The business of happiness

Dancing like everyone's watching - the way to happiness?
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Dancing like everyone's watching - the way to happiness?

What if capitalism died from lack of interest? Or to use the correct language, from low levels of employee engagement. What if everyone phoned in sick or just stopped bothering at all?

It sounds fanciful but British sociologist and author William Davies floats the idea in his fascinating and timely new book The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being. It may not be a revolution or a big financial crisis or something equally epochal that knocks capitalism off its perch but general, yawning indifference.

It is a dramatic way to talk about boredom and the lack of engagement in workplaces, but there is plenty of data to back it up. Davies cites Gallup research figures that show only 13 per cent of the global workforce is properly engaged, 63 per cent are not engaged and 24 per cent of workers are "actively disengaged". This active disengagement may cost the US economy up to US$500 billion a year, a number that seems astonishing to Davies.

What is your motivation? It even seems that what it means to be sick has changed, turning into general ennui. A Canadian study in 2014 found that 29 per cent of workplace absence is due to workers feeling tired or stressed about their jobs. In 2012, stress took over as the leading cause of absence from work in the UK.

As Davies writes, managers were once required to negotiate with unions. Now they must "confront a much trickier challenge, of dealing with employees who are regularly absent, unmotivated or suffering from persistent, low-level mental health problems".

Suspicion grows in response. A survey of 1000 British bosses found that a third check social media to see if employees are really sick or just faking.

Overall, there is a view that modern life is making many of us mentally unwell. For example, the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology estimated in 2011 that 38 per cent of Europeans are suffering from a mental health problem, including depression, anxiety and insomnia.

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William Davies, British author and sociologist. 

You could quote statistics all day but the trends seem clear. And these workplace trends are likely to be mirrored in the New Zealand economy, although the sums will be less spectacular. A Wellness in the Workplace survey estimated that absenteeism cost New Zealand business $1.6b in 2013.

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So it's no surprise that managers look for ways to make employees happy and keep them that way. Corporate cheering-up can risk becoming absurd. While in the US on book promotion, Davies heard from an audience member about the casino where he works. Employees are expected to join managers in dancing to the Pharrell Williams song "Happy" at regularly scheduled times.

Clap along if you feel like you would rather have a pay rise.

"There is a problem with the culture of work in developed, western neoliberal economies where we all want work that is utterly fulfilling," Davies explains by phone from the UK, where he is a senior lecturer at Goldsmiths, the University of London.

"Students come out of university wanting to be novelists or artists. We have had this expectation since the 1960s that we want to be fulfilled but a lot of work doesn't really offer that."

In a way, Davies' book is a well-researched rejoinder to the mountain of self-help feel-good bestsellers and pop-psychology management bibles. All that thinking and growing rich, all those habits of successful people, always accentuating the positive and trying to persuade you that any individual can achieve anything. It is about the realities of economic dissatisfaction and personal unhappiness that are obscured by the newspeak of human resources departments and the wide distribution of antidepressants.

"All of us have psychological questions about who we are as people and how we should live our lives," Davies says. "All human beings suffer anxiety as to whether they are doing the right thing or the wrong thing, and feel questions of uncertainty as to whether they should do things differently. But those questions are being exploited by people who have other agendas. And those agendas in the business world include trying to get people to work harder for their managers, or to purchase things through strategies of advertising and market research."

Davies asks, what does a happiness or well-being industry exist for, and who benefits from it? At times, it can resemble science-fiction or a culture of benign-seeming surveillance.

There is the wearable technology that could let managers see how stressed employees are, or how active, which has sinister potential. Could managers identify the less active or sociable sector of their workforce and find ways to remove them? They could come to similar conclusions by analysing keywords in emails and social media messages, and picking up patterns in metadata.

"While I give it a slightly sinister spin, there are people out there who think this is the future of business," Davies says.

Measuring and then modifying the public mood could turn out to be relatively easy. There is the example of a literature festival in the UK that filmed the smiles of attendees, which were analysed by software and rated. It was described by as "the future of evaluation".

There was the infamous Facebook experiment, in which the news feeds of nearly 700,000 users were manipulated for a week to test theories about "emotional contagion". Some users saw more good news than usual and some saw more bad news, and Facebook found that the input had a small effect on the output. In other words, those whose feeds had been negative posted more negative comments themselves.

They have ways of making you happy. In the UK, "the science of emotion has been put to work as part of an austerity agenda that withdraws benefits from vulnerable populations", Davies says.

