in: Advice, Character, Podcast

• Last updated: September 28, 2021

Podcast #145: The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being

In the past ten years, there’s been an increasing emphasis on happiness in our culture. You can find countless books, blogs, and podcasts on how to have a happier life. What’s interesting is that even corporations and governments have gotten in on the game and are spending lots of time and money figuring out how to measure and increase happiness among employees and citizens. On the surface, that seems like a great thing, but my guest on today’s podcast makes a compelling case that perhaps we should be a bit wary of corporations and governments tracking and increasing our happiness, and the way they can sap our privacy and even a bit of our humanity. His name is William Davies and he’s the author of the book The Happiness Industry. Today on the podcast, William and I discuss the history of happiness tracking and some of the technology that’s coming out today that’s turning the present age into a real life Brave New World. 

Show Highlights

  • The many headed hydra of the happiness industry
  • The disingenuous reason your employer is so concerned with your happiness
  • How utilitarianism laid the foundation for today’s happiness industry
  • How businesses are using MRIs to predict what sort of stuff you’ll buy
  • How the happiness industry and all its wearable tech and apps is quantifying and monetizing spirituality, family, and friendship
  • The new technologies that promise to make you happy on demand
  • Towards a nuanced approach of the happiness industry
  • And much more!

Happiness industry book cover william davies.

As someone who’s fascinated with mood tracking and the research being done to help increase well-being, The Happiness Industry brought some much needed nuance to my perception of these innovations. I haven’t given up on my FitBit or meditation apps, but I’m definitely more mindful about them.


Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness Podcast. In the past 10 years, there’s been this increasing emphasis on happiness. There’s tons of books written about it. Blogs are dedicated to how to be happier. You’re even seeing corporations becoming interested in tracking the happiness and well-being of their employees and instituting programs to increase their happiness. Governments are also getting in on the act of developing algorithms to track the happiness of their citizens. On the surface, this sounds great. That’s awesome that companies and governments want us to be happy.

My guest today on the podcast makes the nuanced case that maybe we should give this some pause. His name is William Davies. He’s the author of the book The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being. In the book, he gives us a history of tracking happiness which began all the way back in the 1780s and has advanced throughout the centuries to what we have today where you have devices that you can put on your brain that can actually track your mood moment to moment and even devices that can change your mood moment to moment.

While there are some benefits to that, it should give us some pause because what’s happening is that it’s beginning to have the market encroached into areas of our life that we never thought would be part of the market. I’m talking about family, friends, religion, spirituality. It’s all geared towards tying happiness to dollar signs, at least that’s the case he makes. Today in the podcast, we’re going to discuss this. I thought it was really interesting as someone who’s really got his ear on the ground, all the psychological research about happiness and well-being, great counterpoint, a different perspective. Without further ado, William Davies, The Happiness Industry. Will Davies, welcome to the show.

William Davies: Thank you.

Brett McKay: Your book is called The Happiness Industry: How Big Business and Governments Sold Us Well-Being. The reason why I want to have you on the show to talk about this book, because it takes on a topic that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, is this idea of everywhere you go, blog post, magazine, articles, news, shows, it’s all about how to be happy, how to increase your well-being. I’m drawn to it at one hand but on the other hand, I’m repulsed by it that I’m told that you need to be happy. I don’t know. I guess the rebel in me doesn’t like that. In your book, you take on and critiqued what you call the happiness industry. Before we get into why being happy might not be such a great thing or rephrase that, having businesses being so interested in us being happy is not such a great thing, can you explain what you mean by the happiness industry?

William Davies: Sure. I have similar feelings about this as you do in that I think a society or a workplace that cared about our feelings is clearly a good thing. You don’t want to live in a society that is indifferent to people’s feelings. You don’t want to be surrounded by managers or businesses that don’t care about their impact on people’s minds and their feelings and so on. I was drawn to this topic in a similar way in that it struck me that on the face of what was quite noble, ethical impulses and agendas seem to be co-opted in certain ways by marketing, by management, by certain areas of government policy.

I think what’s key here is the role of measurement and the role of economics. Particularly in the last 20 years, I would say, happiness and emotions have become a very hot topic in economics, in neuroscience, particularly at the moment, to a growing extent, in areas of computer science in what’s called affective computing which develops various techniques for trying to read the emotions of people via the movements of their faces or their eyes or the behavior of their brains, whatever it might be.

