The corruption of happiness | openDemocracy

There are plenty of critics who employ happiness data to demand a change in our political economy. The Spirit Level, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, is one of the most prominent cases of this, focusing on inequality. Psychologists such as Tim Kasser have developed their own measurement tools to demonstrate the negative impact of materialistic, competitive cultures on our wellbeing. But they appear to be in a shrinking minority. Why? The answer brings us back to Gary Becker.

At the core of both neoliberal thought and US culture is the belief that the central questions of political organisation have already been answered. They are therefore beyond the scope of political transformation or democratic debate. Just as the US constitution seeks to provide the ‘rules of the game’ that any American has to play by, so neoliberals have sought to entrench free market capitalism as the only ‘game’ available—the German neoliberal, Franz Böhm, even spoke in terms of establishing an ‘economic constitution.’ Anyone can succeed or fail, but to do so, they first have to accept that the game itself is permanent.

In this context, the question of political or economic transformation becomes forcefully thrust back upon the individual. Given that capitalism cannot be transformed to meet human needs, humans will have to transform themselves to meet capitalist needs. Gurus such as Achor or Zak provide this philosophy with its optimistic, smiling face: I changed myself, and so can you!

But in the murky world of workfare ‘behavioral activation’ programmes, it takes on a more punitive dimension. The idea of ‘entrepreneurship’ may summon up heroic visions of Steve Jobs, but for many more people it means having to be entirely amenable to the fluctuating demands of capital, on a quite fundamental and personal level. When professions such as journalism become prefixed with the word ‘entrepreneurial’, this means one thing only: augment yourself or die.

Political hope must continue to lie in the idea that social and economic conditions are changeable, and, commensurately, that it is not up to us to tailor our minds, moods and bodies to circumstances which dominate us. The problem is that this argument can easily be bracketed as a form of idealism, which—in contrast to the advocates of ‘talking cures’—doesn’t take everyday suffering seriously. The critique of positive psychology can end up being dismissed as a nonsensical defence of negativity.

The way to resist this is to insist on a political understanding of happiness and unhappiness, in which people are authorised to articulate and offer explanations for their feelings. This means understanding that some forms of unhappiness – such as a sense of injustice or anger – need hearing, not treating. This in turn requires careful nurturing and development of the institutions which facilitate voices to be heard. Happiness is welcome, but not if it requires people to “radically alter the way they are”.

The corruption of happiness | openDemocracy.


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