A chat with William Davies, author of "The Happiness Industry," a book that looks at why governments, media companies, and marketeers have an increasing interest in our wellbeing.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
I've always been skeptical of attempts to peddle happiness, from the laughable claims of adverts promising joy via a sip of soda, to maniacally over-friendly restaurant staff. Because beyond the essentials we take for granted—such as food, safety, and shelter—I have always thought that a person's happiness is highly subjective; what makes me happy (RuPaul's Drag Race) might be very different from what makes you happy.
It wasn't until I read William Davies's fascinating new book, The Happiness Industry, that I realized how justified my skepticism might be. In the book, Davies defines the happiness industry as the attempt of big business and governments to monitor and quantify our moods, and use that data for their own ends. In some areas of economics, management, marketing, and neuroscience, he explains, our emotions have become a new resource to be bought and sold.
As a sociologist and political economist, Davies is uneasy about the idea that our innermost emotions could be quantified as data. Even if they could, he wonders, do we really want that data to be analyzed so that brands can sell us more stuff, apps can make more decisions for us and employers can take a more active role in our wellbeing?
The Happiness Industry is a brilliant, and sometimes eerie, dissection of our times. Companies mining the geodata of our tweets. Facial scanning in public places. Google's in-house "jolly good fellow." The attempt of market researchers and neuroscientists to locate the "buy button" in our brains—the precise area of grey matter that triggers us to fill our shopping baskets. It's all very unsettling, and it begs an important question: why is our happiness such a useful concept to powerful institutions? I spoke to Davies to find out.
VICE: What techniques and technologies does the happiness industry use to monitor our emotions?
William Davies: There are countless new apps and gadgets—way too many to name. To give a couple of examples, there's Affectiva, which uses a webcam to track consumers' smiles, and Beyond Verbal, which can analyze your tone of voice on the phone. Just this week I heard that IBM are working with a startup on a tool which analyzes your text messages in order to recommend you a therapist.
Then you've got wristbands like Jawbones and Fitbits, which seem to suggest that there's a scientific answer to how to live: "If you start doing this, you'll feel better." And I think that's very problematic, because there are complex reasons why people behave as they do—some people aren't simply able to just change what they do in response to data. Sometimes you'll just go and eat a McDonald's because you're feeling lonely. These gadgets claim to be completely evidence-based and have no philosophy in them, and I think that's slightly disingenuous. Clearly there's something missing in this data-led view of life—it doesn't touch upon the transcendent, life-changing, life-affirming forms of happiness that really don't lend themselves to science.
And why is data about our happiness valuable to big business and governments?
Businesses have been trying to predict and influence how people will behave for over a hundred years now. But in the last 20 years there has been a surge of interest in happiness and positive emotion because there's evidence that happiness in the workplace contributes to productivity, and because stress leads to absence from work. And there's also growing awareness in the world of marketing—which has been supported by neuroscience since the 1990s—that the best way for brands to develop consumer loyalty is to illicit a positive emotional reaction from consumers.
So should we be cynical about big businesses taking too much of an interest in our happiness?
Well, I'm not suggesting that their motives are sinister or that they're trying to brainwash and control us; it's more that we need to ask questions about the direction this is all taking, especially when it comes to advertising. Advertising has always had a manipulative dimension to it, and the behavioral sciences and neurosciences do a lot to support that. The first generation of American psychologists in the 1880s were already applying their findings to turn advertising into a scientific project to render people more predictable. So it has a long history. But I'm not entirely cynical. You don't want to fight positivity with negativity, because then you put yourself in a ridiculous position of celebrating misery, and that's not what the book is trying to do.
In the book you mention the mood experiments that Facebook conducted last year. Can you tell me more about them?
In the summer of 2014, Facebook published a paper in an academic journal about an experiment they conducted on something called "emotional contagion," which is the idea that your mood is influenced by the mood of the people you socialize with. Over the course of a month, Facebook manipulated the newsfeeds of around 700,000 people to see if they could influence the kinds of things people were posting. They used various monitoring techniques such as "sentiment analysis," in which computers are taught to recognize different moods in the words that people use online. They wanted to see if they could deliberately influence people's mood, and they discovered that they could.
