Against Happiness

Self-help gurus and positive psychologists tell us that we should be coaching ourselves to happiness. The painted-on smiles they want to sell us are a pathetic substitute for actually improving our societies.

Lindy Klim poses inside a meditation pod in Martin Place during the Virgin Mobile and Smiling Mind partnership launch on October 25, 2016 in Sydney, Australia. The partnership aims to encourage Australians to make mindfulness part of their daily mobile phone behavior. (Brendon Thorne / Getty Images for Virgin Mobile)

Interview by
David Broder

Happiness sounds pretty good. Indeed, there’s plenty of people out there prepared to sell it to us. The $12-billion-a-year industry in self-help books, conferences, and tapes tells us about little changes we can all make to arrive at the elusive happy existence, from visualizing future success to losing weight or cleaning our rooms.

Since the late 1990s, this industry has been backed up with a supposedly scientific counterpart – the “positive psychology” promoted by former American Psychological Association president Martin Seligman. His ideas of “learned optimism,” along with such concepts as “mindfulness,” have become part of common-sense ideas on how to improve our existence.

Some of this talk sounds pretty cultish – and rather like a call to swallow the realities we aren’t very happy about. It suggests that our problems are all in our own heads, as is the path to making ourselves into better people. No wonder it’s increasingly used in workplaces to make us smile along while we do what we’re told.

Eva Illouz and Edgar Cabanas are authors of the recent book Manufacturing Happy Citizens, investigating how the new disciplines of “happiness economics” and “positive psychology” work as new mechanisms of social control. Jacobin’s David Broder spoke to them about the cult of “happiness,” the kind of citizens it’s making us into, and the rather less happy effects of the new individualism.

David Broder

A key theme of the book is the individual self-disciplining inherent in the cult of “happiness” — effectively, the idea that the only way we can improve our lives is to work to produce better versions of ourselves. How historically new is this idea?

Edgar Cabanas and Eva Illouz

It is old wine in new bottles. Indeed, the new cult of happiness might be little more than the old cult of the self-made individual, disguised as positivist science and endowed with neutral and universalistic pretensions. It is an idea that comes from a long-standing tradition, deeply convinced that happiness and suffering, wealth and poverty, health and illness are individual properties, and that the keys to success lie within individuals’ power to pull themselves up by their britches, to grow stronger in adversity, and to develop their inner potential.

Such an idea has been spread by powerful conservative institutions, the business culture, and self-help literature across the twentieth century, but from the 1960s also by neoliberal thinkers, especially in the United States. The field of positive psychology is one of the most recent representatives of this individualistic tradition.

However, the appearance of this field two decades ago was a real game changer, since for the very first time all these assumptions seemed to acquire scientific legitimacy. This is perhaps the only real novelty. But this also entails a critical difference, not only because these and similar ideas made their powerful entry into academia ― hence becoming a matter of scientific inquiry ― but also because the pursuit of happiness soon went from being an almost exclusively North American political and ideological motto to being an alleged “scientific” issue of worldwide importance.

Nevertheless, the science behind positive psychology has been seriously put into question. Numerous and important critics have argued against the field’s foundational assumptions, including its decontextualized and ethnocentric claims; theoretical oversimplifications, tautologies, and contradictions; methodological shortcomings; severe replicability problems; exaggerated generalizations; and even its therapeutic efficacy and scientific status. So, it is becoming more apparent that positive psychology could not have thrived based on its science alone. That is one of the reasons why in the book we focus on providing a sociological and economic explanation to account for the widespread success of both the field and its ideas.

David Broder

You describe the rise of instruments like the UN’s World Happiness Report, or the OECD’s Better Life Initiative, which seek to offer indices of human happiness in various fields. Such initiatives might be perceived as a way of expanding the indicators used to direct policy priorities, beyond narrowly economic indicators like GDP figures alone. In what way are these reports themselves “ideological”? Does the problem with them lie in the specific indicators they rely on, or the very idea of objective and universal indicators of happiness?

Edgar Cabanas and Eva Illouz

Both. First, the claim made by happiness scientists that happiness is a self-evident good, as well as the most crucial goal for any society to pursue, is posited rather than proven, a purely ideological and utilitarian assumption rather than a scientific fact. There is no way to prove such affirmation, so you just have to believe it. It is also necessary to take for granted that happiness is a subjective, psychological issue independent from other social and economic indexes. That is a very individualistic way to conceptualize happiness, and that is precisely the framework under which happiness is “measured.”

