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The dismal science of human optimization

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.

Davies has set himself a difficult but important task: he wants us to think not only about what we’re measuring but also about the methods themselves — what it means for British Airways to try out a “happiness blanket” that turns blue when passengers are relaxed; for Facebook to experiment with making its users happier by changing their news feed; for an arts festival to use surveillance cameras to count the smiles of attendees. He traces these contemporary efforts back to the late eighteenth century, when Jeremy Bentham argued that “the business of government is to promote the happiness of society, by punishing and rewarding.” This central principle of utilitarianism, though, meant happiness had to be measured, and Bentham hoped to surpass the hazy approximations of language and metaphysics. If humans were calculating hedonists, as Bentham believed, then happiness could be measured through the price and pulse of the market and the body.

It would take two centuries of innovations in psychology, economics, market research, neuroscience, and management theory to produce the necessary instruments, and Davies tells a vigorous history of surprising crosscurrents among these fields. In 1879 in Leipzig, Wilhelm Wundt built the first experimental-psychology laboratory, seeking a way to study psychic states in the body. He made a tachistoscope, a device for watching subjects’ eyes to ascertain the speed of their attention. He measured blood pressure and heart rate, compared unconscious and conscious reaction times. His lab was visited by American psychologists interested in his methods, though they found him, Davies tells us, too “metaphysical”; he still asked his subjects what they thought. In turn, Wundt called the Americans “economists,” because they did not believe in free will. Not only was Wundt’s lab copied in the United States but some of these visitors became our early advertising theorists, using tachistoscopes to measure emotional reactions to advertisements. Davies goes on to trace the influence of behavioralism on the American Psychiatric Association, of psychological methods on management theory, of Bentham’s assumptions on the birth of neoliberalism at the University of Chicago, of pharmaceutical companies on the explosion of diagnostic categories in the DSM-III.

Greater attention to our well-being on the part of corporations and policymakers may sound like a positive step, but for Davies this quantification of the self serves a neoliberal agenda that “blames individuals for their own misery, and ignores the context that has contributed to it.” Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappo’s and author of Delivering Happiness, encouraged companies to lay off the 5 to 10 percent of employees who seem least interested in signing on to the “happiness project.” In Britain, where a national happiness index is already in place, the unemployed are required to attend positive-thinking sessions, which may involve a government contractor who yells at them, demanding that they “talk, breathe, eat, shit belief in yourself.” Happiness thus becomes compulsory: to be counted as useful, we must act like the calculating hedonists we’re assumed to be, silencing self-reflection and neglecting metaphysical concerns.

Of course, it isn’t only governments and corporations that want to measure our well-being; we do it to ourselves. In the name of health, we’ve begun to treat our brains as computers we can rewire for optimum happiness. While I was reading The Happiness Industry I downloaded Happify, a positive-thinking app. Its home screen shows an image of a brain, whose regions are labeled with goals such as “Elevate Optimism,” “Re-pattern Stress,” “Fix Relationship Friction.” When the downloadable “happiness pack” from the British NGO Action for Happiness — the nonprofit in charge of the U.N.’s happiness-outreach efforts — encourages you to “do something kind for others,” the program explains that “research shows that being kind to others increases our own levels of happiness as well as theirs.” Dwelling on what hurts in the world prompts your brain to feel more hurt, but you can train your neurons for happiness by lingering over positive experiences and letting negative thoughts pass by. Happify encourages you to write negative thoughts on signs held up by tiny furry beings and then shoot at them with a slingshot, Angry Birds–style. The app’s website claims that 86 percent of “frequent users get happier in 2 months.”

Meditating, imagining positive events, doing kind deeds and noticing that you’ve done kind deeds, calculating your gratitude with your smartphone at the end of each day, delivering laminated letters to people who’ve influenced you: according to the new technicians of happiness, these things aren’t merely good to do for their own sakes; they’re good because they change your brain in ways it feels satisfying to count. But the apps and the gurus insist that you must do them constantly. You must organize your day around positivity — to pray, as it were, without ceasing.

Through such rituals of measurement, Davies says, we learn to treat happiness as a kind of personal capital, a currency that allows us to perform as good employees and citizens. Thus the utilitarian project of using money and the body to measure happiness becomes a belief that “a quantity of happiness will yield a certain amount of money,” and that we must train our very bodies to produce that quantity. When we stop believing in the equivalence, we’re punished:

It is only in a society that makes generalized, personalized growth the ultimate virtue that a disorder of generalized, personalized collapse will become inevitable. And so a culture which values only optimism will produce pathologies of pessimism; an economy built around competitiveness will turn defeatism into a disease.

There is increasing evidence that we are, as Davies warns, reconstructing society “as a laboratory.” The U.N.’s International Day of Happiness is part of an initiative that started in 2011, when the General Assembly adopted resolution 65/309. The resolution argued that gross domestic product does not “reflect the happiness and well-being of a country.” It charged member states to follow the lead of Bhutan (the first country to employ a gross national happiness index, which calculates not only conventional standards of living but psychological well-being, culture, community vitality, and environmental diversity) by accounting for the role of happiness in development, and to guide policy accordingly. That December, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services convened a panel of experts to develop a national happiness index. In 2013, Santa Monica won a million-dollar grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies to develop a local well-being index, making it, according to the Bloomberg website, “the first city in the nation to measure well-being and formally embed it in policymaking.” Bloomberg plans to award 100 U.S. cities with grants to help them become “smart cities,” where a constant stream of data might influence policy in real time. In cutting-edge architecture projects, like Hudson Yards in Manhattan, the buildings themselves will collect data on residents’ “wellness and activities.”

