Jawnts: Happiness and why we measure it

Will Davies will speak on his book "The Happiness Industry" here Wednesday.

Will Davies became interested in economic psychology as the world fell apart in 2008. The basic governing ideology of the American - and world - economy faced a serious challenge. Alan Greenspan even said he had "made a mistake" in assuming that financial institutions pursuing their own self-interest was enough to keep the plates spinning.

But Davies, a British academic, was stunned to see some blame the supposed psychological faults of bankers instead of political or regulatory oversight. The crop of psychological studies of the finance industry led him to examine the crossroads of the sciences and economics, an intersection that hosts thinkers ranging from utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham to Elton Mayo and his human relations movement to the positive psychologists of today.

The resultant book, published this year, is The Happiness Industry, a deep dive into how our society's obsession with metrics is meshing with our deep concern over feeling better about ourselves. The result is a sort of kinder, gentler capitalism: apps meant to ensure your psychological health, "chief happiness officers" at large corporations, and Facebook experiments to alter the emotions of users. Another round of Soma for the bar!

"The reason there is such interest in happiness right now is that it's a way of pursuing particular kinds of elite strategies," Davies says. "The book is not against happiness, but it's trying to show that happiness has become something that is increasingly subjected to forms of measurement, surveillance - not in the terms of the government is spying on you - but in corporate strategies and social-media algorithms."

Davies postulates that business and political elites are faced with a challenge. In an economy largely based around services, a cheerful and emotionally engaged workforce is more necessary than ever. But decades of eroding labor standards have taken their toll and levels of depression and other psychological maladies - which affect productivity and health-care costs - are on the rise.

The result is an increasing interest in studying happiness - manifest in the field of positive psychology - and its application to workplaces and society at large. Davies does not believe there is a conspiracy at work. It's just the age-old elite interest of maintaining order and stability. The question is whether such efforts elide more challenging issues for the sake of immediate well-being.

"This all assumes that what goes on in the economy and in the labor market is permanent and there is nothing we can do about it," Davies says. "Therefore the agenda for politics and policy has to be about acting on individuals to make them stronger and happier rather than to change institutions or society. It locks us into an economic status quo."

Davies will discuss The Happiness Industry with editor and author Nikil Saval from 7 to 9 p.m. Wednesday at the Rotunda, 4014 Walnut St.

Have an event for Jawnts? jake.blumgart5@gmail.com @jblumgart