Not surprisingly, happiness experts recurrently find that despite other socioeconomic and political factors, individualism is the variable that most strongly relates to happiness. But what is happiness? They never define it. Apparently, happiness is what happiness questionnaires measure ― and the items of these happiness questionnaires are only concerned with feelings, attitudes, and perceptions, not with social or economic conditions.

As for their methods, happiness scientists mainly rely on self-reports to measure happiness — that is, asking people how happy they feel. These self-reports present several problems. For instance, it is not clear that happiness measurements are comparable between individuals, between nations, or even between the same individual in different periods. How can we know that someone’s score of 7 out of 10 in a happiness questionnaire is equivalent to someone else’s 7 out 10? How can we know that a score of 7 from someone in Ireland is higher or lower than someone else’s score of 6 or 8 in Cambodia or China? How much happier is someone with a score of 5 compared to someone with a score of 3? What does a score of 10 in happiness mean? Another concern is that this methodology severely limits the range of informative responses that people can provide when assessing their happiness. This is important because closed-form responses might not only favor a self-confirmatory bias by researchers but also to disregard important information when it comes to using these happiness indexes to make political decisions.

Happiness indexes are also ideological in the way they are used. As we show in the book, quite often these indexes have worked as smoke screens to conceal important and structural political and economic deficiencies ― i.e., to sideline and deflect attention from more objective and complex socioeconomic indicators of welfare such as redistribution of income, material inequalities, social segregation, gender inequity, democratic health, corruption and transparency, objective vs perceived opportunities, social aids, or unemployment rates. We illustrate this point with the case examples of the United Kingdom, Chile, India, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In this last instance, it is very telling that a country characterized by widespread poverty, constant human rights violations, and high rates of malnutrition, infant mortality, and suicide adopted “happiness measures” as a prominent political initiative, to assess the impact of its national policies. Perhaps that’s because the UAE does much better in happiness rankings than in any other of the aforementioned factors — according to the World Happiness Report, it is among the twenty happiest countries in the world. If happiness were conceptualized and measured differently, a very different result would come up.

These indexes have also been used in order to settle delicate political and economic issues in an allegedly non-ideological manner. Inequality is one of the latest and most striking examples — some happiness advocates claim that income inequality might be more beneficial for people’s happiness than previously thought. It is stated that inequality is accompanied not by diminishing opportunities but by a “hope factor” according to which the poor supposedly perceive the success of the rich as a harbinger of opportunity. This allegedly raises their hope and happiness, here related to the higher motivation for poorer people to thrive. How is that not an ideological claim based on ideological assumptions? Apparently, they support these claims in data. However, as Stevenson and Wolfers showed regarding the relationship of happiness to income, the same corpus of data has many different interpretations and can lead to even opposite outcomes.

In the end, the main problem with happiness indexes is not that they are ideological ― to be sure, every index aimed at measuring progress is ideological, starting with the very notion of progress itself; the main problem is that happiness indexes attempt to act as objective and neutral criteria devoid of moral, political, or ideological content. As we show in the book, this alleged neutrality should be rejected.

David Broder

The book discusses the advent of positive psychology in the late 1990s, at the instigation of APA president Martin Seligman: a project you describe in terms of epiphany, apostles, revelation, and the “born again.” Its development is also tied up with the advance of “self-help” books and various ideas about realizing one’s own potential. What does positive psychology and the self-help industry have in common with cults and religious evangelism? What are we to think of its “scientific” pretension to extend psychology beyond the terrain of mental illness alone?

Edgar Cabanas and Eva Illouz

Although positive psychologists have made recurrent efforts to play down its ethnocentrism and spiritual roots, the truth is that their institutional connections and claims reveal profound spiritual and religious assumptions.

Perhaps no other institution like the John Templeton Foundation ― founded in 1978 by Presbyterian elder, stock investor, and philanthropist Sir John Templeton ― has more actively advocated bringing science and religion together, a quest in which Templeton himself has invested hundreds of millions of dollars. Templeton’s financial involvement in both the foundation and the dissemination of positive psychology has been crucial. His foundation alone invested tens of millions of dollars in positive psychology’s research programs for the study of positive health, positive education, resilience, and mindfulness; positive neuroscience, transcendence, and spirituality; hope and forgiveness; or the power of will and perseverance in goal achievement, to name a few. Martin Seligman himself has repeatedly acknowledged the crucial role of the Templeton Foundation in the success of positive psychology. This includes the creation of the Positive Psychology Center in Pennsylvania, the creation of a global institutional network of scientific journals and publications, PhD and MA programs, specialized courses in positive psychology, symposiums and workshops, and generous scholarships and prizes for senior and young researchers under the name of the Templeton Prize for Positive Psychology ― considered the largest monetary award ever given in psychology.

