salaries; and to facilitate employees’ compliance with corporate culture. Most fundamentally, workplace happiness has proved rather effective to make work contradictions and self-exploitation more tolerable and even acceptable for employees. To be sure, what makes corporations happy is not the same that makes workers happy. Nevertheless, happiness experts, coaches, and emergent figures in the corporate sphere such as the CHO (Chief Happiness Officer) are there ―and handsomely paid for it― to ensure that employees think otherwise.
Aside from controversial institutional uses, happiness is not free from having deep and problematic moral consequences either. Just an example: Happiness scientists, experts and other self-development gurus repeatedly claim that happiness is, first and foremost, a choice we make, an attitude we develop, and an easier-than-we-think goal for everyone to achieve regardless our circumstances ― as factors such as social class, education, material resources and so on do not allegedly play any significant role in people’s happiness. It follows that if the stressed, the depressed, the lonely, or the failed do not lead happier and more fulfilling lives, it is just because they we not tried hard enough; because we have not tuned up our mood and attitudes into a positive mode, or because we have not made lemonade out of the lemons that life gives to us. Nonetheless, as empowering and hopeful as it may sound, the dark side of this message is that suffering is presented as being as much a personal choice as happiness, so those who suffer are hence suspect either of wanting their own misfortune or, worse, of deserving it. Apparently, no matter how inevitable tragedies are, any individual is supposed to be endowed with the inner power to resiliently find their way out of them ―and even to grow stronger from them. The problem is that such a tyrannical belief is only good to hold people responsible for most of their misfortunes and factual powerlessness, no matter how myopic, ungrounded or unfair this may be. Further, such a belief runs the risk of undermining solidarity and political action: In a world where everyone is held responsible for their own suffering, there is little place for pity or compassion. In a world where everyone is said to be inherently equipped with the required mechanisms to turn adversity into advantage, there is little room for complaint, either.
There is an increasing and extended feeling that the notion of happiness that scientists, experts, corporations, and the industry promote is disappointing, inadequate, and frustrating. And there are many reasons to think that this is indeed the case. The more we know about this phenomenon the more it seems that all that glitters in happiness is not gold. The merchants of happiness offer little more than the idea that complex and social problems have individual and easy fixes. The message is enticing, but it is not only at odds with reality. It might well end up turning against us by producing nothing but guilt, exasperation, and a wrong sense of deservingness, as well ―especially in the most vulnerable. It seems hence the right time to seize on these feelings of suspicion and disenchantment and seriously rethink happiness. From top to bottom.
* Edgar Cabanas is Research Fellow at Universidad Camilo José Cela. He is the author of Manufacturing Happy Citizens: How the Industry and Science of Happiness Control our Lives (Polity, 2019), co-written with Eva Illouz and translated to more than 10 languages, as well as the author of several scientific papers and book chapters. He is also co-editor of Routledge’s series on Therapeutic Culture since 2018, and researcher in several R&D international projects. Find more on Research Gate and Twitter @ecabanasd