Why the ‘politics of happiness’ makes me mad

If you’re unhappy with state-sponsored happiness programmes, clap your hands.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

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Monday, 22 May 2006 – I peruse the newspapers over breakfast and notice that yet another leading politician is set to give a speech praising the importance of happiness. Tory leader David Cameron has apparently adopted the ‘radical new agenda’ of ‘promoting wellbeing’. It seems that the ditty ‘if you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands’ is about to become the principal slogan in British public life.

Both New Labour and Tory politicians have bought into the politics of happiness. So far as these chaps are concerned, the Protestant work ethic is out; they think we work too hard and have serious work-life balance ‘issues’. Life coach Gina Gardiner agrees. As I flip the page of the paper, I read that Ms Gardiner has set up an organisation called ‘Recovering Workaholics’, a support group that helps give people ‘who have spent too long in the office’ a ‘structured social life’ and maybe the key to happiness (1).

At first sight, the embrace of happiness by relatively intelligent members of Britain’s political elite makes little sense. You don’t need a PhD in political science to know that if ‘you can’t buy happiness’, then you certainly can’t produce it through legislation.

Throughout history, human beings have sought happiness – but it has proved to be an elusive quest. Happiness may be a worthwhile objective, yet as the philosopher John Stuart Mill noted it cannot be the direct end of people’s activity. ‘Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so’, observed Mill. He added that the ‘only chance is to treat, not happiness, but some end external to it, as the purpose of life’. As Richard Schoch recently put it, Mill understood that the ‘secret of happiness’ is ‘the paradox that you find it…only by searching for something else’ (2). Happiness is the indirect outcome of engaging with others in the pursuit of civic virtues, and attempting to do good. And, as it happens, it is sometimes realised through our work. Rather than causing us to be unhappy, hard, purposeful work is often the means through which we cultivate our own sense of happiness.

The celebration of happiness as a virtue in and of itself is motivated by a powerful mood of atomisation and disenchantment with public life. Western societies attach less and less value to those virtues and emotions that demand social engagement and civic responsibility. Emotions aimed at self-fulfilment tend to be presented positively, while feelings that bind the individual to others are regarded with suspicion.

So today, emotions are classified into the positive (joy, happiness, contentment) and the negative (fear, anger, sadness, hate). Positive emotions are those that make you happy; negative emotions are those that make you discontented or miserable. The feeling of contentment has become the defining feature of individual health. ‘Wellness’ has been transformed into a health goal, in line with the World Health Organisation’s redefinition of health in 1946 as a ‘state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing, not merely the absence of disease or infirmity’. Today’s emphasis on feeling good reflects the fact that the individual self has become the central focus of social, moral and cultural life. And since feeling happy is regarded as something like a state of virtue, things that distract the individual from attending to his emotional needs are devalued: hard work, sacrifice, altruism and commitment are presented as being antithetical to the individual quest for happiness.

Advocates of the politics of happiness constantly talk about ‘work-life balance’ because they cannot imagine how people might find meaning through their work. Instead, happiness is seen as something that comes from within the individual, from his being focused on his own emotional needs. Indeed, the most zealous happiness advocates will argue that even happiness can become problematic if its realisation depends too much on others. Frances Wilks, author of Intelligent Emotion: How to Succeed Through Transforming Your Feelings, prefers the goal of ‘cultivation of joy’ to that of happiness, because joy is triggered by feelings from within whereas happiness requires a favourable ‘outward’ state of affairs. Wilks thinks it is unrealistic to expect fulfilment through ‘people and things’ and ‘outer-directed’ activity; instead, we should focus on those momentary pleasures thrown up by the ‘inner-directed’ process of self-discovery and self-expression (3)

The aim of today’s happiness crusade seems to be to politicise the quest for self-fulfilment. Unable to give meaning to public life – that is, to anything important that exists externally to the individual self – many politicians have instead gone for Emotion Management. This is about colonising the private sphere; it is the politics of behaviour. As prominent New Labour minister Tessa Jowell has said, managing ‘the new politics of behaviour’ is ‘one of the most fascinating challenges facing the government’ (4).

