Science of happiness: Can our emotional states truly be mathematized for industry?

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EXCERPT: Hudson Yard real estate project in New York City is set to be the most ambitious experiment yet in “quantified community”. Set to cater for 5,000 apartments, offices, retail space and a school, Hudson Yard will be built to enable maximal data-mining of its population. “Treating humans like white rats,” as William Davies puts it, “is now becoming integrated into the principles of urban planning.”

Davies’s new book shows how “managing our happiness” is becoming an increasingly lucrative and insidious industry. True to its subtitle, “How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being”, it exposes the powerful interests that benefit from our increased willingness to monitor and meddle with our mental states. But Davies takes us much further than this. It is not just that Hudson Yard will soon exist. It is the fact that this Panopticon project is being heralded as “social progress” and – most disturbingly – that people actually want to live there.

"The Happiness Industry" is the story of how we got here. Davies guides us through a cast of characters who took us forward in this zigzag journey. We start, naturally enough, with the founder of utilitarianism. We know Jeremy Bentham for his principle of “the greatest good for the greatest number”. Davies presents him as a forefather of the happiness industry. His ideas about the state and the free market working to punish and reward, through pleasure and pain, set the stage for “the entangling of psychological research and capitalism” that was to shape twentieth-century business.

The “science of happiness”, then, has been around at least since the Enlightenment. From Wilhelm Wundt, who set up the first psych lab in 1879, through the post war Chicago School of Economics to Frederick Winslow Taylor, the pioneer “management consultant”, Davies’s book shows us that this thinking is nothing new.

Then why are we worrying? Google’s “chief happiness officers”, the opening up of official happiness statistics agencies around the globe: these are simply the latest developments in a trend ongoing since the eighteenth century. Not so fast. Yes, Davies’s book argues that the current science is “simply the latest iteration of an ongoing project which assumes the relationship between mind and world is amenable to mathematical scrutiny”. Yet the tools with which we are able to scrutinise ourselves are sharpening at a scarily exponential rate....

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