It almost sounds like a perversion of motivational thinking.

"If you are going to claim a jobseeker's allowance or disability benefit, you have to engage in forms of therapy which tell you you have to be independent, believe in yourself and stop being dependent on other people. People who are already very vulnerable and need care and support are being given therapies that tell them they have to go out there and be enterprising and entrepreneurial when they may actually be ill or depressed."

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Think about the most important scientific discoveries of the 20th century. Would you include the invention of antidepressants in that list? You probably should.

Roughly one in 10 New Zealanders are on antidepressants, which is comparable to figures in other developed economies and suggests that sadness and melancholy have become medicalised.

Or as Davies argues, "a culture which values only optimism will produce pathologies of pessimism".

When antidepressants were discovered in the late 1950s, they were a solution in search of a problem. No one even knew what to call them.

"They just made people feel generally brighter about themselves and their future, that they had more energy and so on," Davies says. "At the same time you had the emergence of particular types of psychiatric symptoms of people feeling generally flat, negative about their self and their life."

In very broad terms, two similar trends happened in parallel over the following decades. Mental health became about the individual, rather than about the individual's relationship with society. Forget the social context, depression was now understood as a problem with brain chemistry, to the point where the vast majority of depressed people are now diagnosed by general practitioners rather than psychiatrists or psychologists.

The other trend is the growth of what is called neoliberal politics from the 1980s on. In the UK, this was Thatcherism. In New Zealand, Rogernomics. The free market and privatisation trumped the real or fictional threat of "socialism". Individual success and enterprise were privileged.

These trends came together "to produce a common political and economic culture," Davies argues. But neoliberalism also produced large numbers of unemployed. Contrary to the neoliberal theory, these unemployed masses did not suddenly rise up as motivated entrepreneurs. Instead, as researchers such as Andrew Oswald at Warwick University in the UK discovered, unemployment caused much greater levels of social unhappiness than economists expected.

It was not just about the loss of money. It was about the loss of purpose and self-esteem.

"Orthodox economics thinks that happiness and money correlate pretty closely to each other," Davies says. "What happiness economics shows from the 1990s onwards is that actually this is not the case. An economy that generates high levels of unemployment will wreak far greater social injury than was previously thought."

But rather than using a finding about "preventable suffering in society" to propose a different economic model that would produce less unemployment, such as a four-day working week, the policy said that you had to tackle the depression of the unemployed to get them back to work.

There is a problem with that "causal connection", Davies says. Put simply, if society is making people depressed, maybe society is at fault. But that kind of thinking went out in the 1970s.

"As a political and economic problem, unhappiness has become viewed as a symptom to be cured rather than a proportionate reflection of circumstances."

As a reviewer of The Happiness Industry wrote in the Independent newspaper, "being depressed by the human condition will no longer be socially acceptable, or even an option. The state or big business will soon see to it."

More and more aspects of human emotion have become medicalised. In the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, known as the DSM, even grief lasting longer than two weeks has become a disorder, as a new drug can target "major depressive symptoms occurring shortly after the loss of a loved one".

What is lost is the question of what constitutes a disproportionate response to events.

To some, the brave new world of pharmaceutical well-being and happiness measurement may not sound so terrible. It is akin to the surveillance debate that briefly followed the Edward Snowden revelations, when the public response was shown to be closer to apathy than outrage.

That's because "we have an outdated critique of surveillance," Davies says. We think of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four or the German film The Lives of Others, with someone listening in on the other side of the wall. Surveillance now is about using technology to spot patterns in enormous amounts of data.

Nor does "consumer surveillance" involve a trade-off between privacy and security. They simply want to give us more and more of what we want and we don't mind helping out. Online retailers and social media companies gather more personal information about us than we would ever dream of giving away to market researchers.

"Amazon is constantly conducting surveillance on what we do there because they want to make better recommendations. People don't have much of a critique of surveillance if it's delivering them pleasure or well-being."

Indeed, one of the problems Davies had when writing the book was working out just how to pitch it. Should he be alarmist? He has discovered since that one of the unexpected audiences for the book are US survivalists who want to go off the grid and think it's all about how governments and corporations are keeping tabs on us.

"And they are keeping tabs on us," Davies points out. "I'm not saying they're keeping tabs on us in a purely conspiratorial way to mind-wash or control us but they are keeping tabs on us. Sometimes it benefits us and sometimes it benefits them and that's the society we're moving towards."

The Happiness Industry is published by Verso Books.

 - Stuff

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