What’s happened as a result of these advances in particular areas of social science and behavioral science and medical science is that certain interests in society, particularly those of corporations but also those who are trying to come up with more efficient ways of delivering public service or health services, whatever it might be or ways of trying to discipline some areas of the population have used this body of knowledge and seen it as an opportunity to either make money or to cut costs or to try and change the way people behave. I think it’s particularly that co-optional that, excuse the sociological language, but that instrumentalization of ethical and political and cultural ideals in pursuit of rather more cynical agendas that I would term happiness industry.

Brett McKay: This includes things like wearable tech, Fitbits.

William Davies: Yeah.

Brett McKay: I guess even now, there’s technology … I have a few pieces of this technology where you can put a band around your head and it can read brain waves and tell you if you’re focused or if you were calm. What are some other tech-

William Davies:  … try to influence your feelings that way as well.

Brett McKay: Yeah. I just saw it. That just came out. I’ve been seeing ads for this thing. It’s a device you stick to the side of your head and it can make you feel energized or calm. I guess they use electricity to do that.

William Davies: Yeah. I don’t understand the technology. There’s one called Neumitra, I think, which does something like that.

Brett McKay: I guess you’re seeing more corporations include things like mindfulness trainings. They’re encouraging their employees to meditate. There’s nap rooms now. A lot of businesses have nap rooms. On the face, it’s just like, “That’s great that businesses are doing this,” but you make the case in your book that in a strange way, they’ve actually created this problem. They’re doing this to make us more productive. It’s not just be nice. They want to get more out of us.

William Davies: Yes. Businesses have been interested in feelings and happiness for a long time. One of the things that I tried to do in the book is to not just tell the more recent story which I outlined briefly just now but to also put this in the longer context. Businesses have been interested in psychology and emotions since at least the 1920s. In the workplace, with the rise of what we now call human resources, there has been concerns trying to talk to employees in the right way and so on and to make sure they feel good about themselves, it’s quite a long history because it’s known that this has an impact in the productivity.

One of the things that the happiness science over the last 20 or 25 years changed is that people can now put dollar signs on that extra productivity or on these emotions. Some of the happiness economists have calculated that a happy employee is 12% more productive than an unhappy employee. These calculations vary. The opinion polling company Gallup does all of this research in what they call employee engagement which suggests that less than the third of the workforce in countries like the United States are fully psychologically engaged in their work. This is costing hundreds of billions of dollars a year to the US economy.

I don’t question the evidence as such. I think one of the dangers with this type of evidence is that it does create rather a cynical approach which looks to, in a sense, change the symptom rather than look at the cause. If it is true that employees are stressed or unhappy or disengaged, one of the problems we’ve tried to put dollar signs on these problems is that immediately, people get drawn to just trying to deal with the symptom. They just try to say, “Well, how can we just re-energize people? What do we need to do? Do we need to give them free lunch? Do we need to give them free gym membership? Do we need to track their behavior using a wearable or do we just …”

One of the stories I heard when I was talking about the book in Philadelphia a couple months ago was someone in the audience told me that he went in a casino there where employees were required to dance to Pharrell Williams’s Happy with the manager once a week. Start the week with it to pep everybody up and get them going. Now, this kind of thing clearly is going to yield its own negative forms of cynicism of further psychological disengagement. Human beings are not lab rats. They can’t just have their psychology or their behavior tweaked purely by some kind of slight tweaking of the environment.

The question of how to produce fulfilling work is a serious one but that also requires businesses and managers to engage in some rather more complicated questions about the extent to which people are able to fit work around the rest of their lives or the extent to which people can have genuine time off or the extent to which people have a say in how they go about their work. The social areas where a lot of this happiness science is being put to work are in areas like call centers which are quite stressful, high surveillance environments where labor turnover’s incredibly high because it’s not enjoyable work. The managers turn to the happiness science to try and find out how they can deal with these problems. It’s trying to change the symptom, change the way in which people’s emotions are churning around in the workplace rather than to actually question the nature of the work itself.

