Manufacturing Happy People

As one might have expected, Hollywood has been at the forefront when it comes to the exploitation of our wish to be happy. The Will Smith movie, The Pursuit of Happiness, cashed in a cool $300 million. But Hollywood is by no means alone. A gigantic happiness industry has established itself to see that we are made happy.

The industry has produced hundreds of books, endless numbers of self-help seminars, websites, courses, classes, etc. selling the illusion of a Social-Darwinist struggle for upward mobility spiced up with the myth of personal re-invention. This powerful market is built on the commodity of successful life stories, salvation, and personal triumph. It produces and sells a kind of “emotional pornography”.

While Oprah Winfrey might be the personified version of much of this, the ideology of individualism isn’t new. Individual success stories such as those of Norman Vincent Peale in the 1990s and even a century earlier with Horatio Alger served the very same purpose. Donald Trump will tell you that he too is a personal success story based on his positive thinking and inner happiness.

It may be rather fruitless to argue against the pursuit of happiness. After all, it is something that is already found in the USA’s Declaration of Independence (1776). Yet, happiness can have somewhat pathological implications when examined a bit more closely from a philosophical, sociological and moral standpoint.

For one, the ideology of happiness has proven extremely useful to neoliberalism’s emphasis on individualism. Simultaneously, happiness is often framed as a non-ideological term. Happiness is sold as an individual condition sine qua non – indispensable condition – by its proponents, crypto-psychologists and even organisational psychologists interested in manipulating workers.

Behind the scene, organisational psychology promotes the notion of happy workers to support a non-democratic and highly authoritarian management culture sold through the neutral-sounding term “organisational culture”. The unquestioned conformity to the cultural apparatus created by corporate apparatchiks (i.e. managers] is flogged off as “shared values”.

Secondly, the ideology of happiness has been hijacking the language of functionality enticing people and employees inside companies and corporations to act in a way determined by those peddling the very ideology of happiness. Hawking the ideology of happiness is also the ultra-conservative and quasi-religious John Templeton Foundation donating a whopping $2.2 million to the course of happiness. Coca Cola also chipped in. The US happiness industry also works closely with the US Army instructing soldiers and military personnel on positive emotions, happiness and spiritual meaning when going about their important work.

Meanwhile, the happiness industry works towards giving soldiers, ordinary people, and workers a better life. It is an industry that generates a whopping $2.5 billion worldwide. In other words, the happiness industry is no small change. It is a multi-billion-dollar business that feeds its ideology through the recycling of crypto-scientific charts, semi-scientific tables, number-filled diagrams, simplistic and easily marketable pop-psychology presented by pretentious scientists in white coats. A perfect example is OHI – the Oxford Happiness Inventory. The OHI’s global happiness measures 0.29** – it is truly made to look scientific.

More importantly, when people are happy, there is really nothing more to worry about. Global poverty, Donald Trump, global warming, wage stagnation, racism, etc. vanish into thin air as long as you personally work towards the 20th of March 2021 – the next UN declared International Day of Happiness. If you are in doubt, just look at the Coca-Cola Institute of Happiness and drink their sugary brown water – although you die earlier, you will be happy.

Meanwhile, the happy industry’s own research has found that Christmas is the happiest time of the year – an earth-shaping finding on par with Albert Einstein. Beyond that, the numbers-oriented and staunchly positivist research on happiness follows the illusion that the human world behaves like the world of physics, which means, for example, that the rat equals the person.

The snake-skin salesman’s objective science of happiness has even told us that global inequality is not accompanied by resentment but by some sort of hope factor. Furthermore, income inequality is associated with greater happiness. In short, “money does not make you happy” – this is what the rich tell the poor.

The ideology of happiness has no qualms in claiming that in developing countries, inequality if anything increases happiness. Simultaneously, for workers under neoliberal capitalism, the ideology of happiness has six ideas in store:

  1. Work is understood as a matter of personal projects, creativity and entrepreneurship;
  2. Education is a matter of individual competences and talents;
  3. Health is a matter of habits and lifestyle;
  4. Love is a matter of interpersonal likeness and compatibility;
  5. Identity is a matter of choice and personality; and
  6. Social progress is a matter of individual growth and thriving.

To make these scientific pathologies look good, the manufacturers of happiness even invented an objective formula. Just as, for example, the speed of a car has a mathematical formula, so does human happiness. Really. The formula is H=S+V+C: happiness (H) is genetics (S) plus intentional activities (V) plus circumstance (C). For the ideology of happiness to work well, 50% is genetics, 40% is emotions and individual actions, and 10% is circumstances.

In other words, if you are born in a slum in Manila or make t-shirts for the high-street fashion industry in some factory in Indonesia, or parts for an Apple iPad in China, etc. there is nothing you can do about it – except be happy. Some people might think that the dogma of happiness is a rather useful ideological tool to make the pathologies of capitalism acceptable to us even when these pathologies will – inevitably – render planet earth uninhabitable.

Hence, the Capitalocene’s deliberate destruction of the environment, for example, depends on 90% of individuals and has really nothing to do with corporate capitalism, the ravaging extraction of materials, aluminium smelters, overfishing, peak-soil, plastic in albatrosses, atomic waste, e-waste, etc. In other words, we do not need to advocate for better sustainability and environmental outcomes since it does not make us happy, according to the ideology of happiness.

