Taking a Measure of Happiness


Mad Men, AMC

by David Beer

The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold us Well-Being,
by William Davies,
Verso, 320 pp.

As I read through William Davies’ engaging new book, I can’t help but wonder what Mad Men’s Don Draper would have made of John B. Watson. The fictional life of the advertising executive Draper would only have begun a few years after Watson turned his animal psychology into human behaviourism and made his 1920 move from John Hopkins University to a Madison Avenue advertising agency, yet the image sticks in my mind.

Watson’s dictate to his new advertising colleagues, Davies tells us, was to inform them that they ‘are not selling a product at all, but seeking to produce a psychological response’. Draper might have agreed, but their approaches are somewhat different. Whereas Draper’s intuitive response to the psychology of the buyer was based on emotion, and having a feel for the desired lifestyle, Watson was highly scientific in his outlook and had little time for wasteful metaphysics or loose theorising.

The psychological response Watson was referring to was something that could be calculated, measured and dealt with in terms of behavioural facts. It is perhaps little surprise that Don Draper’s estrangement from his own Madison Avenue advertising agency reached its pinnacle at around the time that the computer took over the previously couch filled creative spaces of the agency – thus allowing his own imaginary company to move towards the type of future that had been initiated in the actual Madison Avenue by Watson some four decades earlier.

Perhaps the reason that I’m left with the image of these juxtaposing characters is that they represent the friction that culminates in the conclusions that Davies offers in his book. Put simply, the question is whether happiness should be understood as being measurable, that is to say, that it can be captured in bodily responses and brain functions, or if we should think of it as something transcendent and intangible. For Davies, neither of these is likely to very gratifying – although, given the focus of the book, he understandably seems a little less concerned by the later. The important point for Davies is that both of these approaches simply ‘flip the same dualism’. His point is that in the case of the happiness industry – an industry built to promote our happiness, to limit our sadness, and to make us more profitable – the more subjective, mystic and ethereal accounts of happiness simply exists to ‘plug’ any ‘gaps’ left by more objective, scientific or neurological accounts. Some other approach is needed, he argues, one that is based on listening and a more political and sociological understanding of happiness and the conditions that facilitate or erode it. The case he makes is compelling. The book describes, in detail, an industry that has emerged that is designed to measure, manipulate and control our emotions. The examples roll from the pages, and the scale of the reach of this kind of economic behaviourism is startling. As Davies tellingly notes, ‘the current neuromarketing frontiers of behaviourism make John B. Watson look positively innocent by comparison’.

As this would suggest, William Davies has produced a book of great depth that intends to unpick the evolution of an approach to happiness that aims to measure and analyse it, thus rendering it open to manipulation and control. Its accounts force us to question the impact of this increasing measurement of our emotions. With the rise of wearables, social media, smartphones and other trackable devices, and with a growing cultural interest calculation, we are, he argues, ‘living in the lab’ – a phrase that even taken alone conjures profound images of the politics of contemporary life. Davies is interested not just in the means by which this measurement of happiness is possible, but also in the key figures who have played a part in shaping the very idea that happiness is something that is quantifiable. A number of interesting characters from the last 300 years come to life in the carefully constructed stories that Davies tells here. The result is that the past, in the philosophical and economic arguments of these figures, comes to populate contemporary devices, apps, policy shifts, and commercial initiatives. We begin to see the shadow of Jeremy Bentham casting itself over our bodies through smartphone apps and fitness trackers. Or we see John B. Watson’s hand in the now vast industry of data analytics and sentiment analysis of social media content.

Davies book is enlivened by these sudden shifts between historical detail and contemporary examples. The book shows in numerous places how developments in today’s notions of wellbeing have genealogical roots in particular paradigmatical moments in psychology, political economy, neuroscience and behaviourism. Davies manages though to weave an intriguing and coherent narrative through these potentially complex points of reference. To do this he has had to smooth over some rough historical edges and make one or two big leaps in places, but these are to the benefit of the book and enable this powerful story to flourish.

The presence of the Buddhist monk at the 2014 World Economic Forum sits comfortably alongside Bentham’s eighteenth century political economy, similarly Davies’ accounts of the world’s first management consultant mesh neatly with the extension of workplace surveillance apps and performance measures. The list could go on – from whiplash to antidepressants and beyond. This is a book of surprising and revealing connections. Davies manages to look across this broad and far-reaching set of materials, including a wide range of discussions of technological and cultural shifts, to find linkages and to tell absorbing stories that develop over decades but slot together in a few concisely written pages. We quickly begin to see how ‘big data’ might be used to monitor emotional responses or how social media and smartphones might be seen to provide the very apparatus from which our emotions might be calculated, tracked and even altered. We are left in little doubt that such measures are about power and authority. Davies locates a ‘brutal’ neoliberal philosophy within them, a philosophy based upon competition, ranking, comparing and reinforcing the hierarchies of the strong and weak. Little escapes the logic of the happiness industry described here – friendship and even ‘the social’ as well as our emotions and notions of self are potentially subsumed by these systems of measurement.

Jimmy Ruffin, admittedly in a moment of despair, once sang that ‘happiness is just an illusion, filled with sadness and confusion’. From reading his book, I don’t think Davies would agree. The Happiness Industry though would seem to suggest that he thinks that the quantification and measurement of happiness is likely to be both sad and confusing in its consequences. Drawing upon the work of the sociologist Les Back, Davies suggests that listening might be one way of resisting or of finding some means of articulating happiness outside of logic and scope of the happiness industry. It is perhaps in what Back calls ‘the art of listening’ that new possibilities will emerge and where we might collectively manage the pressures that are placed upon us by the measurement of our emotions. Listening to and understanding the political conditions that shape our emotions seems to be where possibilities lie for thinking again about the very notion of well-being. It seems that as we continue to see the roll-out of neoliberal political formations based upon the promotion of competition, markets and the self-trained subject, and with the rapid extension of devices that track our behaviours and lifestyles, the questions Davies asks here are crucial. They are particular urgent when we take in the broader political landscape of austerity and its attendant pressures to be productive, efficient and to justify our value. In this context Davies timely book might help us to ask the right types of questions about our emotions and to think about possible futures enriched by listening and attentiveness.

About the Author:

David Beer is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of York. His most recent book is Punk Sociology.