In this line, for instance, one of the Positive Psychology Center’s main lines of research, coordinated by Seligman and developed by George Vaillant, had two main objectives. First, to combine the integration of findings from cultural anthropology, brain imaging, and evolution with the study of individual lifetimes that reflect a deeply spiritual component; and second, to inquire on the role of spirituality in successful living. Many other positive psychologists have actively defended the relationship between spirituality, health, and happiness.

For instance, in her book The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want, Sonja Lyubomirsky argues that religious people are happier, healthier, and recover better after traumas than nonreligious people. Lyubomirsky further disregards evidence that the greater happiness of religious people is related to mutual support, sense of community, or institutional care, and defends spirituality and religion as an individual issue, claiming that by merely having religious faith, people will see an increase in health and happiness. Relatedly, it is not surprising that exercises such as counting blessings, writing forgiveness letters, expressing gratitude, or regularly practicing meditation are among the most recurring positive psychological advice offered as both remedies to people’s problems and as psychological keys to lead more fulfilling and successful lives. These are just a few examples, but there are plenty of others. Similar claims can be found in self-help literature, as well.

David Broder

You cite Margaret Thatcher to the effect that neoliberalism is not just an economic project, but one that uses economics to remold people’s minds and hearts. Indeed, the idea of “self-help” would seem a powerfully individualizing ideology, offloading responsibility for one’s life chances and choices onto the individual alone — if we’re unhappy, it’s not society’s fault, but our own. What connections do “happiness economics,” positive psychology, and the self-help industry have with organized political forces, for instance neoliberal think tanks and policy units?

Edgar Cabanas and Eva Illouz

There are two main connections. The first is political and relates to the fact that many positive psychologists and happiness economists, including, of course, their leading figures, are not ordinary researchers but hold important positions of power and influence. And not only in academia but also in influential economic and social institutions worldwide. Some others are frequently solicited as lead advisers in economic and educational matters. Many others are frequently solicited by big firms, and some have even led high-profile initiatives in the US Army.

The second is ideological. Consider the field of education as an example. Positive education works on two main and interrelated precepts: first, that promoting “psychological skills for happiness” among the youth is not only a desirable goal in itself but also the most important means for mental-illness prevention, better learning, and higher academic success; and second, that psychological factors are more fundamental facilitators of and barriers to school achievement than sociological or contextual ones. In the years from 2008 to 2018, positive education progressively established itself as a top educational priority in numerous countries around the world. An increasing number of private and public associations, think tanks, consultants, and global networks emerged to persuade policymakers to change their policy frameworks so that practitioners are encouraged to educate for character and well-being worldwide. This is, for example, the goal of the International Positive Education Network, created in 2014.

Such initiatives need scientific backup, and the role of positive psychologists and happiness economists has been crucial in this regard. These latter have argued that positive education entails a revolutionary change in the way students should be educated, putting forward the rationale that happiness-focused education proves to be not only good education but also good economics. They claim that reorienting educational institutions toward positive education by changing the attitudes of teachers, students, and parents would provide cheaper initiatives to address educational problems. Positive psychologists contend that happiness should be taught in educational institutions as an antidote to depression as well as a vehicle for increasing life satisfaction and an aid to more creative thinking.

To be sure, there is no scientific evidence that supports claims that positive education works toward rising educational standards such as higher achievement and better learning in students. On the contrary, numerous critical reviews, reports, and meta-analyses point out severe limitations and problems with positive education concerning theoretical and methodological shortfalls, lack of replicability and comparative studies, insufficient empirical evidence, or weak and even counterproductive outcomes. So again, it seems that the success of these ideas is more related to ideological issues than to the quality of the research.

David Broder

You note the happiness formula postulated by Seligman, in which genetic factors are 50 percent decisive in determining our happiness, 40 percent owes to cognitive and emotional factors and our own choices, and just 10 percent to other external factors like education and material resources. This obviously denies the significance of social conditions in shaping our happiness. But what does it say about the ideological basis of this formula that it attributes such importance not only to our subjective choices, but to genetic makeup?

