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The dismal science of human optimization

Anne Rumberger26 June 2015

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This excerpt from a review of The Happiness Industry by Will Davies was written by Kristin Dombek and published in the July issue of Harper's Magazine.

"The Happiness Industry’s central concern is the quantification of happiness by policymakers and corporations, and their efforts to 'entangle' happiness in 'infrastructures of measurement, surveillance, and government.'

The book opens at last year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, where happiness and its associated metrics were the order of the day. The motivation for the focus on happiness, Davies says, was explicitly stated by several speakers: '24/7 working practices and always-on digital devices had made senior managers so stressed that they were now having to meditate to cope with the consequences.' Happiness strategies were also recruited to alleviate the widely documented dissatisfaction of workers, which, according to Gallup, is costing the United States as much as $550 billion per year. 

In Davies’s view, the language of good feeling and scientific utopianism are a cover for an older, more insidious goal: 'a single index of human optimization' that would reduce all human experience to qualities that can be diagnosed, tracked, graphed, and, ultimately, controlled. The methods may be new, Davies argues, but this is what the architects of free-market capitalism have wanted all along.

Davies has set himself a difficult but important task: he wants us to think not only about what we’re measuring but also about the methods themselves. Through such rituals of measurement, Davies says, we learn to treat happiness as a kind of personal capital, a currency that allows us to perform as good employees and citizens."

The full review, "Joy Ploy: The dismal science of human optimization" by Kristin Dombek, can be read in the July issue of Harper's Magazine.