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Science, Society

Blue Monday’s not real, but the happiness industry can still get you down

Beyond the marketing spiel, a whole industry is designed to make us more positive and productive. Caroline Christie speaks to academic Will Davies about the implications of enforced enthusiasm

Wedged in the middle of the no man’s land between Christmas and the first payday of the year, the third Monday of January is supposed to be the most depressing day of the year. Known as Blue Monday, according to marketers and PR gurus alike it’s supposed to be caused by concoction of bad weather, debt, low motivation and broken new year’s resolutions that can be distilled into a mathematical formula described by Ben Goldacre as “failing to even to make mathematical sense on their own terms”.

The quasi equation was first unearthed in 2005 in a press release by Sky Travel who claimed to have uncovered the holy grail of travel agents ­– the date when people are most likely to book holidays. Since then, it’s been pushed around as a pseudo scientific reason to flog anything, from spa breaks to vitamin supplements.

But can we really distill happiness into a sliding scale of external factors and if so, are the things that make us happy really that universal? Mindfulness would have you thinking happiness is a mere positive mantra away. Mental health by numbers may be a frightening prospect for most of us but if it’s an area of research that’s becoming increasingly popular with Human Resources managers and policymakers alike.

I spoke to Will Davies, author of The Happiness Industry, to understand why measuring happiness is such a lucrative industry and why those in power are so interested in it.

Can you tell me what the happiness industry is?

We’re living in a time of tremendous optimism and excitement among scientists, policy makers and marketers. It’s now possible in a scientific objective sense to see what our moods are, how happy we are and also to put numbers on that data. I would argue this is something that has developed over the past 20 years with the growth of the happiness index and the study of emotions. It’s had a huge influence over the market research world. Now in the workplace there’s a huge interest among HR and business managers in how people might fall into bouts of depression and anxiety, which might lead to them missing work but also how you keep employees at a level of productivity and enthusiasm that might make them more productive at work. Like the famous Google-type workplaces where everyone gets food and it seems like a fun place to be.

What the book argues is that although there is obviously something quite unwelcoming about the fact that decision makers, managers and policy leads are interested in our feelings and our happiness, there’s also something more manipulative going on most of the time. When presented with a body of data that says happy people are more productive at work, the response is “How can I make my employees more happy?”, “What can I do to try and increase their happiness scores so I can get more out of them?”, rather than thinking about it in a broader sense cultural and political sense of “What does that say about why people are unhappy at work?”.

“The happiness agenda has become a way in which people say ‘How can I turn my 7/10 mood into an 8/10 mood?’ rather than using it to criticise our institutions”

Often what emerges is an industry of experts and gurus who offer tips to try and change your mood in a manipulative way. This can have some benefits ­– some people who are depressed are taught techniques to increase their mood, but a lot of the time the whole happiness agenda has become a way in which people say “How can I turn my 7/10 mood into an 8/10 mood?” rather than using it to criticise our institutions.

What’s your definition of happiness?

I think happiness is a way of feeling content and calm in a situation, when you don’t want that situation to change. I think it’s an orientation towards the world and other people. One of the problems in the way in which happiness has been redefined by economists, neuroscientists and these sorts of people, is that often it becomes a very internal state. Happiness is something that comes up in a FMRI scan [a type of scan which measures brain activity by detecting changes associated with blood flow]. In that situation, whoever is being monitored thinks of happiness as a certain place, relationship or an association of other people or things. I think happiness should be better understood as a way of getting out of ourselves, rather than trying to influence what’s going on inside our heads.

Have you come across the book, The World Beyond Your Head by Matthew Crawford? He’s a motorcycle mechanic who also wrote The Case for Working with Your Hands: Or Why Office Work is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good. Crawford argues that we often get trapped by thinking about how we subjectively interpret or feel about things, but actually the things we value the most are when we escape that internal sense of an experience into something physical. Which is why he talks about fixing motorbikes or professions like chefs or artists. But that doesn’t always work because most of us can’t just pack things in and do something we love.

The book talks about companies using new techniques and technology to monitor employees and why it’s a malevolent way of trying to gage happiness. But I also wonder what this means for privacy, if your boss is constantly trying to constantly monitor your emotions and capture that data?

There seems to be two arguments at play. One is how you collect data, this isn’t the way to increase mood in the workplace, and the other is how you use the data. If the idea that our boss could be reading information about your moods in order to maximise the company's output seems like a tad invasive, what happens when that data gets into the wrong hands?

Well this is always an issue and there is a lot of interest in the business world in capturing data about people’s feelings – feelings that are quite private and that you wouldn’t want sharing. In the world of market research there are companies like Affectiva Inc, which use technologies that have the ability to scan someone’s face and come up with a calculation as to what mood they’re in, just by their expression.

There’s another app called Beyond Verbal that can check your tone of voice on the phone. If you work in telesales, you could have this thing running in the background without the receiver knowing. When the person picks up the phone you could get a sense of how they’re feeling and change your script accordingly. This sort of thing is already going on and civil liberties issues are being raised in the United States.

Tesco has trialed an advert that changes depending on what mood the viewer’s face says they’re in. For example, if you look tired the advert could offer you a coffee. Now that’s not really a privacy issue, as in “Oh god I’m having some terrible relationship difficulties and I don’t want Tesco to know” because Tescos aren’t interested in that. But civil liberties issues and civil liberties lobbies in America have started to campaign against some of these things because they could move into public spaces and although we may not suffer from having our emotions mined in that way, because you could say it makes our lives easier because they get a better service of an advert of whatever, but there’s a sense that public space is being undermined and corroded.