This shift in government policy, towards attending to individuals’ emotional needs, is seen as a step up from traditional redistributionist social policies. Some argue that in the past, such policies were far too focused on material wealth, and what we need now is an emotional welfare system – an ‘holistic’ approach, which meets the ‘emotional as well as the physical needs of human beings’ (5).

To justify this new approach, it is now often argued that social inequalities have an adverse effect on individuals’ ‘psychosocial’ health – in other words, poverty apparently makes you mentally, as well as physically, unwell. ‘Emotions, health and distributive justice are therefore intimately related in the developed Western world’, argues one writer (6). Some in the social policy field claim that the shift to a therapeutic state is long overdue. British academic Paul Hoggett argues that the ‘concept of “wellbeing” provides a core principle around which a new vision of positive welfare could be organised’. For Hoggett and his co-thinkers, ‘wellbeing is defined essentially in mental-health terms’ (7). In the same vein Richard Layard, the New Labour government’s happiness guru, claims that the primary goal of public policy should be to make society happier. And ‘to become happier, we have to change our inner attitudes as much as our outward circumstances’, he says (8). Layard recently called on the government to train 10,000 more therapists to help make people happy.

Perhaps the politics of behaviour provides a short-term focus for a political oligarchy that is confused about its role and direction. But this new approach certainly will not make the public feel happy.

The happy therapeutic state

Layard’s approach substitutes therapeutic intervention for political direction. The political and cultural elites may lack the confidence to tell people what to believe, but they’re quite happy to instruct us on what we should feel and how we should feel it. This is one of the most distinctive features of political life today: the shift from policies focused on the public to policies focused on the personal. As public life is emptied out and loses direction, private and personal preoccupations are projected into the public sphere. So, passions that once were stirred by ideological clashes over the future of society are now far more likely to be engaged by individual misbehaviour, private troubles or personality conflicts. In this climate, governments can become therapists to the individual, seeing their aim as the ‘healing’ of society; they become the managers of emotion. When someone like Tony Blair, or Bill Clinton before him, says ‘I feel your pain’, they are offering empathy to the masses and assuming the role of politician-therapist.

What commentators describe as the Nanny State is more accurately described as a ‘therapeutic state’. The aim of therapeutic policies is to forge a relationship between government and individuals through the management of our internal lives. As one commentator has noted, ‘It is telling that technologies similar to those employed by counselling have now become part and parcel of the way in which the current British government governs its people’. The politics of behaviour represents a quest to ‘gain unfettered access to people’s subjectivity’ (9).

Of course, to some extent governments have always sought to influence public attitudes. But influencing attitudes over going to war or an issue like capital punishment is very different to today’s project of manipulating how individuals behave within the confines of their own homes. This therapeutic turn represented by the politics of behaviour is underwritten by the idea that people ‘need support’ in order to cope with their state of unhappiness. This treats citizens as discontented children – which might be why we are asked to join in a chorus of ‘if you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands’.

The new forms of state intervention into our private lives are seen as unobjectionable by many commentators and intellectuals; indeed, they see them as desirable. They argue that therapeutically-minded public policies can ‘empower’ individuals. On both sides of the Atlantic, advocacy groups continually call on governments to promote ‘emotional intelligence’, ‘happiness’, ‘emotional democracy’, ‘emotional literacy’. The aim of one British think tank, Antidote, is to integrate the insights of psychology into political and public life; it wants policies that ‘foster emotional attitudes tending to support the development of more cohesive societies’ (10). For Frank Scott, a professor in public administration at San Francisco State University, therapeutic governance is concerned with ‘reuniting the self that modernism has sought to split apart’ (11). Supporters of therapeutic governance don’t seem bothered by the implications of handing responsibility for ‘reuniting the self’ to the bureaucratic institutions of the state.

