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Credit: New Economics Foundation/Flickr/ntr23. Some rights reserved.

William Davies’ new book The Happiness Industry is a fascinating and vivid journey through the history of economics, advertising, psychology, management and more.

As a long-time researcher on the subject of wellbeing, the book had me flipping between ardent agreement and disagreement within the space of a single page on multiple occasions. It’s not hard to see why.

Davies is highly critical of how the ‘happiness agenda’ has been adopted by politics and business—and often of the methods of wellbeing research itself. This is obviously a challenge for myself and others at the New Economics Foundation (NEF) where I work, an organisation which has long campaigned to shift wellbeing research into policy.

But the bedrock of the book is a strongly argued case against a political and economic system that treats people as passive consumers to be sold to, patients to be medicated, and workers to be monitored. This is a critique which we at NEF strongly share.

I’m in full agreement with Davies’ key assertions: that “disempowerment occurs as an effect of social, political and economic institutions and strategies;” that “understanding the strains and pains that work, hierarchy, financial pressures and inequality place upon human well-being is a first step to challenging those things;” and that there are “strong links between unhappiness and depression in highly unequal societies with strongly materialist, competitive values.”

The book also raises a number of valid concerns about innovations in the corporate world such as face-tracking cameras in supermarkets, ‘friendvertising’ on social media, and devices used to monitor employees’ every move and word. But such examples are not part of any ‘happiness agenda’ I recognise.  And here is where I part ways with Davies.

He is concerned that the distortion of ‘happiness’ by corporate capitalism risks invalidating the wellbeing agenda as a whole. But while powerful elites will always seek to reinvent new ideas to support their version of the status quo—look  for example at what has happened to the concept of ‘sustainable development’—that  doesn’t mean that the core of those ideas can’t also be useful tools in efforts for genuine change.

A further key disagreement grows from Davies’ inherent scepticism of survey-based measurement of people’s experiences. He sees the ‘calculative tentacles’ of measurement as inherently bound up with the means of surveillance, control and manipulation, producing inaccessible and elitist ‘expert’ knowledge.

In his view, the wellbeing research agenda is part of a behaviourist tendency which seeks to use physical measurements to access things that are internal, so that happiness science “is nearing the point where experts are more qualified to speak about your subjective state than you are.” He implies that techniques which systematically measure people’s experiences of life are opposed to people being enabled to “speak for themselves.”

This is not an accurate description of the academic and policy-oriented wellbeing research of which our work at NEF is a part. That research places absolute priority on people’s subjective experience, trusting them to be able to report how they’re feeling above all other measures. In the ways it is carried out, respondents are always fully aware of, and consenting to, the research process, and are anonymised so that no individual can be ‘surveilled’ through the data collected.

As with all quantitative survey research, this requires answers in standardised formats (typically on scales of 0-10). It is therefore not a method of hearing how individuals express themselves in their own words. But the standardisation involved in wellbeing survey research serves a crucial purpose: uniquely, it allows researchers to stand back and form a picture based on the experiences of thousands of individuals and their associations with different life conditions. This creates an extremely rich and insightful method of understanding society.

It is this understanding, rather than power or control, which is the clear objective of wellbeing research. Crucially, while such research relies on a range of expertise in data gathering and analysis, the form of the findings allows for a much wider and more democratic understanding than is possible in standard analyses by economists, which still govern so much of the policy debate.

Rather than thickets of Greek letters and equations, or seemingly unimpeachable appeals to the needs of ‘the market’, wellbeing research produces richly-textured findings like this one, which Davies cites approvingly: “unemployment exerts a far more negative effect on people psychologically than the mere loss of earnings would suggest.” Such findings, expressed in terms of clear relevance to people’s everyday lives, open up space for everyone to enter the debate on how policy should respond, not just the ‘experts.’

How policy does respond to the wellbeing agenda is the crux of the book. As Davies highlights in his OpenDemocracy piece, there is a crucial dilemma in the wellbeing agenda: “By reducing the relationship between mind and world to a quantitative ratio, wellbeing metrics offers a simple choice of how to pursue progress: do you seek to change the world or to change the mind?” His concern is that in the context of neo-liberal societies, changing individuals will always be seen as easier than changing the structures that surround them—to preach mindfulness practice, for example, rather than protest for decent jobs.

There is some truth to this. It is easier to make changes aimed at individuals and what they do than to change much broader economic and societal structures—the structures which impact so deeply on so many aspects of their lives. And it is definitely true that a society and economy genuinely aimed towards human wellbeing as an overarching goal would be structured significantly differently than the one we live in now.

When a group of MPs and peers recently set out to examine the evidence from wellbeing research in detail, they concluded that “stable and secure employment for all should be the primary objective of economic policy. Steady and sustainable growth should be prioritised over absolute levels of national income as a means to this end, and policy should address work insecurity as a priority.” “Government should address the wellbeing consequences of low pay…[and]…of inequality.”

These are far-reaching conclusions which represent a significant break from the status quo of policy making. After only 15 years of serious attention to wellbeing in the UK, it isn’t surprising that such structural changes haven’t yet been achieved. But there are encouraging signs that serious consideration of the wellbeing evidence does lead to genuinely radical economic changes. The example of Dan Rice is instructive, a Seattle CEO who, after reading a paper on the diminishing wellbeing returns from increased income, undertook a large-scale redistribution of wages in his company by reducing his million-dollar salary to $70,000 and ensuring that no employee earned less than this amount.

Beyond such optimistic examples, bringing about fundamental societal and economic changes is a daunting goal which requires support from a strong movement of all those who see the possibilities for a much better world than the one produced by neo-liberalism. For the reasons I’ve set out here, I believe that this movement can and should see beyond the co-option of wellbeing by the corporate status quo. Research and evidence are vital tools for achieving social transformation.