Brett McKay: That was an interesting point because I’m a big fan of being resilient, resilience training, learning how to remain calm even when things are going crazy around you but at the same time, I always had that question for folks whenever I talk to people who are experts in resilience or whatever and say how do you make things better? This just puts a Band-Aid on the problem. How do I solve the problem of where I don’t have to be resilient anymore for that particular thing? I feel like the whole idea of just being mindful and being resilient, it puts the question of how to solve these problems to the side and not just deal with it. You can’t solve it. It’s too big. Just be resilient and you’ll be okay.

William Davies: Suddenly, I think these types of responses particularly amongst public policymakers, these types of responses arise partly as a result of the powerlessness of policymakers more generally in that it’s harder to tackle stress, tackle insecurity, discourse the sources of anxiety and depression which it’s clear from certain areas of social science, areas such as social epidemiology and these kinds of research areas that things like depression and anxiety are triggered by things in the environment to a large extent. Of course, they also have neurological and biological dimensions to them but they don’t just arise out of nowhere. It’s no coincidence that the rates are much higher in societies such as the United States or in Britain than they are in, for instance, in most of Northern European nations.

In a way, the results saying not because we need to somehow teach individuals to be more resilient or more mindful or to look after their mental health better is partly a symptom of a political powerlessness in a way to actually challenge some of the forces for insecurity, inequality, high levels of materialism and compulsiveness which are known to correlate closely to levels of things like depression. You see this in the school system.

In Britain where I live, there’s a great movement trying to teach more techniques such as happiness and resilience and so on in school and to infuse mindfulness into classrooms and so on. If you look elsewhere in the education system, the teachers suffer terrible levels of stress because they’re all constantly being monitored and audited by the government. Pupils are also suffering terrible levels of anxiety and stress because they’re constantly tested the whole time. They never have any time off between testing. Since they come back from the summer holidays, there’s a test within a couple of weeks.

You have one of these kind of stress factors but no one questions the stress factors. All they do is say, “Well, in that case, we need to have more resilience training to make sure individuals can cope with this kind of thing.” At a certain point, you can’t just allow mental health problems to get worse and worse particularly amongst children and young people without beginning to also question some of the cultural and institutional factors that trigger that.

Brett McKay: You’ve mentioned this a little bit ago that this desire of businesses, governments to be concerned about the well-being, the mental well-being of their employees or their citizens isn’t new. It goes way back. You make the case that the seeds of all this techno mindful utopia that we have today were sown by the founder of utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham. For our listeners who aren’t familiar with utilitarianism, can you explain what that is and how is that utilitarianism led to Fitbits and mood trackers and things like that?

William Davies: There’s a lot in between but Jeremy Bentham was an English philosopher but he was actually a lawyer originally who was born in the late 18th century. He worked between the late 18th century and he died, I think, in the 1830s. He was a product of the enlightenment. He looked at things like the law and looked at politics, looked at the activities of the government, also looked at the French revolutionaries and the American revolutionaries. He thought the whole all of it, across, whether it was conservatives or radicals, that they were all distracted and deluded by abstract philosophical ideas like justice or theological ideas like the divine right of kings or revolutionaries talking about innate human rights and this sort of thing like Thomas Paine.

He thought that it was all basically nonsense. He thought the only way to put politics and law on scientific foundations was to learn from what was going on in the natural sciences at the same time, in chemistry, in physics and elsewhere which he thought looked rational and coherent in a way that what was going on in the political realm, in the philosophy and law was fueled by this nonsense good use of language. He argued that we need to turn to what is the underlying physical underpinnings of our ethical intuitions, of our ethical principles. He said that the only thing that you can really found ethics on or politics on or any notion of justice on is the fact that all human beings have an innate natural tendency to pursue pleasure and avoid pain. He meant this in quite physical sense. He didn’t mean it in just this abstract or philosophical sense. He meant it in the sense that we are animals that are drive to maximize our own pleasure and to avoid pain.

On top of this natural theory about humans, he constructed a theory of utilitarianism which suggested that the only way in which governments could run society in any scientific sense would be to construct things in a way that as much pleasure was distributed as possible which amounted to what we call happiness and as little pain was generated as possible. Governments can also do things like deliberately intervene with forms of pain, that is punishment, to change the way people behave so that you think of someone like a speed camera or something. You want people to slow down in their car so you create certain sort of carefully calculated interventions to try and change the way people behave by the threat of some kind of punishment. He thought that you could have a science of politics and he thought that it was this natural sense that we are basically driven by our pleasure and our pains that he thought could be the foundation of politics.

