Verso Books

In “The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being,” out from Verso Books this May, English sociologist and economist William Davies examines the nefarious effects of what New York Magazine calls the “science and measurement” practices that some bosses are using to influence their employees’ sense of happiness.

New York Magazine’s “Science of Us” spoke with Davies about his book:

You lay out in the book all these different ways that corporations have become increasingly attentive to employee happiness and well-being: everything from giving out gym memberships to engaging in biophysical monitoring. You also say that, in the long historical view, caring whether or not your employee is happy is a relatively recent phenomenon. Isn’t a shift toward happiness a good thing? It seems like you see some nefarious dynamics behind it.

Yeah, I understand that to be critical of any suggested move towards happiness is to put oneself in an absurd situation, but the problem is that the drive toward happiness is the result of a set of power relations that are both potentially manipulative and slightly clandestine. What the book is trying to do is bring some of this to the surface, because it’s better that people are aware of the strategies that are shaping their environment.

Like what?

The rise of wearable technology is something to be worried about. There’s potential for managers to track the movements and behavior and stress levels of their employees. That in itself is not malignant, but it’s often presented as being purely for everyone’s benefit, and that’s just not the case.

What’s an example of how it’s not beneficial?

If you talk to people at companies like Jawbone and Fitbit, one of the things they say is “everybody wants to live a better life.” Of course the way that they say you should achieve that is to quantify your existence. Where things get tricky is when existence becomes inextricable from work. There’s the idea that how we feel about our work and how we feel about the rest of our lives is intertwined. So workplace well-being strategies often include emotional counseling, nutritional advice, all this stuff which suggests no separation between what we do at work and how we are as human beings in some broader sense. The irony is that work often creates the conditions that lead to the unhappiness.

Continue reading here.

— Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly.


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