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The Happiness Industry

How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being

By William Davies
12-minute read
Audio available
The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being by William Davies

What makes you smile, laugh or feel like skipping down the street? Teams of professional psychologists, neuroscientists, marketers, economists and your boss all want to know. Why? So they can make sure you are a productive employee who buys lots of stuff! The Happiness Industry (2015) takes an in-depth look at how our happiness is studied, measured, and profited from – often without our knowledge or consent.

  • Anyone interested in the role of happiness in modern society
  • Readers who wonder how happiness works in the human brain
  • People concerned about increasing invasions of privacy online

William Davies is a senior lecturer and director at the Political Economy Research Centre at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is also the author of The Limits of Neoliberalism. His writing has appeared in New Left Review, Prospect, the Financial Times and Open Democracy. His website www.potlatch.org.uk was featured in the New York Times.

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The Happiness Industry

How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being

By William Davies
  • Read in 12 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 7 key ideas
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The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being by William Davies
Synopsis

What makes you smile, laugh or feel like skipping down the street? Teams of professional psychologists, neuroscientists, marketers, economists and your boss all want to know. Why? So they can make sure you are a productive employee who buys lots of stuff! The Happiness Industry (2015) takes an in-depth look at how our happiness is studied, measured, and profited from – often without our knowledge or consent.

Key idea 1 of 7

Utilitarian philosophers believe that happiness is real and objective.

Are you happy right now? How can you tell? Perhaps you can’t stop breaking into a grin. Or maybe it’s just that feeling that everything will turn out alright. Though everyone might answer that question differently, it’s clear that happiness is something that can be measured.

Developments in neuroscience have allowed us to understand pleasure as a physiological event, comprised of observable chemical processes. Put simply, the human brain operates with a special “code” of emotion, including happiness. This code is computed in the orbitofrontal cortex.

Neuroscience isn’t the only field convinced that happiness is measurable. Some schools of philosophy work from that premise too. Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832), founder of modern utilitarianism, suggested that the intensity of happiness can be objectively observed using two metrics: human pulse rate and money.

Findings suggest that people’s pulse rates increase during moments of happiness – a straightforward way to measure the intensity of their feelings. Money can also help us gage positive emotions. If we count happiness as utility or usefulness, then when you buy a product the amount of money you spent on it becomes a measure of your happiness with the product or its usefulness to you.

Politicians also have a vested interest in happiness. One of their responsibilities is, after all, to maximize the happiness of society. Governments strive to achieve this goal by punishing and rewarding.

Punishing refers to making an individual suffer for committing a crime or bad behavior. A criminal, for instance, must serve a certain sentence in prison. Conversely, in the free market people can be rewarded with money in the form of income for being hardworking and talented. In this way, a government is theoretically able to direct human behavior toward maximizing happiness.

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