Now, what I’ve argued in the book is that this belief that it’s our bodies that really are at the heart of ethics and at the heart of politics and that likewise, the political language and the philosophical language, moral language is a dangerous distraction, these are key ideas in Jeremy Bentham’s work. I argued in the book, in a way, you could see this same bias, I suppose, a work in a lot of Silicon Valley innovations today. We look at something like the Apple watch or something like that. The promise of these technologies is that instead of us having to rely on what we say we’re doing or what we think we’re doing or what we tell other people we’re doing or tell other people we like or whatever, what these things will do is to provide hard data about what our bodies say is going on in our lives.

They will tell us how you’re sleeping, how much you’re walking, how much water you’re drinking. They say that the next generation of Apple watch is, in a couple of generations’ time, it will tell you things about your emotions and how you’re feeling. You can do forms of data mining on people’s text messages or that tweet he used to analyze what they’re feeling in terms of sentiment analysis. This is similar prejudice as Jeremy Bentham had over 200 years ago which says stop listening to what people tell you, stop dwelling in what Bentham called the tryanny of sounds, people talking about, “Oh, you know, I like this. I like that. This is what I believe. These are my principles, so on,” and get towards the science of the body signs of choices, of behavior, of physical responses and the physical symptoms of emotions rather than the linguistic world of how people talk about things.

Brett McKay: Why is listening to the body not a good way to go to figure out what people really want? Neurotransmitters are released, neurons fire, hormones are released to a particular response. What would be the counter to that? Why listen to someone that say, “Yeah, I’m happy,” but then all their body chemistry says no?

William Davies: Sure. I think these things, it’s partly about balance. None of this stuff is going to go away anytime soon. I’m not suggesting that we should just abandon these signs altogether but I think the problem is that a lot of the time, firstly, what it does, first problem with it is that it starts to bestow great powers upon the scientist in this situation, not necessarily scientists who work in universities with a vocation to the broader public good or to knowledge or something. They might be scientists working in private companies who are effectively working to pursue profits. That’s the nature of these things is that the companies that are collecting this data, analyzing this data and doing so on their own terms a lot of the time which doesn’t mean that they don’t do it for benefits. They use this in their customers but there’s a set of concentration of power in amongst all of this.

One of the problems with this is with the way happiness science is going at the moment is that as companies, as technology developers, as scientists get more and more confident that they can actually see the symptoms of emotions or they can actually witness the emotion itself almost whether that be via neuro scan or whether it via various facial scanning technologies and so on is what happens to our own accounts, what’s going on? Do they still matter? If for instance, it’s possible to monitor how an entire audience is reacting to a, say a concert or something, which it now is … This is now done. In one of these examples in the book I gave is a literary festival in Britain a couple of years ago, this smile harvesting technology we set up around the site trying to collect data on how people are feeling one moment to the next and so on. This thing is already going on.

Now, does that mean that we don’t need critics any longer or does that mean that we don’t discussion things in newspapers or in other ways to try and analyze what we think … Think about it. What happens to human language and human discourse in amongst all of this? I’m not saying that we’re necessarily silent but I think that sometimes, what people say they think about something or the reasons they give for their feelings need to be taken very seriously particularly where there’s some injustice involved. Sometimes, people are not simply just unhappy or suffering a lack of pleasure in a way that Bentham might have recognized but they actually have a serious grievance that they want to articulate. They want to be heard and they want to hang onto that grievance until it’s alleviated in some way.

If someone feels that there’s an injustice in their society, to try and reframe that in terms of some kind of neural event or some kind of displeasure is a gross misunderstanding of how that person understands themselves, understands their lives. It’s that depoliticizing effects of the Silicon Valley view of the world or the Benthamite view of the world that troubles me because we need to grant people the power and the authority to carry on saying, “No, this is what I think. This is how I feel. This is what I think needs to change in order for me to change my response to it rather than to allow all of these things to become enhanced of certain experts or those that have the best technology to monitor our feelings.”

