Your Boss Wants You to Be Happier. This Is Not a Good Thing.

Group of executives celebrating in boardroom (B&W)
Beware of scenes like this. Photo: Klaus Lahnstein/Getty Images

Work often sucks. Broadly speaking, people have agreed upon that idea since the first time someone did some crap he or she didn’t want to do because they needed the dough. Ah, but bosses and corporations are a bunch of sneaky (and increasingly sophisticated) Petes, and in his fascinating, somewhat depressing new book The Happiness Industry, English sociologist and economist William Davies uncovers and deconstructs the ways in which our workplace masters have turned to science and measurement to influence their employees’ happiness — which takes a regular beating from institutional factors (poor work-life balance; intense competition) that these same bigwigs aren’t nearly as interested in examining or changing. 

Deeply researched and pithily argued, Davies’s work is a welcome corrective to the glut of semi-scientific happiness books that have become so popular in business and management circles, and which rarely, if ever, acknowledge the larger ideological goals of workplace well-being. Science of Us spoke with the author about the pitfalls of the quantified life, why it’s important to be misunderstood, and Google’s insidious Jolly Good Fellow.

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.

Because work has become all-encompassing?
Yes, among other things. Long-hour cultures, a dominant highly competitive ethos, people striving to outdo each other or outdo themselves—that’s what creates a lot of the stress that then needs to be alleviated through things like meditation and mindfulness. All the workplace happiness gurus ever say is, “we need to teach more happiness habits to people.” They’re not saying, “We need to reform workplaces.” 

It’s like if someone was punching you in the face and their idea for how you might feel better about that situation is for you to learn to take a punch better, rather than they stop punching you in the face. Does my convoluted metaphor capture what you mean?
Yeah, I think that’s right. You know, a lot of the early efforts to affect and measure happiness come out of what’s called the Social Indicators Movement, which is associated with things like humanist psychology and began in the 1960s. There was this idea that the human being should flourish and grow and enjoy the simple things in life. But when you extend that idea, it potentially puts quite a critical bite on the excesses of market competition and materialism.

Has there been any backlash to that notion?
I think what’s happening now, which is a countervailing force to a more humanist approach. Neuroscience and happiness economics are repositioning our understanding of happiness as something physical and chemical that happens in the brain, and are interested in things like how happiness manifests itself in terms of, for example, vocal inflection or facial monitoring. There’s a company called Beyond Verbal that measures happiness by your tone of voice, and then that information is used to, say, direct telesales so that you can alter your sales pitch accordingly.

But the underlying point I’m trying to make with all this is that businesses are increasingly taking a cynical economic view of how emotion is triggered, altered, monitored, and then integrated into managerial and marketing-type strategies. There’s no room for happiness for happiness’s sake. It’s all understood in the context of workplace efficiency.

The idea that human beings might treat happiness as a scientific problem meant to be “solved” feels like something out of a dystopian sci-fi movie.
Well, the issue, or one of them, is that work society is organized around the logic of behavioral scientists: You have the majority of people going about their day-to-day life and a very small group of experts who observe and then come up with the facts of what’s really going on. That way of thinking is not just true of happiness science, it’s true of things like behavioral economics, too. We’ve arrived at this moment where there’s this utopian expectation that there is a scientific answer to questions like “what makes an employee happy?”

Do you think Americans have different expectations about workplace enjoyment than people from other countries? It always seemed absurd to me that it’s not enough for us to just do the job, but we’re supposed to demonstrate pleasure in doing it — especially in jobs that aren’t even public-facing. Why? It’s hard to imagine, I don’t know, the French or Russians feeling obligated to evince pleasure at engaging in work-for-pay.  
Differing cultural attitudes toward work could be the topic of a whole other fat book. But there is a sense in America that if you don’t love your work then you’re not striving properly. One of the bits in the book where I address this a little is in relation to the Chicago school of neoliberal economics.

I hate those ding-dongs.
[Laughs.] I think they’re misunderstood at times. It strikes me that what the Chicago school really believed in wasn’t actually markets. Everyone thinks they were the market fundamentalists, but really what they believed in was the American spirit of refusing to accept defeat in various respects, which is associated with an old-world class consciousness — whereas America has a new-world entrepreneurial consciousness. The way in which neoliberalism worked as an ideology so successfully was in the way it shackled the vision of the entrepreneur to a 1960s version of individual flourishing.

That sounds like a bad mix for workers.
What you get is the very clichéd new economy worker who is keeping up with football and loving every minute of it, but also working a 16-hour day.

How do you keep an employee feeling engaged for 16 hours a day?
I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know that businesses are keenly aware that the costs of disengagement are dramatic. Gallup does a huge amount of work on the issue of employee disengagement, and they say that something like less than 20 percent of the U.S. workforce is actually psychologically engaged, and they calculate the cost of that employee disengagement to the U.S. economy as a remarkable 500 billion dollars per year.

