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William Davies: The Happiness Industry

Talking about happiness optimization without thinking about the individual's life situation is a gross misunderstanding of what a life is.


William Davies: The Happiness Industry. Verso books, 2015

How happy are you on a scale of one to ten? You have probably been asked this question several times. What you answered of course depends on how you felt that day – but the most interesting thing about the situation is not what you answered, but the logic you were in if you did: The question assumes that happiness is something that can measured, just like you measure how much you weigh, or how much rain has fallen during the night.

Quantified happiness. This measure of happiness is very problematic, says William Davies, author of The Happiness Industry – for we think so, happiness becomes more neutral than it actually is. It is worth pondering a bit on this, because quantifying thinking is not just something we use in private, but a method used by states and organizations to control the world and the people living in it. By measuring happiness, one can come up with seemingly objective claims about the quality of life of groups of people and thus better control these, Davies argues.

Svalbard. He's in for something. For example, we can imagine – and this is only a possible example – that 70 percent of the population in Svalbard answered "8" to the question of how happy they were on the 1 – 10 scale, while all other municipalities in Norway answered 5 on average. or less.
With a shine of science, we could thus say that the people of Svalbard are the happiest people in Norway. This has thus become a "fact" that can be used in everything from municipal politics to the tourism industry, and a tool that the population can manipulate. But such a way of seeing happiness is both a gross simplification and a cognitive distortion, says Davies, who doubts about happiness at all. can measured.

Emotional facts. The problem of happiness measurement really extends to how we talk about the entire register of emotions. Through various types of statistics, but also – increasingly – various technological devices and apps, we can now measure how we feel, or index our emotional status. All of this contributes to the logic of quantification; to initiate a process in which emotional states are translated into recordable fact, says Davies. And thus to a potential instrument of manipulation.
This type of bureaucratization of the emotional life turns our soul life into isolated states that can be measured – while in reality it is a matter of complex processes where a section is not can isolated without losing meaning. The most extreme, scientific expression of this way of thinking is found in medical science, which treats emotions as a matter of low or high dopamine levels. If they are tall, you are "objectively" happy.
From such a point of view, not only has happiness been isolated, atomized and translated into measurable facts, but has become abstract. If we relate to emotional life as a mechanism, where a part can be replaced or dopamine added to function, we have a relationship to emotional life and happiness that is completely detached from the context of life that can give the concept of happiness a meaning at all. , Davies believes.

Rats in cages. These are very good points. They are also closely linked to how the advertising industry and capitalism want to create quantification models for the recognition of human conditions, something also the author of The Happiness Industry points out. Through face recognition software, for example, the advertising industry can se when consumers smile and thus put the image that led up to the smile in a loop, or create variations across the subject.
This way of thinking, which is reminiscent of phrenology, places the externalization of emotions in a context that is directly speculative. Because if advertising can reproduce situations that increase dopamine levels in the brain, it will, most likely, maximize sales and purchases regardless of who we are and how our lives actually behave. We are treated, in such a situation, more or less like caged rats.

Narrative context. Davies traces this way of thinking about happiness back to Jeremy Bentham's utilitarianism, which was based on the idea that happiness was about maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. What is wrong with such a model? According to Davies, and I completely agree with him, the perspective is too narrow: It context in which any pain and pleasure may occur, is rejected as irrelevant.
The opposite should be the case, because without a life story, no kind of emotion will be meaningful. It is also about processes in a human life where maximization of joy is not in place. For example, if you are in grief after the death of a relative, or, in a collective sense, if you belong to a group that is exposed to abuse or systematic oppression.

Compound life. Talking about increasing joy without including the life story that the individual is in is not only wrong, but a gross misunderstanding of what a life is. Should we criticize Simone Weil for feeling too little joy and pleasure when it is precisely in the pain she finds meaning?
Davies is obviously right here, and it is precisely the narrative connections, and how we relate to them, that make up the substance of what happiness really is. The point is not that we should be happy all the time, but that the emotions we go through should make sense based on the life you actually live.

Should we criticize Simone Weil for feeling too little joy and pleasure when it is precisely in the pain she finds meaning?

Counter-narratives. What are we doing? First, the individual life story must be recognized. Or maybe rather: A room should be opened for it. The individual must be empowered so that he or she is enabled to put into words his or her experiences.
It is also not certain that there is something wrong with the individual. Structural irregularities such as loss of rights in working life (see review of Undoing the Demos), discrimination and unemployment lead to more accidents than anything else, says Davies. "Treating the mind (or brain) as some form of decontextualized, independent entity that breaks down of its own accord, requiring monitoring and fixing by experts, is a symptom of the very culture that produces a great deal of unhappiness today," he writes .
Of course – we should examine systemic injustice and inequality more, and not look blind to the individual's pain or joy. In addition, we must think carefully about which narratives can unite those who are unhappy, because perhaps it is systematic repression that is in question? In that case, the oppressed allies can probably rely on a counter-narrative rather than being medicated with psychotropic drugs or met with abstract talk about maximizing happiness.
Davies, no matter how happy or unhappy, has written the perfect book to ponder these things.

Kjetil Røed
Kjetil Røed
Freelance writer.

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