The happiness industry

Interview by Justin Quirk
Illustrations by Rune Fisker

Your feelings are now a valuable commodity. Supplement meets the man who knows why

Will Davies is senior lecturer in politics at Goldsmiths, University of London, and co-director of the political economy research centre at the university. His new book, The Happiness Industry, looks at what a Buddhist monk was doing at the 2014 World Economic Forum at Davos lecturing world leaders on mindfulness, why so many successful corporations have a “chief happiness officer”, and why potential employers want to know the chemical composition of your brain. In the past decade, governments and corporations have become increasingly interested in measuring the way people feel. As a result, he argues, our emotions have become a new resource to be bought and sold. 


Justin Quirk: How did the idea take shape? 

Will Davies: It began as I was finishing my PhD around 2008-2009, and the financial crisis exploded. As a sociologist I was interested in how economics is used to take policy decisions and as a way to analyse the world, and how economics shapes the way we think. I was looking at the financial crisis and thinking, ‘This is it. This is the big one; this is the end of a whole kind of political economic paradigm.’

JQ: And it probably came much closer to that than people realise…

WD: It probably did, yeah. People like [BBC economics editor] Robert Peston said that at the time he thought he was watching the equivalent of 1989 for state socialism, that this was going to be the end, and that
something else was going to come along very, very dramatically. But it didn’t happen and I became interested in how economists had managed to rescue their paradigm. One of the ways the economics profession was explaining and interpreting what had happened – at the same time sustaining their own view of the world – was to locate the source of problems in the mind or body. Neuro-economists were saying that our brains release the wrong kind of neurochemical and therefore people take bad decisions in financial markets. Some of this is almost entertainingly bullshit.

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