And that cost causes business to think of happiness as a form of labor capital?
Yes, which is why companies are doing things like appointing Chief Happiness Officers. I’m not sure what this person does exactly, but Google has something they call a Jolly Good Fellow, who goes around the company spreading happiness and mindfulness to try and combat the mental impact of living a 24/7 work-life. Google is always held up as the example par excellence of this kind of thing worker well-being, with their amazing free lunch service and the endless perks and so on. Again, it’s difficult to be against that, but it’s about building a workplace culture that says you have to put your entire self to work, and therefore the company has to kind of nurture the entire person.

It’s not enough anymore that you bring your particular skills, that you come in and put your work hat on and then leave and take your work hat off. This goes back to digital technology — I don’t think that all managers are exploiters who want their employees to be plugged into work all the time, but very few places are introducing institutional norms and practices to stop that from happening.

It seems to me that with increased measurement of, and attention to, employee happiness, what happens is that the burden of well-being really ends up falling on the individual rather than the company. Because then these places can say, “Hey, we’ve got wellness expert on-staff, but you’re still not happy. So you have to go, and it’s your own fault.”
Absolutely. This is also an American phenomenon. There are these people, these corporate happiness experts like Tony Hsieh, who’s the CEO of Zappos [and author of Delivering Happiness] — his recommendations are some of the most brutal. He basically just advocates laying off the least happy 10 percent of your workforce. This is when happiness gets repositioned as a business resource, and it’s up to each of us to either invest in it or let it depreciate, and if the latter happens, you become extraneous. That attitude renders happiness into something completely joyless.

It’s happiness as an economic investment. 
It’s blaming unhappy people for being unhappy. The origin of the word happiness comes from happenstance — something that just falls on you unexpectedly. When you look at happiness as a form of capital, we’ve gotten pretty far away from that original meaning.

Isn’t that also an inversion of how economics historically treats happiness?
I think so, because instead of it being an output of the market, it’s an input. Since the late 19th century, economics has been interested in whether our purchasing decisions bring us pleasure or not. The underlying assumption of neoclassical economics is that the way we spend our money is an indicator of what might cause utility or pleasure. The management trends now are to see happiness as the opposite — something that we bring to work and run down and then have to build it up again. It doesn’t correspond to any ordinary understanding of what happiness means to people. 

Okay, this is all a giant drag. It’s not likely that corporations will suddenly decide that decreasing the work week is going to be a happiness method that fits in with their larger economic goals. So is the future of workplace happiness necessarily grim?
So one of the things that I argue quite strongly in the book is that we’ve developed a society that’s become more and more expert at being able to detect and monitor the notion of happiness, and yet the question of, “Why do you feel like that?” is no longer really a question that we really ask. That’s what psychoanalysis was interested in — the effort to try and understand happiness and unhappiness, not just monitor it and measure it. That’s what the new frontier of happiness research is abandoning.

We need to recover from that and actually listen to people when they tell us what they’re feeling. We’ve become dislocated from our emotions. We think of them as like blood-pressure levels or something. I think it might be idealistic, but we should aim for more democratic types of workplaces, where people can actually voice what’s bothering them and be listened to and dealt with rather than be given a tool that will monitor their facial muscles or a survey that says “How do you feel on a scale of 1 to 10?” Economists and behavioral scientists too often say “people think they know why they do what they do, but they’re wrong.” That, to me, is a problem.

I think in that “wrong” is where personality and culture and humanity exist.
It’s fundamental! Culture is people telling stories to each other, saying, “I had a bad day today because of this, that, and the other.” As a society we’re undermining the authority of the explanations that people give about their own lives and their own feelings. Because we’re more and more obsessed with detecting the so-called facts about those things.

So the key problem is that happiness and workplace science make a kind of category error about what happiness means to us as individual minds?
We’re fascinated by the unconscious, but it’s an unconscious that well-being experts claim to have some sort of perfect scientific view of. It’s not the unconscious that someone like Freud was interested in, which is a much darker, more unruly thing that really only emerges through the messy, ambiguous, flawed tools of human conversation. It doesn’t come out through some sort of scientific indicator. There’s a neurotic fear that comes with a lot of behavioral science, that if we rely on conversation to understand each other, that we might misunderstand each other, and that that might be disastrous.

When really it’s just a part of life.
Our relationships go well, they go wrong; politics goes well and politics goes wrong. We have to live within the limits of our understanding of each other, and if you can’t cope with the flaws in the human condition, you can’t encounter any of the joys either. This desire to live in a fact-based, quantifiable way  —it’s actually not what the experience of being a human is about on any deeper, more meaningful level. 

Why It’s Bad Your Boss Wants You to Be Happier