Joseph Stiglitz became an advocate of gross national happiness after the 2008 financial crisis. “The crisis was very helpful because people realized the GDP wasn’t telling us anything about what was going on,” he told Time in 2012. “The crisis has made us aware of how bad our metrics were even in economics, because U.S. GDP looked good, and then we realized it was all a phantasm.” But was the crash a product of too little happiness, too little positive thinking, or too much? In 2006, in the United States, you could get a “stated income” loan without offering any documentation of your income and debts. You could borrow $500,000 even with a credit score of 500, though your loan would be called “subprime.” This era was, as Ehrenreich emphasizes in Bright-Sided, the heyday of the positive-thinking self-help book The Secret, which told its millions of readers that imagining checks arriving in the mail or the ability to pay off your loans was all it took to bring the money you needed to your door. A New York Times article from 2007 quoted the script used by sales representatives at the biggest of the subprime mortgage lenders, Countrywide Financial Corporation, which was full of displays of empathy: “I want to be sure you are getting the best loan possible,” the representatives would say.

At the same time, Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye’s best-selling Left Behind books imagined a dystopia in which a secular religion of magical good feelings arose out of the U.N. complete with multicultural performances about global peace and harmony, staged to cover up an emerging world government that was using new technologies to surveil and control its citizens. Jenkins and LaHaye’s conservative Christian eschatology is eerily close to Davies’s critique. The liberal rhetoric of universal good feeling is the language of the Antichrist, of evil itself, the books argued, because it is always a cover for a new mechanism of control.

Is it too optimistic to hope that Davies’s argument turns out to be similarly paranoid? Isn’t it possible that the movement toward valuing empathy and global well-being, even if enabled by technologies that also allow surveillance, might fulfill an alternative potential, one that sparks revolutionary forms of democratic collaboration? That even quantitative research might help? Yet Davies is correct to argue that fighting the control we think we must exert over our own bodies — by anxiously tracking our every move and state of mind — will require us to read the ideas behind the methodologies and metrics we love to fetishize. Before a recent debate with Davies, the economist Andrew Oswald argued in the Guardian that laypeople shouldn’t be critical of happiness indexes unless they “know what a fixed-effects regression equation is, and how to read an fMRI scan, and . . . truly understand the strengths and weaknesses of the most recent articles on the topic in journals such as Science, The American Economic Review,” and so on. As though there are people who know things, and people who are subjects of study, and Oswald wants the latter to keep quiet in the lab.

We remember Bentham for his utilitarianism but also for his interest in legal reform, and especially for the Panopticon. Inspired by a workshop built by his brother, Samuel, the circular structure he imagined — never built but influential on institutional structures around the world — would place prisoners in single cells around the circumference of a watchtower, so that they might always be watched, or feel watched, or imagine themselves watched. Bentham may have sought to remove metaphysics and slippery words from the effort to decipher the good, but his structure had a certain magic to it: the genius of Bentham’s building was that the observed were always uncertain about whether they were being watched or not; a guard didn’t even need to be in the tower for the mechanism to work. The building, the shape itself, created the fiction of an omniscient God, a kind of magical thinking — or magical anxiety — that caused the prisoners to regulate themselves. Michel Foucault noted that the Panopticon created “in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.” It was the prototype of the social-psychology laboratory, a place in which the unseen scientist in the watchtower could study and track the behaviors of inmates and guards.

A few days after I last logged on to Happify, the app began sending emails to remind me that its research shows that “people who visit Happify once every 2 to 3 days increase their happiness score up to three times more than those who come to the site less frequently.” I also received an automatic follow-up email from Action for Happiness, which ended, “We think you are awesome.” The sudden, blank language of unconditional appreciation felt like the “love-bombing” that works so well for cults.

I’ve been trying to watch 24 Hours of Happy so that the times of day in the video correspond to the times of day when I’m writing this. The video has come to seem like a kind of companion in the solitude of writing, and I’ve developed strong feelings toward it, of affection or attachment. (A Pitchfork reviewer who watched all twenty-four hours worried that he’d developed Stockholm syndrome under the influence of the video.) The song repeats the word “happy” fifty-six times in four minutes, which works out to 20,160 times in total. If you turn the sound off, the dancers start to look like puppets moving to a rhythm that is just a little too fast for them. How strange performances of happiness can be when they all look the same — the spinning, the hand waving, the hopping, the manic jumping. You start to wonder what the directors told the actors about how to look happy. Keep moving. Never stop. The camera holds the performers relentlessly centered as they dance. They never meet the dancers in the other four-minute segments; it’s only the song and the camera that connects them. They just keep coming toward you, always toward you, and the camera keeps moving away.

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

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