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Review: The Happiness Industry by William Davies

9781781688458-4171756f689401c14d3e2d09906a9e3fWatch out folks. There is a murky world lurking behind the scenes, a sinister cabal of policy-makers, psychologists, CEOs, advertizers and life-coaches, watching you, measuring you, nudging you, monitoring your every smile, all to try and make you happy. We must resist. This, broadly, is the message of sociologist William Davies’ book, The Happiness Industry: How Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being.

I opened Davies’ book expecting a historical critique of the so-called ‘politics of well-being’, a movement which arose in the last decade. Cognitive psychologists like Aaron Beck, Martin Seligman and Daniel Kahneman found ways to measure how our thoughts can make us miserable, and how cognitive behavioural interventions can help us to be wiser and happier.  The evidence-base they built up persuaded policy-makers – particularly in the UK, but increasingly around the world – that governments can and should try to measure and improve citizens’ well-being.

The science of flourishing became a way for policy-makers to move beyond the cultural relativism bequeathed us by Nietzsche, through a marriage of ancient wisdom (Buddhist, ancient Greek) and empirical science. Governments could then try and improve citizens’ ‘flourishing’ without being accused of imposing their version of the good life on every else. ‘It’s not our version’, they could say. ‘It’s science.’

The politics of well-being is still quite an undeveloped movement, but in England it’s led to specific policies, particularly to the collection of well-being data to guide policies; an on-going attempt to teach ‘well-being’ and ‘character’ in schools; and the expansion of free talking therapies on the NHS.

Davies has written well on this movement for the New Left Review. But what we get in this book is a much more sprawling narrative, which looks at the history of the attempt, in economics, psychology, statistics and neuroscience, to measure moods and emotions, and to use that data either to ‘nudge’ us towards policy-outcomes, or sell us things, or keep us working. The story meanders from Bentham to JB Watson via whiplash, social networks theory, the DSM, the history of management consultancy, the Chicago school, the history of stress and the Quantified Self movement. It risks becoming a history of everything, and could more coherently have concentrated on the last decade (although oddly he doesn’t mention Kahneman, or happiness economist Ed Diener, or the various attempts to teach well-being in schools, or Martin Seligman’s attempt to teach ‘resilience’ to the entire US Army).

The ‘enemy’ of his book seems to be an overly-mechanistic or behaviourist model of the mind, in which scientific experts measure our mood-machine and try to steer it without asking people what they mean or care about. Certainly, the politics of well-being can be anti-democratic and positivistic. When our government came up with a national definition of well-being, for example, it did so via a small panel of experts, entirely made up of economists and psychologists.

However, Davies’ story risks confusing the behaviourist with the cognitive behavioural. Much of the politics of well-being sprung from the success of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which arose in the 1960s as a critical response to behaviourism. In CBT, people’s beliefs, meanings and values are all-important, so it’s more humanistic and potentially more democratic. It’s true that CBT can ignore the impact of external circumstances like poverty on our emotions. But people are developing more collective forms which equip us to change our circumstances (like being in debt to loan sharks) as well as our inner lives.

Probably the biggest impact of the politics of well-being so far has been to increase public funding for talking therapies, and to put mental health on the political map – there is a new campaign in the UK for ‘parity of esteem’ between physical and mental health in the NHS. But Davies ignores this. Instead, he focuses on the possibility of therapy or life-coaching being forced onto benefit-claimants in England and Wales. The Department for Work and Pensions denies therapy is ever mandatory, although it may be on occasion, and this should be opposed as an ethical breach and a waste of tax-payer money. But we also need to vigorously defend and expand free therapy for those who need it and want it.  Davies doesn’t lift a finger in support.

Instead, he lays into corporate wellness programmes and the booming wellness industry, and slams the proliferation of ‘chief happiness officers’ and ‘happiness apps’ monitoring our every smile. Are they? Does your company have a chief happiness officer? Have you ever used a ‘happiness measuring app’? It’s true that a handful of companies are taking well-being seriously (a few, like Zappos, take it too seriously). On the whole I think this is a good thing, and could mean companies take employee satisfaction and corporate ethics more seriously as well. But at the moment, most companies’ well-being programmes amount to little more than a salad option at lunch, cheap gym membership, and one away-day a year for some wacky team-building and half-baked resilience-training. Hardly Brave New World.

