Reviews — From the July 2015 issue

Joy Ploy

The dismal science of human optimization

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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.

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

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