The engineering of happiness

The word “happiness” is notoriously difficult to define. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “happy”  as:

1 feeling or showing pleasure; pleased


2 giving or causing pleasure


3 if you wish somebody a Happy Birthday, Happy New Year, etc. you mean that you hope they have a pleasant celebration


4 satisfied that something is good or right; not anxious


5 happy to do something (formal) willing or pleased to do something


6 lucky; successful


7 (formal) (of words, ideas or behaviour) suitable and appropriate for a particular situation

Other words that are synonymous with happy are “glad”, “pleased”, “delighted”, “proud”, “thrilled” and “relieved”.  Happiness is a vague word that means many things to many people. It is a word that relies on context; without which, it means little or nothing at all.

This government’s interest in our happiness is nothing new. The last government had similar ideas. It even published “happiness indices”. We were often told that the Iraqi people were “happier” that Saddam Hussein had been toppled because of factors x, y and z. But the criteria that was used to measure happiness ignored a great many things like the ruined infrastructure and the lack of a properly functioning government. The current government’s interest in our ‘happiness’ has some very Bernaysian overtones to it, not least because David Cameron is a former PR man. When he became leader of the Conservative Party, he rebranded the party and even gave it a new logo.

Tory logo

The logo is simple enough to deconstruct and even an ‘A’ level media studies student can see what they were trying to do with this logo. By choosing this logo the Tories unconsciously tell us that for all the green rhetoric, they are still blue underneath; the green foliage is merely superficial. The fact that it also appears to be hand-designed tells us that they want to come over as friendly, a bit informal and a bit arty.

Edward Bernays, the founding father of the PR industry and nephew of the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, was determined to pacify the masses with distractions because he believed that people could be engineered en masse to behave in the way politicians wanted them to.  This is a mild version of technocracy, which regards human as machines.

In the last 15 years or so, I’ve noticed how the media has become fond of telling us how the human body is a “wonderful machine”. The problematic with this idea of the body-as-a-machine is that it does not consider the fact that the body is actually an organism. This position ignores the vagaries of human beings, their dreams, their hopes, their lives and treat humans as mechanical devices that input/output data. Machines are not sentient and they cannot learn things; they must be given commands in order to perform a single given task. Humans can rebel, be crotchety, smile, frown, get sick, answer back and think for themselves. Machines can do none of these things, yet many politicians and others will persist with this notion that we are machines or, conversely, irrational beings that act in our own interests. When the Luddites smashed mechanical looms in the early 19th century, they did so because they feared that machines would take the jobs of humans. What they never could have dreamt in all their wildest imaginations was how politicians and others would come to regard the human being, not as a person, but as a machine.

The Tory-led government, like the New Labour government before it, is determined to socially engineer the country to behave in ways that are in line with its vision of a nation that is er, happy?  But what is happiness and can it be manufactured or even conscripted to serve ideology? It’s a shaky foundation on which to build a political edifice and the result could be catastrophic.  Happiness is subjective and is often occurs in a moment. No one is 100% happy all of the time. It simply isn’t possible. A good mood may last a day but it only takes one thing to upset that mood. Perhaps mood enhancement or alteration is what the government is aiming for? No, that would be sci-fi… too Philip K. Dick a la Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

The media has also jumped on the bandwagon, as if to suggest that they are working with the government, to get the message out. The BBC has been one of the worst offenders. In 2006, in a moment of sheer prescience, they even put together a happiness test. The BBC tells us

Psychologists say it is possible to measure your happiness.

This test designed by psychologist Professor Ed Diener from the University of Illinois, takes just a minute to complete.

Well, if psychologists tell us it’s possible, then surely we should believe them? No. Discovering what makes people happy isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You may want to do something to make your partner, parents or children happy. When governments or corporations strive to understand our happiness or lack of it, they do it for other reasons and those reasons have nothing to do with improving our standard of living or anything like it.

I’ve recently encountered Action for Happiness, a group that is part of the Young Foundation. The foundation was named after Michael Young, the father of the Hon Tobes. Action for Happiness tell us that

For fifty years we’ve aimed relentlessly at higher incomes. But despite being much wealthier, we’re no happier than we were five decades ago. At the same time we’ve seen an increase in wider social issues, including a worrying rise in anxiety and depression in young people. It’s time for a positive change in what we mean by progress.

A couple of things came to mind when I read this: first, it ignores wage stagnation and makes the claim that as a nation “we are wealthier”. Who is this “we”? What they base this notion on is anyone’s guess. Second, it presumes to have some intimate understanding of the word “happiness”. Third, it presumes that happiness can be generated by helping others. This is a fallacy and what those, including the government, who speak of happiness in such terms are actually trying to create is a culture of volunteerism. But this presumes that many people don’t volunteer already. Not many people have the time, after working some of the longest hours in Europe to volunteer after a hard day of work.

This Guardian article moves away from the word “happiness” and claims that the government wants to measure our wellbeing instead. Quoting the Institute of Economic Development’s study it says,

“There is a considerable body of research, both on how to measure wellbeing and on the implications that adopting this measurement could have for policy,” writes Seaford, author of the paper and head of the Centre for Wellbeing at the New Economics Foundation (Nef).

This should be seen for what it is:  an attempt at social engineering. The government’s concern for our wellbeing and our happiness indicates a disturbing lack of substance at the heart of this government’s policy-making. Instead of creating jobs and alleviating poverty it is more concerned with fleeting notions of happiness. This focus on happiness can also be viewed as a diversionary tactic to draw attention away from the massive cuts in public spending, all of which may make people less content and more vulnerable.

This Guardian article warns of the problem of attaching the concepts of happiness and wellbeing to economic growth and material wealth.

But what does all this mean for the way we measure social and personal wellbeing? We are repeatedly told that consumer spending is all-important for the economy; that without enough of it, confidence will “wilt”, retailers “slump” and the Bank of England will have to perform some sort of “difficult balancing act”, as if running some kind of miserable circus sideshow.

This is the underlying discourse contained within the happiness message coming from politicians: happiness is congruent with economic growth. It is, perhaps, another way of trying to sell us things that we don’t need.

Since it was decreed a few decades ago that capitalism would have to expand by selling people things they didn’t need, rather than have them replace things when they wore out, we have been coerced into thinking about quality of life in terms of owning and accumulating more things. And even if housing bubbles and credit card debt end up punishing those people who can afford it least, the ruling and financial classes (too often the same thing) can turn round and say “well, it was your fault, your choice, no one made you take out one (or many) loans/mortgages/overdrafts”.

Happiness? It means nothing.

Here’s The Smiths.

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Filed under Conservative Party, Government & politics, Society & culture

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