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Is it a national goal to create happy citizens?

Manufacturing Happy Citizens – How the Science and Industry of Happiness Control our Lives
Forfatter: Edgar Cabanas, Eva Illouz
Forlag: Polity Press (Storbritannien)
HAPPINESS / Joy has recently become a large and lucrative business in most of the western world. New book takes a wise assessment of modern society's pursuit of happiness, and concludes that happiness in many cases is illusory.


You can not buy yourself for pleasure. Money is not the answer and you have to create your own joy by other means.

These are things we know as almost universal truths, and yet joy in recent times has become a large and lucrative business in most of the Western world. In many places, it has become a national goal to create happy citizens, and joy in the workplace has become one of the keywords in the executive corridor of any major company. Joy leads to lower health spending on public budgets, and joy leads to greater profits in neoliberal capitalism, so therefore the concept has spawned a million-dollar industry consisting of everything from self-help books to more or less credible gurus.

This is the starting point for a both thought-provoking and provocative analysis, which the Israeli researcher Eva Illouz and her Spanish colleague Edgar Cabanas present in a new book from Polity Press. Here they turn the spotlight on a phenomenon that is perceived across a broad comb as something positive and immensely human, and arrive at the conclusion that it is a lost culture full of less pleasant ulterior motives.

Positive Psychology

In their report, the development starts in 1998, then Martin seligman was elected president of the American Psychological Association (APA). At the time, the APA was the largest professional organization for psychologists in the United States. It had 117.500 members, but Seligman thought it was wrongly dismissed. He argued that instead of correcting ills in humans, psychologists should make an effort to strengthen the positive in the human psyche. He called it “positive psychology,” and not without reason was he met with enormous skepticism among his established colleagues. Especially when he talked about having a calling, just as the burning bush in the Sinai desert was a calling for Moses.

When happiness becomes the goal itself, it tends to cover up the injustices of the real world.

But Seligman drove on. He presented his ideas in several professional journals, and quite quickly something happened. The ultra-conservative organization The John Templeton Foundation decided to support Seligman's work with a few million dollars. The money was used to establish The Positive Psychology Center at the prestigious University of Pennsylvania, and then the avalanche rolled in earnest. Big players like Coca-Cola began investing in positive psychology because they breathed a cheap and effective path to increased productivity in the company. Seligman's basic idea budded in many different directions, and it inspired similar research centers around the world, as well as a wide range of offers wellness in the private and professional lives of ordinary citizens.

To offer quality in the working day

It has become very prominent in strings of large companies. Here it has become a very conscious goal to create happy employees. The company deliberately distances itself from “workaholics,” which was the ideal of a good employee in the late 20th century. Instead, one strives to offer quality in the working day. No one stays at work longer than absolutely necessary, and the individual employee always has a freshly made espresso nearby and gourmet food in the canteen. The command paths have also been changed, the structure is flatter, and lots of responsibilities are delegated to the individual.

Ill. Ismail dogan, see
Ill. Ismail dogan, see

It all sounds beautiful and right, but the coin has a pretty serious backside. The employee has apparently become happier, and the personal room for maneuver in everyday life has apparently become greater. Where in the past you worked hard while you were at work and had an unpleasant boss on your neck, today you have a much greater responsibility for things being done. The many benefits in the workplace have created an employee identification with the company that did not exist in the past. This has helped to blur the line between privacy and professional life.

The idea behind it is quite clear. According to the authors, companies buy their employees for almost unconditional loyalty. Positive psychology has in many ways created happier employees through a new corporate culture, but this has its price. The old solidarity in the employee group is strongly on the return, because the individual is more concerned with personal results and thus also the company. And when it comes down to it, the apparent freedom inherent in positive business psychology is rather illusory. The company is exactly as result-oriented as before, and when something goes wrong, the hammer falls. And it creates stress in a new way.


Another researcher, as the authors cite, mentions a marked case. In 2006, a technician at the Renault factories in France committed suicide. It turned out that he had been held responsible for a failure in production, and subsequent investigations showed that the suicide rate among employees at the car factory's technology center in Guyancourt was three times as high as in ordinary French society.

«Workaholic» was the ideal for a good employee in the late 20th century.

It is both interesting and worrying that this does not only take place among employees with higher education and similar responsibilities. The authors demonstrate that the same thing is happening among unskilled service workers in a large American fast food chain, and this of course also applies to the civilian aspects of life.

Robert nozick

The pursuit of happiness and wellness has taken on a worrying scale. Of course, there is nothing wrong with being happy, but when happiness becomes the goal itself, it tends to cover up the injustices of the real world.

The anarchist Harvard professor Robert Nozick set up a thought experiment as early as 1974. He asked people to imagine that one could connect to a machine that was capable of delivering any pleasant experience one could imagine. The question then was whether one would prefer to be connected to such a machine, or to confront real life as it once was.

This question seems to be even more relevant today where the happiness industry has managed to make happiness mechanical. As the authors conclude, it is knowledge and justice, and certainly not happiness, that remains the revolutionary moral purpose of our existence.

Hans Henrik Fafner
Hans Henrik Fafner
Fafner is a regular critic in Ny Tid. Residing in Tel Aviv.

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