Brett McKay: You made an interesting point in the book how you’re seeing more and more, it seems like with this whole instance on big data, it is in a lot of ways replacing morality or its moral philosophy. Because we can’t agree on anything in our multicultural world, we’ll just rely on this data to figure out what’s good, what’s bad.

William Davies: Yeah. This is something which in a way, that’s also what Jeremy Bentham was effectively hoping for. It was in the late 18th century. That was hell of a long way off at the time but over the course of the 20th century, the tools and the methodologies developed in psychology and in the behavioral sciences to realize or really start to push towards that kind of ideal. One of the interesting things is that in previous waves of this kind of exuberance, there was a wave of what, in a sense, the first era of behaviorism. Behaviorism refers to the idea that it’s possible effectively to manage people, govern people or to predict their behavior purely by observing them. If you can get enough data on someone, then you don’t need to actually go and ask them necessarily so many questions or try and understand them on their own terms. You can simply collect enough data and then they become as predictable as anything in the natural world.

The first wave of behaviorism, and I talked about this a bit on the book was really between about the time of the First World War in the 1930s where you had a whole various psychologists. You had world’s first management consultant, Frederick Taylor, and huge excitement in the advertising industry that it was going to be possible to really get to the bottom of why people buy what they buy and that you wouldn’t actually have to even give people, make the products any good. You could just manipulate people purely by getting the science right. Now, of course this is nonsense. It started to fall apart over the course of the 1930s. Actually, what replaced it or what turned to usurp it was rather more sensitive, more socially conscious things like, well, there are things like the rise of opinion polling and focus groups, things which actually try to understand, get inside people’s worlds a little bit more.

Then, you had another wave of it, the ‘60s with people like B.F. Skinner and the famous Robert McNamara taught that the Vietnam War could be won purely through the application of statistics and behavioral principle. Then, we get in another wave now with big data. All of these, in a way, it’s this sort of recurring utopia, recurring idealism, starts with Bentham, keeps recurring that the way to live, we can get around all the dilemmas about how we should live our lives or how we should run our businesses or how we should sell our products wherever they might be purely by consulting the data.

You read some of the big data, the more historical big data stuff for the moment. This is what people are saying, is they’re saying the managers of the future won’t have to … Now, the first thing about running a business, all that they’ll have to understand is how to feed questions into data analytics. They’ll only need to have data scientists and that all the answers will just come out of that. The first problem with that is employees aren’t going to be very happy working in companies where those running the company effectively view them in this kind of lab rats. It matters to people whether or not their voices are heard or not. It matters to people whether they’re autonomy or their humanity really is respected. Situations where people are reduced to data points don’t tend to be very happy ones in the long run. There’s something quite self-defeating about some of this stuff.

Brett McKay: Another thing that troubles me about this whole happiness industry and you talked about this in the book as well is that there seems to be an encroachment of the market on aspects of our lives that you wouldn’t think would have a dollar sign next to it, relationships, your friendships, your marriage, even spirituality. These businesses and these researchers are trying to find ways to optimize that but not optimize it just because you want to have better friendship but because better friendship can make you happier which will in turn make you a more productive employee.

William Davies: Again, it’s important to try and disentangle the good intentions from some of the negative applications here. That’s always the problem in this area is that there’s always this entanglement of good intentions and some rather more cynical uses. In terms of the intentions, in a way, a lot of the happiness science begins by trying to properly value non-market goods. Actually, one of the things that happiness sciences have been saying since the 1960 is actually, we’ve got to stop putting dollar signs on everything. We’ve got to recognize actually what matters to people, things like spending time in their family, having some nice public spaces, having green spaces, having time to do things other than just try and make more, more money. This is actually what a lot of the research in the happiness science suggests.

Ultimately, a lot of what positive psychology says to people is also in line with that. It says stop just comparing yourself to everyone else, stop trying to focus on yourself, try to notice other people and notice the world around you and think about other people. You can be against all of that. I think that the problem is that once you start to measure things and you start to quantify happiness, then of course, then it could also be put to other uses. There will always be those who look to some of that research to try and think about, “Well, in that case, we need to build in an analysis of things like social relationships and non-market goods into our sales strategy or into our employee relation strategy or this sort of thing.”

