Happiness: The New Snake Oil


Multinational corporations got a sniff of happiness. What used to be a subject for philosophers and poets is coming to a snooping gimmick near you. Whether it is cynical marketers or happiness consultant crackpots, the word is out that employees are much more productive (and consumers gobble up more stuff) if they’re happy.

The irony of it all is that the neoliberal era we’re living in has caused instability and widening gaps, breaking the social cohesion, though by its own logic it has eaten, digested and spitted the happiness machinery as a self optimization, one more variable in its amoral metrics aiming at the bottom line. How contradictory is that? The age of consumerism has caused unhappiness yet it is now monetizing unhappiness by repackaging happiness into a consumer product.

The most frightening feature of such commoditization, though, is not that it is a dumbing down process which empties something profound and complex until leaving it hollow (as it happened to yoga or is happening right now with mindfulness); it is that, for it to work efficiently in the benefit of the powers to be, a raw data gathering structure is needed. Employees and consumers are observed, read, interpreted, measured and quantified through their social media activity, their website visit behaviors, their very movements through “checking in” places or those fancy “health” wristband-connected apps.

So, are you happy? “They" know. Or, at least, they claim to know. And by bombarding you with their quack theories through media, at work, and even at home, so do you. Or you think so. Yet at the end of your life, after having achieved life-work balance, reached mindfulness, deployed passion at work, given and received 360° feedback, bought whatever you were told to buy, and whatever the new "flavor of the month" is, you realize that there is something missing and then, boom! you die. Perhaps you made the most out of your life by that point, or maybe you didn’t. It doesn’t matter, really, because in the process you behaved like an excellent sheep at work, produced millions for the corporation, and bought the equivalent of 3 fully stocked Walmart warehouses.

But what is happiness, exactly? Th problem with happiness is that there are two approaches to it. On one side, happiness could be merely a psychological matter, a mental state just as pleasure or depression are; and such mental state is then associated with concepts such as life satisfaction or positive emotional condition. On the other paw, though, happiness is a value and concerns what benefits or is good for a person. This approach in itself drives us into spooky territory: value judgements, i.e. what is good vs. what is good for you.

There are several theories about well-being (or happiness), though they can be grouped in two, i.e. the ones identifying it with pleasure, getting one one wants, or satisfying one’s desires, which are subjective since they group well-being with an individual’s subjective states, and the ones equating well-being with a life of fulfilment of human capacities, whether the individual gets pleasure from it or desires it.

So, for starters, when your supervisor at work forces you to have a good time at a damn staff party, or when the phony in turn writes about it for Cosmo or is interviewed by Oprah, it is 99% likely that they’re throwing scattered and unrelated ingredients into a stew, mixing them just for the sake of selling you something. If what they talk about happiness has been tested in the lab and it lights up areas of the brain, is that happiness? Or, if they tell you that being with friends is happiness, they’re talking about possible sources of happiness, whether it may be based on the mental state or the well-being. Furthermore, when they tell you about “being happy” and “happy” in itself, again the two perceptions are being confused, and that would not be a problem if one of them were not equipped with a value judgement while the other has hard scientific connotations.

Now, let’s ask ourselves: is pleasure really, really, really at the core or around the conception of happiness? If so, remember that such view is utilitarian, reducing humans to mere chimps who laugh when it feels good and run away when it bites. And from there come the simplifications of methodological individualism which, married to positivist empiricism, gave us the sweet, sweet neoliberalism which has screwed us all up —except for the 1% of course. Do we then equate happiness with unpleasantness the way hedonists do? In that case, a troubled person can pepper her whole day with hobbies, activities and stuff so as to maintain a pleasant existence, but, is that person happy? Or do we, instead, embrace the "emotional state" view of happiness? For the latter happiness is not pleasantness but an emotional condition, kind of the opposite of depression, but then we ought to ask ourselves if the Zodiac Killer, assuming that he was satisfied or got his desires, was living a life of fulfilment to the most of his capacity.

Perhaps the paradox oh happiness is spot on: to find happiness stop searching for it. Perhaps it is a slippery ghost and all we have at hand is the need to feel, think, say and do, all in a coherent manner between the latter variables and towards our conceptions of who we are, what is right and wrong, and what makes our lives worth living. Or perhaps not. What is certain is that in such muddy waters it is kind of ludicrous to claim copyright over a silver bullet that would make everybody happy. It is selling snake oil: a false remedy for a problem that nobody understands. Despite the wealth of study on happiness, both empirical and theoretical, it all boils down to a concept which is hard to pin down. It is, undeniably, an idea which varies tremendously between disciplines, cultures, and even individuals themselves. What is not under debate is that it is the flavor of the month and it will be shoved down your throat, whether you like it or not. And in most cases, it will be to sell you something or to convert you into a good slave.

If you haven’t read William Davies’ “The Happiness Industry” go and put your paws on it right now.