Edgar Cabanas and Eva Illouz

Time has proven that this so-called formula has no scientific validity. Even positive psychologists have retracted from it.

On the one hand, relating happiness to the genetic makeup of individuals worked well not only to endow happiness studies with the veneer of hard, positive science but also to differentiate what the field could offer from what self-help writers and other happiness experts did (e.g., coaches and motivational speakers).

On the other hand, relating happiness to genes was just another way to stress the main idea: that non-individual factors play a rather insignificant role in the well-being of any person (roughly 10 percent). Indeed, playing down ― when not merely neglecting ― the role that objective circumstances might play in determining people’s happiness has been one of the hallmarks of the discipline since its very foundation.

However, if what positive psychologists claim is true, a direct conclusion would follow: Why then blame social structures, institutions, or poor living conditions for people’s feelings of depression, distress, or anxiety about their futures? Why even acknowledge that privileged living conditions help explain why some people do and feel better than others? Would that be another way to justify the meritocratic assumption that, in the end, everyone gets what he or she deserves? After all, with non-individual variables almost entirely factored out of the formula, what else but individuals’ merit, effort, and persistence could be held accountable for their happiness or lack thereof?

David Broder

You talk about “psychological capital” and the imperative to maintain a constant optimism as a basis for one’s progress as a “self-entrepreneur.” But if these are disciplining forces, seeking to mold neoliberal citizens who see themselves only as individuals on the market, do we need other forms of collective optimism — as in the belief, upheld by the historical socialist movement, that we can indeed choose a path of happiness, just not on an individual basis? Or is a more general critique to be made of the aim of happiness itself?

Edgar Cabanas and Eva Illouz

One of the main areas that we develop in the book is the relationship between happiness, management, entrepreneurship, and labor. We develop the argument that happiness has become a useful strategy to justify implicit organizational hierarchies of control and submission to corporate culture.

Where workplaces promise more empowerment and emancipation from corporate control, a closer look at organizational realities shows that promoting “happiness at work” has been particularly effective in doing precisely the opposite. Workplace happiness has, indeed, come in handy to push responsibility downward, hence making employees more accountable for their own successes and failures, as well as for those of the company. Workplace happiness has also proved convenient to get more commitment and performance from workers, often for relatively fewer rewards; to sideline the importance of objective working conditions when it comes to job satisfaction, including salaries; or to encourage employees to act autonomously at the same time that they are obliged to comply with a company’s expectations, to identify with organizational values, and to show acquiescence and conformity to corporate norms.

Most important, workplace happiness has proved useful to make work contradictions and self-exploitation more tolerable and even acceptable for employees. Workers today are not only expected to flexibly adapt to the continuously changing demands and needs of the corporation by their own means; to personally cope with adverse circumstances, inevitable setbacks, and higher workloads; and to adopt a more active, creative, and self-directed role in the performance of their tasks. They are also expected to love what they do and to think about it not as a necessity but as a source of pleasure and self-realization. However, whereas workers do not seem to have significantly benefited from the promotion of happiness at work, it certainly has proven beneficial for organizations.

To be sure, what makes corporations happy might not be the same thing that makes workers happy. This does not mean that corporations do not care about their employees, but it would be naïve to think that controlling mechanisms have disappeared within the organizational sphere: they have just been internalized.

This said, and all things considered, if it finally turns out that happiness is this thing that corporations, neoliberal claim-makers, and the huge happiness industry find so useful for their purposes, then the answer to the question is that pursuing happiness might take too high a toll for us, since it is very likely that sooner or later it will turn against the most vulnerable. Nevertheless, if happiness is not that — and it turns out that corporations, neoliberal claim-makers, and the happiness industry have appropriated from the word for their benefit — then we suggest not to abandon happiness, but to rethink the term from a more social and cultural perspective.

We certainly need hope and goals worth pursuing, but we need it without the numbing, tyrannical, conformist and almost religious optimism that comes with happiness. We need a kind of happiness based on critical analysis, social justice, and collective action, one that is not paternalistic, that does not decide what is good for us on our behalf, and that does not turn against the most vulnerable. We need a kind of happiness that does not consist of being obsessed with our interiority and inner selves, because interiority is no place where we want to build and spend our lives ― and it is certainly not the place from where we will be able to achieve any significant social change either.