The way you take a more self-centered or a slightly more cutthroat approach to some of that research, for instance, there’s all this research showing that if your friends are unhappy, you’re more likely to be unhappy. It’s called emotional contagion. It was partly off phase but we’re trying to test when they did the emotional contagion study which was published last year where they were manipulating people’s newsfeeds to see if they could spread emotions across different social networks.

Ultimately, if you were purely focused on yourself and on your career or your entrepreneurial ventures, you might read lots of this literature and think, “Well, I’ve got to basically start cutting certain people out of my life because they’re spreading bad vibes and I’ve got to do that in order to be happier because there’s research showing that being happier is going to make me work harder and sleep better and make more money,” I think, not all of it but that there are areas of this agenda which lend themselves to quite an egotistical, highly competitive ethos where effectively, it’s not. It’s almost a hoarding of happiness as it can often be and a hoarding of money whereas that is often entangled with these rather more altruistic and generous approaches, many of which manifest in things like positive psychology. There’s some good and some bad.

Brett McKay: You’re right. You see that a lot amongst personal development blogs. There’s tons of them, tons of books about that. They offer these great bits of advice like hang out with your friends. You need to get outside more. You need to exercise. You need to meditate, drink water. It always seems like so you can make more money. I don’t know. There’s a part of me that I guess I’m a romantic and I like to have a greater good. I don’t want it just to be about money but it seems like that’s what it’s all about now.

William Davies: Yeah. I also think data, there’s something very pernicious about data. Everything is quantified and everything is data. I don’t doubt that it’s true, for instance, spending time with near foliage is good for you. This is what happiness scientists have shown. People do studies … There are studies showing that the color green has a positive effect in our brains and this is why it’s good to be in the trees and we should be outside and all those stuff.

I think it removes part of the pleasure of going for a walk in a forest if you’ve got all of that in the back of your mind. That would remove the pleasure if you’re going for that walk in the forest in order to somehow make some investment in your brain or your body. Imagine if you’re going for a nice walk with someone else in that situation and you discovered that they were only there because they’d read that it was going to somehow make them more productive the next day or something like that. I think you’d feel pretty disappointed.

Brett McKay: I also think the emphasis on happiness, it forces us to … We miss out on the whole human experience. There are benefits to sometimes feeling angry. There are benefits to sometimes feeling in a low mood and depressed but happiness is like, “Well, no. Don’t do that. That is bad. You should not feel that way.” Go ahead.

William Davies: This is partly, we’ll go back to Jeremy Bentham, the requirement of happiness science is always that things can be placed in a scale, that things have to go between … I mean the nature of the scale varies. Sometimes, it’s 0 to 10. Sometimes, it’s minus 5 to plus 5 but you have to put numbers on things rather than attach different words to them. You just mentioned 2 different words, angry and depressed. For a happiness scientist, depressed would have to be a minus 5 and angry would have to be a minus 2 or something. You wouldn’t be able to see them as 2 separate types of things.

I’d like to think that one of the most problematic terms that we have from the perspective of happiness science is when you say I was moved by something, imagine when you’re moved by whatever it might be, a family experience or going to the theater or something, where the hell is that in the … When we say that, what are we referring to? Often, we cry. Often, we feel sad but you can still feel happy and sad at the same time. It doesn’t really fit with anything. It doesn’t so fit on any scale and yet, in a way, that’s what makes us feel most alive. In a way, you have to respect the capacities of human beings to use language in ways that make sense but not necessarily reducible to scientific metrics.

Brett McKay: As I was reading your book, the thing that kept coming back to my mind was brave new world. That was I feel like what’s going on in a very soft way. In fact, I just got done talking to a psychologist who specializes in humor research and he was discussing how big pharma is now tickling mice to figure out the benefits of laughing on the million brains in order to develop a pill that you take it, you will feel happy. It’s like Soma, like real life Soma. That to me is somewhat troubling. I don’t know …

William Davies: I think one key part of this which we haven’t touched on is antidepressants which, of course, I argued in the book that in a way, antidepressants transformed the whole notion of happiness, the whole notion of unhappiness in ways that reach far further than just the psychiatry or the pharmaceutical … happens to take pills. In a way, when antidepressants were discovered in the late 1950s, they weren’t probably commercialized until the 1980s but when they were discovered, it completely changed how initially, scientists but later, more culturally, more generally people would conceive of things like mood because the idea that mood is something that is rooted in your physical being wouldn’t have really made a lot of sense until antidepressants were discovered at that time. There were psychiatrists who all agree with this but they were pretty marginal.