The shift towards therapeutic governance is underpinned by the idea that individuals are weak and fickle. Individuals are no longer seen as self-determining subjects capable of exercising democratic citizenship, but rather as potentially ‘damaged goods’ who need the support of professionals and Layard’s army of 10,000 counsellors to instruct them on how to be contented. This anti-democratic sentiment informs today’s happiness programmes. People are not so much engaged by government as ‘treated’, ‘supported’ or ‘counselled’ by it.

In short, we have an elite that both seeks to disaggregate the public and manage us as clients and patients. Of course, so long as the masses are disengaged from politics, they can be treated as atomised individuals. The politics of behaviour both confirms this status, and consolidates it.

The politics of behaviour institutionalises the disturbing idea that the public are patients dependent on a therapeutic government. And the transformation of the citizen into a patient has the potential to alter, for the worse, the relationship between the people and the public institutions of society. If individuals are seen as needing institutional support in order to be emotionally well, then what happens to the democratic vision of citizens holding the powers-that-be to account? As Vanessa Pupavac argues, in her critique of therapeutic governance, the ‘redrawing of the citizen and state relationship has been accompanied by the erosion of the social contract conceptualisation of the citizen as an autonomous rational subject’ (12).

The new therapeutic social contract is underwritten by the paternalistic assumption that the unhappy patient needs the management and ‘support’ of officialdom. Indeed, it ceases to be a social contract, and turns the relationship between the public and the state into an individual transaction.

Manufactured happiness

Policies designed to make us happy have little to do with a genuine emotional response to people’s experience. Instead, they attempt to socialise the public to think positively and adopt forms of behaviour deemed appropriate by enlightened experts. Like McDonald’s Happy Meals, happiness has been turned into an easily digestible formula – something that can be taught by teachers, learned by the masses, and managed by policymakers.

But happiness cannot be manufactured and standardised like Happy Meals. Nor can it be granted to us by benevolent policymakers. Why? Because genuine happiness is experienced through the interaction of the individual with the challenges thrown up by life. Mass-produced happiness is a contradiction in terms. The happiness crusaders argue that their campaigning will help create more caring, altruistic and trustful communities. In truth, the emphasis on individual feelings distracts people from thinking about and caring for their communities. Public policies delivered by thousands of therapists are likely to turn the public citizen into a helpless patient – and the focus on the self will likely reinforce people’s sense of atomisation.

Only the most desperate will fall for the happiness campaign. Discontent is the intelligent person’s response to the exhaustion of political life. These days, the precondition for finding happiness is to understand why you are dissatisfied with life.

Frank Furedi is author of Therapy Culture:. Buy this book from Amazon(UK) or AmazonUSA.

Visit Furedi’s website here.

(1) See ‘How to find out if you’re a workaholic…and where to get help’, Daily Telegraph, 22 May 2006

(2) See Richard Schoch, The Secrets of Happiness; Three thousand years of searching for the good life, Profile Books, 2006, p.41

(3) Frances Wilks, Intelligent Emotions; How To Succeed Through Transforming Your Feelings, Heinemann, 1998.

(4) See Tessa Jowell ‘Politics of Behaviour’, Observer 21 November 2004.

(5) See Hoggett, P. in Lewis, G., Gewirtz, S. and Clarke, J.(2000) (eds) Rethinking Social Policy, (Sage : London).p.144

(6) See Williams, S.J. (1998) ‘”Capitalising” on emotions? Rethinking the inequalities in health debate’, Sociology, vol.32, no1.pp.132-33.

(7) See Paul Hoggett ‘Social Policy and the Emotions’ in Lewis et al (2000) p.145.

(8) Richard Layard ‘Happiness is back’, Prospect March 2005, issues 108.

(9) Arnason, A. (2000) ‘Biography, bereavement story’, Mortality 5 (2), p.194.

(10) Cited in F. Furedi, Therapy Culture, Routledge, 2004, p.49.

(11) Frank E. Scott, Reconsidering a therapeutic role for the state: anti-modernist governance and the reunification of the self, 2000, p.8.

(12) V. Pupavac ‘Therapeutic Governance’, 2001 p.3.

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