Ultimately, Facebook thinks of market researchers and marketers as its primary customers. We're not the customers of Facebook, we're the product being offered to the marketers. It's a difficult thing to talk about, because I don't want to sound like a conspiracy theorist. But I think we're moving into a society which has an eeriness about it. Everything seems to be working very well for us in certain ways, but sometimes it seems to be working too well. My phone recommends things for me to read, and sometimes it's quite accurate. Part of me would rather make those decisions for myself.
With Facebook, on the one hand it offers sincere interactions with friends, but there's always this lurking feeling that other stuff is going on. There's an uncanniness to it. You can't keep that in mind the whole time because you'd be a paranoid wreck, so we have to trust these platforms on some level. But you can't shake off the sense that we're being manipulated.
Is that the price we pay for using these tools for free?
I suppose it is, yes. I think free stuff has become a very powerful business tool. There's a chapter in the book about how the power of the social is being harnessed. When businesses talk about the "power of the social," what they really mean is a strategic generosity towards people as an attempt to entrench a level of commitment from them.
There was that story about Pret a Manger recently, where it was revealed that staff had been told to randomly give out free coffees, which shows how eliciting happiness from people can become a business strategy. Strategic doesn't mean it's fake, but it does mean that it has a prior agenda.
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Can you explain how the happiness industry could deflect attention from the things in our society that really need changing?
What concerns me about how happiness is being used in our current economic situation is that it tries to circumvent what people say about their own lives in order to offer expert interventions from brands or businesses. Economists have become more and more interested in our psychological response to things, and less interested in what caused the psychological response in a broader political or economic sense.
To give an example, the government is looking to offer "talking cures"—a kind of resilience training—in job centers to make sure people keep their motivation to seek work. People in psychotherapy and mental health services are furious about this, because it perpetuates the idea that you could be shat on by your circumstances, disenfranchised, and lonely, yet your happiness level reflects your ability or inability to manage it, rather than your difficult circumstances. The economy has been doing very badly for several years, and there aren't necessarily jobs available, so it seems like quite a suspect strategy.
For political economic change, it's important that we see exploitation where it happens for what it is. And I think it's a credit to Ed Miliband that he tried to take issue with zero hours contracts, which are very stressful. A lot of what the happiness industry does is patch people up so they can live lives that are actually very hard. I think we need to get back to a form of economics that focuses on the fact that unhappiness and distress are caused by circumstances and situations.
If the happiness industry is fraught with problematic ideas, what's the alternative?
I'm not suggesting we should live some kind of heroic, existentialist life, but I think there's something problematic in the extent to which people are seeking solace and security in huge infrastructures of data and audit. It's not a very optimistic book, but it is a hopeful one. I end it by saying we should criticize efforts to control us psychologically that happen without our permission. Especially because it's becoming harder and harder to identify where those efforts are coming from, with product placement and social media and so on. They integrate business strategy into our day to day social lives.
I'd like to see more cooperative workplaces, whereby if someone felt unhappy about something, as a member of a democratically controlled organization they could voice that in their own words (not as data collected by an app or a wristband) and it would feed into the decision making process. In some ways this is a more grown-up way of being unhappy than what is offered by the advertising and marketing industries, which say: "If you're frustrated, we'll remove it instantly." On the contrary, if you're part of a democratic organisation where you can voice your unhappiness, you run the risk that someone will say: "Sorry, you're part of a collective, you might have to live with that discomfort for a while."
Besides, it's not clear that this obsession with happiness is actually working. Because while the amount of time spent monitoring, managing, predicting, and optimizing individuals in this mechanistic way is increasing, levels of depression, stress, and loneliness continue to rise. So maybe we need to come at it from a different angle altogether, by acknowledging that people are conditioned by the institutions, organizations and cities that they live in. There are a lot of political problems that need to be confronted. And in some ways, we're right to feel unhappy about them.
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The Happiness Industry is out now, published by Verso Books.