The over-riding tone of Davies’ book is the hermeneutics of suspicion – he is constantly expressing ‘unease’, ‘disquiet’ and the need for ‘critical resistance’ to the ‘hidden agenda’ of the elite. This is left-wing academics’ favourite posture, but it’s not really radical in that it undermines people’s agency: the ‘well-being agenda’ in this narrative is always something the elite imposes, never something citizens develop for themselves (as is actually the case with the Quantified Self movement). And his ‘perpetual unease’ doesn’t change anything. What are you actually for?

It turns out Davies is for co-operatives, for co-owned companies in which decision-making is shared. Such companies make us happier, according to research. He’s also for local community mental health initiatives like therapeutic gardening, which research suggests make us happier. And he’s for more equal and less competitive societies, which some research suggests make us happier. So on the occasions he’s arguing for something positive, Davies turns to well-being data for support.

At the extreme of his argument, he says governments should ignore people’s moods and feelings altogether, and focus on the serious business of improving material circumstances. That’s exactly the argument successive governments have used to deprive mental health services of funding. Hopefully, this is finally changing, but Davies’ book does little to help the cause.

Sketch for the future: the Centre for Practical Wisdom

I gave up booze for Lent. This is long overdue – I have had a drink, usually more than one, pretty much every day for the last 20 years. Stoicism and booze helped me through PTSD and social anxiety. My stiff upper lip was soaked in beer. Twas ever thus – why do you think Edwardians called cocktails ‘stiffeners’?

I used Stoicism to build up a citadel of autonomy, and then used booze to let down the drawbridge occasionally, to try and connect with other people and feel alive.

This is what adverts for booze promise, isn’t it: connect more, live more, be more loved. You don’t feel alive? Get pissed! Rational capitalism puts us in iron cages, and then sells us weekend release passes.

I also used it to switch off my brain and relax in the evenings. And it would work, more or less. The first drink was like getting in a bubble bath. I felt the tension release in my mind and body. But ultimately I think I was using booze as a holding pattern, to hold me together as it were, and this holding pattern is actually inhibiting the evolution of my consciousness.

Heraclitus thought that consciousness was a divine fire, and we make this fire soggy with booze. ‘A man when he is drunken is led by a beardless youth, stumbling, ignorant where he is going, having a wet soul. The dry soul is the wisest and best’. Thus spake the weeping philosopher.

It feels good, not drinking. At first the clarity is a bit harsh – noises are too loud, the sky is too bright, other people are too close. I used booze to turn down the volume of consciousness. But then you get used to it, and you can focus in on and enjoy situations and people more intensely. I don’t need booze! I may even get on better with people without booze! I live more when sober! What a revelation this is.

Hooray for Lent, burning away the Enemy’s lies in the desert of the real.

So now I am slightly more awake, I begin to look around, blinking. I think, where am I, and where am I going? I wrote a couple of weeks ago about my book on transcendence, and many of you sent in brilliant emails of support and advice – thank you so much! This week, I’ll talk a bit about the other side of what I do – the teaching, and sketch out an idea for the future.

And I promise it will be under 1500 words. That is my pledge to you, oh busy reader.

From reactive to proactive

In the last year or so, I have started doing talks and workshops on practical philosophy to companies and organizations, using some of the ideas and materials from Philosophy for Life. This is in the terrain of business coaching, except I call what I do ‘practical philosophy’, and focus on particular areas – resilience, integrity, authenticity, flourishing – where ancient philosophies have good stuff to say.

This happened haphazardly. One of the newsletter readers, a business coach called Winni Schindler, was kind enough to invite me to talk to the Association of Spanish Business Coaches in Madrid. And they were really into the whole ‘ancient philosophy for modern life’ thing. I was also doing the philosophy club at Saracens, which was going surprisingly well. So I realized I could make money running workshops in practical philosophy with businesses and organizations.

Then another lucky break – I met Rob Symington, the co-founder of Escape the City, which is a recruitment firm for people looking to leave the Rat Race and find more meaningful and fulfilling work (as Rob himself did in his early 20s). Escape raised £600K in a week via CrowdCube to fund themselves. Last year, Rob and his partners set up Escape the City School, which now runs two ‘tribes’ – a 3-month ‘Escape Tribe’, to help 50 people get out of ruts and find more fulfilling jobs, and a 3-month ‘Start-Up Tribe’, to help 50 people do start-ups. The next Escape tribe starts in April by the way.

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Rob Symington (left) and Rob Archer, who also teaches on the Escape faculty

I’ve been teaching some workshops at the Escape School, which is fascinating for me. The energy of the place is so different from academia – it’s way more optimistic and can-do. I usually feel the most entrepreneurial and optimistic person in the room in academia – at Escape, I feel the opposite! But that’s good for me, in terms of expanding my sense of the possible. Teaching at the School, and meeting so many people trying to follow their dreams, makes me think: what would I like to build?

