Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Happiness Industry

How could anyone be against happiness? It doesn’t make very much sense to be against happiness, but the Schumpeter columnist at The Economist has done just that.

Does this mean that he is for unhappiness, that he wants us all to be miserable?

Not exactly.

And why, pray tell, do we believe that happiness and unhappiness are the only two alternatives? We do experience other emotions. And we ought to experience emotions that are appropriate to our circumstances. To be happy all the time is to be a blithering fool.

It’s an old debate, going back to Aristotle. The philosopher used eudaimon as his term for happiness. Today it is translated by politically correct thinkers as: flourishing.

Of course, happiness and flourishing are not the same. One understands that feminists have introduced the term “flourishing” to provide a more female-friendly concept of happiness.

Consider Tom Brady playing in the Super Bowl. Would you say that he is flourishing? Consider Dwight Eisenhower on D-Day? Would you choose the word flourishing to describe his mood? Or even consider Douglas MacArthur receiving the Japanese surrender in World War II. If you put yourself in his shoes would you say that you are flourishing?

The term “flourishing” does not account for competitive enterprise. As I have said, it means “flowering” and more aptly describes potted plants.

Now that cognitive psychologists have overcome the gloom and doom of Freud’s tragic ethos and are basking in the glow of happiness, corporate America has jumped on the bandwagon. American companies now have happiness officers. The have mandated that all of their employees be happy.

What could be wrong with that?

Schumpeter describes this new form of corporate manipulation:

The leading miscreant is Zappos, an online shoe shop. The firm expects its staff to be in a state of barely controlled delirium when they sell shoes. Pret A Manger, a British food chain, specialises in bubbly good humour as well as sandwiches. Air stewards are trained to sound mellifluous but those at Virgin Atlantic seem on the verge of breaking out into a song-and-dance routine. Google until recently had an in-house “jolly good fellow” to spread mindfulness and empathy.

Are these companies happy with their happiness training? You bet they are:

Zappos is so happy with its work on joy that it has spun off a consultancy called Delivering Happiness. It has a chief happiness officer (CHO), a global happiness navigator, a happiness hustler, a happiness alchemist and, for philosophically minded customers, a happiness owl. Plasticity Labs, a technology firm which grew out of an earlier startup called the Smile Epidemic, says it is committed to supporting a billion people on their path to happiness in both their personal and professional lives.

You think that that is strange. Consider the consultant who is teaching “happiness hygiene:”

Shawn Achor, who has taught at Harvard University, now makes a living teaching big companies around the world how to turn contentment into a source of competitive advantage. One of his rules is to create “happiness hygiene”. Just as we brush our teeth every day, goes his theory, we should think positive thoughts and write positive e-mails.

One understands that this is coming to us from positive psychology. Then again, you might also recall the popularity of an old book called The Power of Positive Thinking, Its author, Norman Vincent Peale was a minister, and, as you suspect, his was a God-centered approach. Perhaps all of this positive psychology is a way to market God to unbelievers.

Businessmen love happiness because they see happy workers as more productive workers. Happy people attract more friends. Happy staff members attract more customers. Surely, it makes sense:

Dale Carnegie, a leadership guru, said the best way to win friends and influence people was to seem upbeat. Disneyland is still “the happiest place on Earth”. American firms regularly bid their customers to “have a nice day”. One of the sharpest books published on the phenomenon is “The Managed Heart” from 1983, in which Arlie Hochschild, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley, noted that many employers demanded “emotional labour” from workers in the form of smiles and other expressions of “positive emotion”. Firms are keen to extract still more happiness from their employees as the service sector plays an ever greater role in the economy. Run-of-the-mill service firms are fighting for their lives against discounters. As customers, most people prefer their service with a smile rather than a snarl.

Now that everyone has figured out that psychotherapy is not likely to make you any happier and that psychoanalysis is very likely to make you depressed, companies are using yoga and meditation to help their employees find true happiness or a reasonable facsimile:

Some firms are trying to create some wellbeing, too, showering their employees with mindfulness courses, yoga lessons and anything else that proves that managers are interested in “the whole person”. Only happy fools would take that at face value. Management theorists note that a big threat to corporate performance is widespread disengagement among workers. Happy people are more engaged and productive, say psychologists. Gallup claimed in 2013 that the “unhappiness” of employees costs the American economy $500 billion a year in lost productivity.

It sounds good. It sounds unimpeachable. It even sounds perfectly harmless. We appreciate Schumpeter for laying out the issue so clearly. And we also appreciate his critiquing it all.

He begins with the salient observation that we do not really know to any degree of certainty whether someone is happy or miserable or neither. Given today’s technocratic age, this uncertainty has inspired companies to find new, better gadgets to measure your state of mind. As though they have a right to do so.

Schumpeter writes:

One problem with tracking happiness is that it is such a vague metric: it is difficult to prove or disprove Gallup’s numbers since it is not entirely clear what is being measured. Companies would be much better off forgetting wishy-washy goals like encouraging contentment. They should concentrate on eliminating specific annoyances, such as time-wasting meetings and pointless memos. Instead, they are likely to develop ever more sophisticated ways of measuring the emotional state of their employees. Academics are already busy creating smartphone apps that help people keep track of their moods, such as Track Your Happiness and Moodscope. It may not be long before human-resource departments start measuring workplace euphoria via apps, cameras and voice recorders.

If you believe this to be invasive, you are probably right. Given the mania about happiness and positive thinking, no one really cares. Given the assurance that this is all for the best, no one has a right to care.

Of course, Schumpeter cares and so do we. When companies force their employees to feel a certain form of euphoria, said employees might tune out the real world. Or, they might become overconfident.

They might become so contented that they forget to do the grueling work of checking the details of a project. Engineered happiness does not necessarily make you a better employee. It might, at the limit, make you a better sales person, but if your happiness has been produced artificially by a pill or a pep talk, as opposed to your track record and the quality of what you are selling, the chances are good that your customers will eventually see through the mask.

Don’t we know that different emotions, from fear to joy to anger to sadness, provide you with information about your reality? It makes no sense to feel happy when you should be sad over someone’s loss. When someone insults you, you should feel angry, not happy. If you are happy you will be setting yourself up for more insults. If your products are badly made you should be feeling anxiety and should do what is necessary to correct the mistake. To be happy is to miss the point entirely.

If you go around sporting the same stupid grin no matter what is happening, you are going look like you are wearing a mask. And that you are off in your own world, blinded to reality.

Schumpeter see it as an infringement of one’s liberty:

Companies have a right to ask their employees to be polite when they deal with members of the public. They do not have a right to try to regulate their workers’ psychological states and turn happiness into an instrument of corporate control.

The larger issue is this: the current wave of positive thinking and happiness production has gotten it backwards. To coin a phrase, it has put the cart before the horse. Were you to glance, however furtively, at Aristotle you would discover that he saw happiness as an end, not as the means. You are happy for having succeeded, for having achieved something. Happiness is what you feel after you have completed the task, not something that you bring to the task.

Keep in mind, God rested after creating the world. He did not bask in contentment before the fact.

If you are in sales, you ought to show a confident and upbeat demeanor. But, that demeanor should correlate with a track record of success. If we imagine that you can take a pill that will make you feel happy, won’t you still be pretending. Feeling happy when you have nothing to feel happy about is a pretense. No one is against pretense and no one is against faking it, but happiness is not necessarily the best motivator.

Sometimes you are more motivated by your wish to avoid failure or by your wish not to let down your teammates.  Happiness is a good slogan for a cartoon. Making it a panacea oversimplifies human emotion and human motivation.

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