The idea that it’s possible to change our feelings by changing our bodies or in particular, our brains, is partly a symptom of a culture in which antidepressants have become so pervasive or at least so culturally significant. That’s not to say that mood doesn’t have physical dimensions to it. Clearly, it does. I’m not denying whole bodies of research but I think again, it’s important to distinguish between something which is a symptom from something which is a broader cause or the broader meaning of a term. Depression has certain symptoms such as inability to sleep or sleeping too much or whatever it might be.

Often, what happens with the medical approach to these things is that they start to focus too much on particular physical symptoms. The whole question of how someone came to feeling a certain way starts to drop out of the equation. In terms of your example of tickling mice, one of the most troubling areas in all of these, which comes out of neuroscience again and areas of neuroeconomics and that sort of thing, is you get research which shows that the very act of smiling has triggered certain neurological activities which make you feel better.

Some of the gurus of neuroscience, I’m not necessarily talking about the people who are doing the research in universities and elsewhere, but some of the people who have turned into the positive thinking mantras and the business folks and so on will say, “Well, in that case, you’ve got to just exercise your mouth. You’ve got to turn the corners of your mouth up certain times a day. It’s like exercise like doing yoga or a gym or something because this way, you’re going to keep the right chemicals flowing on your brain.” Now, again, I don’t question the science. I’m not qualified to do so but I think we have to question what that means culturally if people are being encouraged to do effectively is an insincere act purely with a view of just trying to look after their serotonin levels or whatever it might be or their career.

Brett McKay: Happiness fascism.

William Davies: That’s not the term that I’ve used but I’m embarrassed people have pointed out that the echoes of Brave New World. I think the problem is it’s not that this stuff doesn’t work. I think just like in Brave New World, it’s possibly the problem is that it works too well. What do we lose in the process?

Brett McKay: This all leads to the question what do we do with this. We have this research. We have this technology. It seems like you’ve been hinting that there possibly is a role for it in our life but how do we figure out that balance?

William Davies: It’s very difficult. I think that a lot of the trends are pulling us further in this direction particularly with technology at the moment. I think the sorts of things that would provide an alternative in the future, although I’m not holding my breath that this can happen anytime soon, is to start trying bring back in an institutional logic. To return to my example of schools from earlier, look at some of the evidence on depression and anxiety and stress amongst young people and think about how you would design and run schools differently in ways that allow people to flourish because I, for one, I’m not in the book. I’m not against happiness. I’m not against flourishing.

I think in a way, we need to get back to some of the early, more idealistic era of happiness science or happiness agenda in a way but ultimately, what people need to be happy in a more authentic sense, in a less manipulated sense is to stop looking into themselves. Stop seeing all the sources of their feelings as somehow internal to themselves. Actually, we need to stop blaming our own brains, our own selves or whatever it might be for the way we feel. In a way, we need less science if that’s possible.

It’s difficult to imagine but less science of the brain, of the cell for behavior of the feelings and more experiments, I suppose, in different ways of living, in different ways of running institutions which might allow people to spend less time worrying about ourselves, less time comparing themselves to other people which after all is what all the positive psychology also suggests. Ultimately, there are deep lying philosophical contradictions in happiness agenda. Once you reach the point where a scientist or a manager or a market researcher claims to know how someone else is feeling without that person even being consulted in any way, purely on a quantitative scientific sense, they’re beginning to miss something about that person. I think a certain type of rebellion against that big data high surveillance behaviorism will happen at some point. Exactly how it manifests itself remains to be seen.

Brett McKay: Interesting. Will Davies, where can people learn more about your work?

William Davies: I have a blog at I’m on Twitter @davies_will. You can read my book The Happiness Industry.

Brett McKay: Will Davies, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

William Davies: Great. Thank you very much.

Brett McKay: My guest today was William Davies. He’s the author of the book The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being and you can find that on and bookstores everywhere. That wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness Podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure you check out the Art of Manliness website at If you enjoyed this podcast, I’d really appreciate it if you can give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher or whatever it is you use to listen to podcast. I’d really appreciate it. Until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.

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