My teaching is a bit reactive at the moment. I get invited to do things by companies and organizations – the occasional talk or workshop here and there. But it feels quite ad-hoc and bespoke. It’s fun, it’s challenging, and it gets some money in, which means I can take more risks in my writing. But it’s not a massively thought-through long-term vision of how to do practical philosophy in the workplace.

I realized this when I went to stay with my uncle in Boston. He’s a venture capitalist, and he is incredibly can-do. For example, his son goes to Virginia University, so he helped to set up a mentor scheme for students there. His other son went to a local public school, so he helped to improve their finances. He’s on the board of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and helped to find them a new artistic director. He just…does stuff!

Anyway, I went for dinner with him, and told him a bit about the philosophy work I do with Saracens, Arsenal etc. This usually goes down pretty well. But my uncle didn’t seem that impressed. ‘So how will you take it forward? What’s your evidence base? How can you take it to the next level?’ I love that about him – he thinks big, aims high.

So I ummed and ah’d and said I’d send him a business plan. That was in December.

One issue is that there are many different areas in which one could apply practical philosophy: companies, mental health, prisons, schools, higher education, professional sports, the army, the public sector, and in courses for the general public. Where does one focus one’s energy?

The answer, so far, has been, I don’t really focus, or rather, I focus on the book (writing about transcendence is a piece of piss compared to this!), and just take the ad-hoc work as it comes. It’s passive reacting. I need to be more proactive, think what do I want to do longer-term, and then gradually build it.

So here’s the plan I scrawled last November, in a cafe while talking to Patrick Ussher – a colleague who works with me on Stoicism Today. It’s for something called the Centre for Practical Wisdom, or something like that.

CPW

The CPW would be a social enterprise with links to academia (hopefully Queen Mary, University of London). It would be sort of a public-private partnership. It would seek funding (government, corporate and philanthropic) to do research on practical philosophy, while also applying it in different contexts – providing courses and workshops on different wisdom traditions and how we can apply them in modern life. The research would feed into the practice, and then the practice would be evaluated and would feed back into the research.

Some of the courses would be subsidized, for schools, charities and disadvantaged groups, some would be ‘full-whack’, for corporates. The profitable would subsidize the pro-bono.

The CPW would specialize in ancient Greek wisdom (because that’s my background and there’s a big gap in the ideas market there) but bring in Eastern wisdom too (there’s already a lot of that out there), Christian wisdom (bit more niche but hey, I’m into it!) and Islamic and Jewish wisdom – I think it’s important that the Centre is inter-faith. It would build bridges between ancient wisdom, modern psychology, and adult education.

What needs to be done to make this happen? Looking at the example of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction programme – which has inspired so many mindfulness centres across America – I’d suggest what is needed is the creation of a basic course in practical wisdom, which is then road-tested and evaluated. I took a first step towards this last year, with the pilot of my Philosophies for Life course. Perhaps the second step would be to create an online version of this course. Eventually, one would hope to gather a group of people, each of which would be focused on applying the approach in a different area.

That’s the dream. I can see lots of tricky things to negotiate –  what sort of evidence can one get, should the Centre focus on one philosophical approach rather than being eclectic, how do you make sure the Centre has integrity and social value, and isn’t just cashing in; do I have the leadership or business skills to be more than a freelancer and who are the best partners to do this with? I’m sure, as I move forward, the plan will evolve and morph. For all I know, I may end up living in Guatemala making hammocks. But at the moment, that is roughly where I am trying to get to.

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In other news:

Here’s a blog from the World Health Organization, about a project I’m working on to explore the cultural determinants of health and well-being.

Here’s a talk about Lent from Radio 4.

The Economist reviews a new biography of Jean-Paul Sartre.

Here’s an interview with Adam Curtis from the Creative Review.

Teachers need to be freed from paper-work to teach moral values, says the Jubilee Centre for Virtues.

Germany is opposing Islamic extremism by encouraging Islamic education among its Muslim citizens.

Meanwhile ‘Jihadi John’ was unmasked as a computer engineering graduate from Westminster University, the campus of which appears to be a hotbed for radicalisation. And three schoolgirls from a school in Bethnal Green traveled to Syria to marry homicidal slave-traders. Ah youth!

So where is the ideological debate with radical Islamists? Beyond just saying ‘Islam is a religion of peace’ or ‘you’re all wankers’? Where is the positive moral vision the West has to offer young Muslims?

Finally, here’s a cartoon about Stoicism Man.

See you next week!

Jules