Similarly, in our daily pathological working lives that are defined by corporate apparatchiks with bullshit jobs, the madness of Tayloristic work is made acceptable through the ideology of happiness. Organisational stress is no longer the outcome of your overbearing boss and the psychosis of office work. Instead, it is all down to personal responsibility and worse, a failure to be happy.

In any case, the use of the ideology of happiness in the labour sphere should be regarded as one further step in the process of managing workers through psychology. It works under the much-trumped motto found in every textbook on management: “happy workers are high-performing workers”. It sustains the ultimate goal of corporate capitalism, the eternal generation of surplus-value and profit maximisation – reframed as shareholder value under Managerialism.

To top up the ideology of happiness, some companies and corporations have even installed a CHO – a Chief Happiness Officer – as the “oh, so scientific” Journal of Behavior Studies in Organizations tells us. The idea is that an increase in workers’ happiness ensures that they deliver their best performance, stay motivated, and find happiness in improving productivity and the corporate bottom line.

While they work hard – others cash in handsomely. For the ideology of happiness, it really does not matter if people deliver pizza for a living or are highly specialised surgeons. It only matters how they perceive their work. This is pure propaganda. It tries to sell the very opposite of what is true. In other words, Toxic Sludge is Good for You!

In any case, this is the point where the ideology of happiness relies heavily on a recent favourite: resilience or as one of the main proponents of the ideology of happiness says in the ideological flagship of Managerialism, the Harvard Business Review: Building Resilience. The ideology of resilience has proven a very useful device to sustain corporate hierarchies, legitimate dominant managerialist ideologies and profit-driven demands on labour. It also makes individuals deal with the psychological costs of problematic, unstable and poor working situations.

Beyond that, the ideology of resilience off-loads the burden of unsavoury working conditions with organisational stress, burn-out, wage stagnation, job insecurity, etc. onto the worker. All of this is sold as resilience, individuality, and happiness is the real beauty of this ideology.

It appears indeed that 21st-century neoliberal capitalism has given birth to a sizable, powerful and hegemonic industry of happiness. In the sociological theory of “structure versus agency” this highly manipulative industry seeks to diminish structure – unhealthy workplaces, stress, environmental pathologies, corporate capitalism, etc. – in favour of agency – the single and increasingly isolated individual. It is the neoliberal individual, whether as workers or consumer, who is responsible for her or his own well-being and happiness.

The happiness ideology obfuscates the fact that it entices individuals into becoming tremendously self-absorbed with their inner lives. It makes them constantly worried about how to achieve higher levels of self-control over their own thoughts, emotions and bodies. The dark side of the happiness ideology is that it advances psycho-manipulation that results in new problems like the almost compulsory checking, monitoring, self-surveillance and correcting of people’s inner compositions.

A recent study even found that 79% of respondents agreed with the statement, “I’m aware that my name is a brand, and I need to cultivate it carefully”. If anything, much of this indicates what French philosopher Michael Foucault calls “Madness”. Undeterred, the relentless manufacturing of happy people marches on. For the ideology of happiness, a happy person is a good person and her or his actions are good as long as they create happiness.

One might even speculate that this is part of the Zeitgeist of the 21st century camouflaging a malfunctioning political, social, legal, and economic system while constantly issuing ever more drives towards “functionability” – the ability to function under almost any circumstance. Those workers – now called human resources – who function are framed as good while those who don’t are labelled as being negative, recalcitrant, and troublemakers.

In the simplistic world of happiness manufacturing, there are two types of people: negative and positive people. Aspects such as optimism, hope, self-esteem and well-being fall into the category of complete mental health (positive), whereas pessimism, insecurity and dissatisfaction with life fall into the category of incomplete mental health (negative).

This does well with the airheads that run corporate human resource management. Beyond that, l’idée fixe that positivity is good, and this is good for you while negativity is bad and bad for you has a second and perhaps even more important component. That is, it shields the ideology of happiness, those profiting from the happiness industry, and those manufacturing happiness from critique. Critique can be framed as negative and bad for you. It makes you pessimistic and useless because you cannot change your circumstances as the ideology of happiness tells you. Besides, 90% of your happiness depends on you.

Moreover, your happiness is made up of a 2.9-to-1 ratio as the peddlers of happiness ideology tell us. They also tell us that an 11-to-1 ratio of negative-vs.-positive emotions are detrimental. That all of this is mathematical nonsense isn’t mentioned. L’idée fixe that there is a positive ration of “2.9013” to negative emotions does not make sense. But that is not the point at all. The point is to appear scientific when selling a system-stabilising ideology in support of companies, corporations and corporate capitalism.

In conclusion and set against the manufacturing of happiness and the ideology that comes with it is none other than and Nobel Price winner Thomas Mann. As Thomas, one of the main characters in his Buddenbrooks, says:

The point is not to simply accept that we live in the best of all possible worlds, which we cannot know; the point is rather to interrogate whether we live in the best of the worlds imaginable.

As Edgar Cabanas and Eva Illouz show in their Manufacturing Happy Citizens, the key ideology of the ideology of happiness is never to imagine a better world but to accept the world, capitalism, pathological workplaces, and global environmental destruction as it is. And be happy about it.