“Managers have long been interested in the psychology because they understand that people who are unhappy are going to work less hard”

I think the workplace is a lot more awkward because managers have long been interested in the psychology, since the 1920s at least, because they understand that people who are unhappy are going to work less hard. That’s obvious – we can all understand that from one’s own experience of work. And it doesn’t just apply to knowledge-based work; it’s the same in manufacturing as well.

How could an organisation try to increase an employee’s state of happiness?

There’s a company called Humanyze who have an integrated suite of services and packages for human resources to try and understand how people are feeling and what relationships they’re forming in the workplace. This includes wearable technologies that can track how much someone is moving at work. If two people are having a chat in a café or something, and the data that those people are friends is captured, it does something called sentiment analysis on people’s emails. It’s not a malign sense or surveillance as in ‘are you slagging off the boss’ although you can do that obviously – that’s been possible since the birth of email – but it tries and tracks what kind of mood people are in.

Virgin have a product called Pulse, a gym membership scheme for your employees. It’s a free gym membership but it will provide feedback to the manager about how often people are going which is quite intrusive. There are genuine concerns there. In a way we have to updated our notion of surveillance and our critique of surveillance.

It’s like with the Edward Snowden thing. In that case, the CIA or NSA are not trying to identify what is Joe Blogs saying to Joe Smith, instead they’re trying to spot patterns which might be evidence of terrorist behaviors which will then trigger other types of surveillance and interventions. Equally, a lot of the work place stuff on happiness, and other wider based health technologies, they’re there to try and find out how you’re feeling.

And we put so much data out there on platforms like Facebook

Facebook have a mine of data that they’ve not even begun to work with, yet I’m sure they’re been thinking about it. They filed a patent recently that caused a bit of a stir. It was a credit rating app that would offer credit ratings on the basis of who you knew, if you knew lots of people who are reliable and so on. Once you have as many people in your data bank as Facebook, you can build up a profile of credit risk through people’s friends. The more you data you get on people’s borrowing and spending habits, it will probably become a very good detector for default risk and other things.

There’s a huge research into how people shop when they’re feeling down, like people who are manic depressive can famously spend money very rashly when they’re up, so you know, I’m not saying Facebook would try and could someone in a certain mood just to sell something but the capacity is there.

It’s somewhat unethical to sell someone something knowing that they’re in a vulnerable state of mind

The problem with mental health is that it’s such a huge issue that has a huge economic impact. Of course people who are on the business end of divisions want things in clearly quantifiable risk-based ways. They don’t want to know if you had a difficult upbringing or if you were in care, they don’t want all that complex information. What they want is a number. But the act of simplification has all sorts of feedback effects.

Why would our governments care about things like happiness?

I think in a society like Britain, where we still have the National Health Service, our government still has to care about our happiness in way that they don’t have to in the United States. A lot of the problems that arise from chronic unhappiness end up costing the government money in things like disability benefit because of people signed off as depressed. The general cost of mental health is a big part of why policy makers care about this.

The wellbeing agenda, trying to give children very healthy social outdoors activities so they don’t do things like watch TV all day, which might lead to certain types of bad behavior. It’s just like Sure Start centres; they have apples for children to eat and activities for children to do. They’re basically trying to nudge people into not giving their children junk food and watching TV all day.

The problems is that you can’t order someone to be happy and you can’t pay someone to be happy, although in some situations giving people money would help. I’m sure you could say that it’s tied in with the shrinking of the welfare state. “Look you’re now on your own, so we’re going to teach you some techniques because you’re no longer going to get these hand outs.” The data shows that people who do volunteering feel better, so a lot of positive psychology is quite close to some of the big society agenda, like go and do something for someone else and you’ll feel better. So there’s a certain element of calculation about all of this.

I think what troubles me about this stuff is that of course I endorse policy making which tries to get people to spend less time playing computer games and less time just shopping, worrying about themselves and worrying about how they look. It’s a real problem in our society in that people compare themselves to each other they focus so much on celebrity culture, and all the stuff conservatives worry about I think are of valid concern.

Everyone is being tested, evaluated and compared all the time and then the behavioral psychologists come along and say “stop comparing yourself to each other the whole time, stop being so materialistic, stop thinking about yourself and do nice things in your community.”

So how should we tackle the sources of anxiety and low self-worth?

I think the task is to try and relocate the sources of anxiety and stress and depression back out into the world, and the sources of happiness and joy back out in the world, and to stop having them constantly relocated in our brains, bodies and minds. Where we end up feeling guilty and responsible for our own failures.

The Chartered Institute Of Personal Development, which is the big HR professional body, has put out some interesting stuff on well being in the workplace, which I cite in my book, showing that productivity doesn’t just go down because people haven’t got enough gym membership or free food at work or they don’t walk enough or drink enough water. It goes down because they have bosses that don’t communicate to them what’s coming down the line in terms of their jobs, they don’t have any autonomy.

There’s a phrase, that “depression is anger turned inwards” and in a way a lot of traditional long-term psychotherapy tries to help people turn it back outwards gain. Where as a lot of what positive thinking techniques and the short-term things do, is that they ignore what might have caused the pain and they just try and focus on the symptoms. I think politics and sociology and psychoanalysis should show people that a lot of their unhappiness is not their fault and that it comes from their family and upbringing in a way that politics has very little to do with sometimes but sometimes actually is can have a lot. There have been studies of things like to bedroom tax that it causes a huge amount of stress because you could be kicked out of the home you’ve lived in for decades, and there are studies showing that austerity policies in Greece have lead to public health epidemics and it’s important to resistant a view of the world that says we cause our unhappiness, not that we’re passive in these things, but that unhappiness and misery have material causes and don’t arise spontaneously like some sort of virus. I want people to look outwards and not always look inwards.

Caroline is the section editor of Art & Design at Little Atoms. She has written for The Guardian, Vice and Dazed & Confused.