Reviews — From the July 2015 issue

Joy Ploy

The dismal science of human optimization

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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.

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

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