Reviews — From the July 2015 issue

Joy Ploy

The dismal science of human optimization

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Discussed in this essay:

The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being, by William Davies. Verso. 320 pages. $26.95.

24 Hours of Happy, directed by We Are from L.A. Iconoclast Interactive. 1,440 minutes.

At 9:04 a.m. in the video for Pharrell Williams’s neo-Motown hit “Happy,” a smiling gray-haired woman in glasses and a flowing flowered dress dances in the parking garage of a Los Angeles skyscraper. Her delight is palpable. With a scarf loosely tied around her neck and a purse on her shoulder, she shimmies and claps, windshield-wipers flat palms back and forth in front of her, points to the sky, and nods when she sings along that “happiness is the truth.” More than 400 southern Californians each got four minutes to perform their happiness in the twenty-four-hour-long video, dancing toward a retreating Steadicam down Hollywood Boulevard, through Echo Park and Silver Lake, in Runyon Canyon and in a riverbed, at LAX and Union Station. Some wear the flat, saccharine smiles of television dance-show contestants, but others, like the woman in the flowered dress, shine with what looks like real joy. When her turn is over, the song begins again, and the next dancer enters the tunnel of the camera’s view. It’s as though “Singin’ in the Rain” were the entire movie and the movie lasted an entire day.

Stills from 24 Hours of Happy. Courtesy Iconoclast Interactive

Stills from 24 Hours of Happy. Courtesy Iconoclast Interactive

Ours is a time of happiness — or at least of happiness studies, happiness summits, and chief happiness officers; a time when books like The Happiness Solution, The Happiness Project, Happiness Now!, and 10% Happier translate scientific work on “subjective well-being” into personal best practices; a time when it is widely believed that keeping a gratitude journal or dancing down a street can spread pleasure like a virus. 24 Hours of Happy, Williams’s remarkable piece of durational pop art, would seem to be a case in point: nearly 2,000 tribute videos have been made around the world, from Iran and the Philippines to Ukraine and the Gaza Strip. This March, to mark the United Nations’ International Day of Happiness, Williams was invited to light the top of the Empire State Building the bright yellow of smiley faces and address children in the General Assembly hall on the importance of “a happy planet.” Elsewhere, “haptivists” stood on street corners holding signs that read everything is awesome, especially you and your happiness is part of something bigger. The U.N.’s publicity materials linked such efforts to sustainable development, the eradication of the wealth gap, and the battle against climate change.

I didn’t contribute to the more than a hundred million views that 24 Hours of Happy received last year, and I was puzzled to hear about the Empire State Building lighting, but I am watching the video now, all twenty-four hours of it, as I write this. The video’s homepage is bright yellow, too, a color that, researchers say, few claim as their favorite, which may be why McDonald’s uses it — to encourage you to eat quickly and leave. The color also appears on the cover of The Happiness Industry by the sociologist William Davies, the latest book to resist the idea that we have reached some kind of happiness tipping point. Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided, Micki McGee’s Self-Help, Inc., and Pascal Bruckner’s Perpetual Euphoria have all argued, plausibly enough, that our happiness-peddling authors, gurus, and life coaches keep us suspended in a state of permanent anxiety. The enlightenment on offer, these naysayers argue, has a way of quickly running out, so that we are always coming back for more.

Davies concurs with these critics, but he pushes the argument a step further. The Happiness Industry’s central concern is the quantification of happiness by policymakers and corporations, and their efforts to “entangle” happiness in “infrastructures of measurement, surveillance, and government.” The book opens at last year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, where happiness and its associated metrics were the order of the day. Forum-goers were given gadgets that sent regular updates about their well-being to their smartphones, and they meditated with the French Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard, whose brain scans in a University of Wisconsin lab have revealed off-the-charts positive feeling, leading him to become known as “the happiest man in the world.” The motivation for the focus on happiness, Davies says, was explicitly stated by several speakers: “24/7 working practices and always-on digital devices had made senior managers so stressed that they were now having to meditate to cope with the consequences.” Happiness strategies were also recruited to alleviate the widely documented dissatisfaction of workers, which, according to Gallup, is costing the United States as much as $550 billion per year. In Davies’s view, the language of good feeling and scientific utopianism are a cover for an older, more insidious goal: “a single index of human optimization” that would reduce all human experience to qualities that can be diagnosed, tracked, graphed, and, ultimately, controlled. The methods may be new, Davies argues, but this is what the architects of free-market capitalism have wanted all along.

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writes an advice column for n+1. She is at work on a book about narcissism.

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