The Happiness Industry

Emily Cutler

When we discuss the issue of forced treatment, coercive mental health interventions like involuntary commitment, forced drugging, and electroconvulsive therapy usually come to mind. But force and coercion can be much more subtle. Many researchers and thought leaders have argued that our society mandates us to be happy and perform well-being at all times through cultural norms, media depictions, and workplace and school regulations.

This week on MIA Radio, we interview Will Davies, reader in Political Economy at Goldsmiths University of London, and author of The Happiness Industry, a book that explores the rapidly growing culture of mandated happiness and well-being surveillance. In this interview, we discuss the increasing pressure people face to be happy and think positive, and how this pressure serves the interests of the corporate elite and the State.

In this episode we discuss:

  • What the “happiness industry” is and the history of its development.
  • How the notion that happiness can be quantified or measured, as well as advancements in neuroscience and medicalized frameworks of depression, have influenced our culture.
  • How employees are increasingly pressured to be happy or perform happiness within the workplace.
  • How people receiving welfare or government benefits are required to engage in positive thinking programs or cognitive behavioral therapy.
  • That holding individuals responsible for attaining their own happiness relieves responsibility from structural and institutional determinants of well-being.
  • The coercive and forceful aspects of the “happiness industry,” including surveillance in workplaces and mandatory self-help programs in schools.
  • The role that positive thinking and self-help culture play in upholding neoliberalism and capitalism.

Relevant Links:

Dr. Will Davies

The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being

The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling

The Power Thinker: Why Foucault’s Work on Power is More Important than Ever

The Weariness of the Self: Diagnosing the History of Depression in the Contemporary Age

Dr. Davies’ next book, Nervous States: Democracy and the Decline of Reason, will be published by Norton in early 2019


  1. That is the main reason why James Hillman’s books should be read by everyone. Phenomenology of the psyche should be known to everyone. Especially “Re- visioning psychology”. People must get to know the ideologies behind psychiatric gibberish.

    Someone should stop the ego hegemony over the psyche. Smiling psychopathy of apollonian ego suits the needs of capitalism and that is why psychiatry is what it is.

  2. Many researchers and thought leaders have argued that our society mandates us to be happy and perform well-being at all times through cultural norms, media depictions, and workplace and school regulations.

    Reducing this to laypersons’ terms, we have long been expected to eat shit and LIKE IT. Enter “therapy” and “treatment” if we don’t.

    Fuck business as usual, abolish psychiatry!

    • the refusal to eat shit and pretend to like it. wasn’t that the essence of MLK’s creative maladjustment thing? I think we all need to be creatively maladjusted to this craziness the society has become!

      Reminds me of a line from a song in the musical Rent: The opposite of war isn’t peace; it’s creation.

  3. I love this. It also makes me think of the double standard between the emotional labor expected of nearly all our jobs and the amount of happiness we’re allowed to expect from our jobs. It makes me so frustrated that our emotions are so managed by our workplaces to be mobilized on behalf of others yet everywhere I go, people tell me over and over again not to expect to be happy at work. It’s like I’m the freak for wanting a job I can both do well and actually enjoy while doing. I’m supposed to work in misery with a smile on my face and smile while people tell me not to expect or hope for anything less. Why do we as a society accept this?

  4. This isn’t just found in businesses. Day Treatment at the “Mental Health” Centers is nothing but a grin fest. Since you can’t smile easily drugged up they keep cajoling you to SMILE like Barney the Dinosaur on steroids. Then they chide you for your “flat affect” the drugs have caused.

    One day I had a bad headache from withdrawal since they hadn’t gotten one of my drugs to me for 3 days. I looked gloomy and explained I felt awful from lack of “meds.” The case worker insisted I had Low Self Esteem and had everyone write down positive things about me and me write 20 nice things about myself. Lol. Still had a headache.

  5. I’m flabbergasted.
    This seems like suggesting to not be unhappy, distressed,
    but well adjusted, is something sinister?
    An abusive plot to rob one of ones right to be unhappy? Hello? LOL
    “we discuss the increasing pressure people face to be happy and think positive,
    and how this pressure serves the interests of the corporate elite and the State” …
    What? pressured? hello?

    Last time i checked I was free to put on myself
    whatever emotional clothing i wanted, believed in, is best for me.
    You want to go on worshipping being distressed? angry, unhappy?
    knock yourselves out,, fight, struggle, kill each other in horrific wars. wow.

    There is quite a difference in not being comfortable, happy , unhappy,
    and clearly disabled by distress. What do you make up is forcing or making it
    so one can’t be unhappy, if thats what one is after?

    What concern, or would happen, if one were not to choose to be unhappy?
    or not have some excuse to not enjoy, be happy with, oneself or what one has? 😉

    OMG I just split a gut reading some of the utterly ridiculous reviews.

    “This is a brilliant and lucidly written indictment of the ideology of happiness and its accompanying horrors of mindfulness and well-being. Davies convincingly shows how the happiness industry is the new front line of capitalism, which has succeeded in exposing the inner recesses of the self to techniques of measurement, surveillance and control.”

    OMG, I’m so persecuted, paranoid now, How can i protect myself from becoming happy”
    with myself, and relationships? Help me please, Emily Cutler, Will Davies

    • I think you are missing the point here. It’s not that people are arguing against being happy, it’s the EXPECTATION that everyone is happy, all the time, regardless of circumstance. The corollary to this is that if one is unhappy, it’s one’s own fool fault for not “thinking the right thoughts.” While it is helpful to maximize one’s ability to choose his/her reaction to events, we do not control all of the events around us, not even vaguely.

      For instance, I was miserable in school. I was a very smart kid who was very shy. Elementary school in particular varied between weeks of massive, soul-crushing boredom and discrete oppressive events, the majority of which were perpetrated by the teachers. Now, one could say that I had a choice – I could have “made the most” of the situation, I could have left in protest, I could have learned to meditate so the boredom and anxiety I felt were reduced… sure, I had options, but realistically, I was in a very bad situation and had no way to really change it. I think depression is a very natural reaction to being trapped in a miserable situation. I think if I were cheerful about it, it would have been at the cost of utterly denying my humanity.

      Was I “disordered” because I was massively depressed and anxious and “maladjusted” to the school environment?

      • Not suggesting faking or pretending to be emotionally, something one is not. Depression can be a natural and logical result of simply ‘believing oneself,’ and relating as if, trapped in a miserable situation, as in unable to explore, consider, discover possibly more useful quality of thought, belief or relationship.

        Acceptingly you, or anyone experiencing distress, is doing so, simply out of ignorance of any more useful way of relating self with stimuli.

          • What are you saying? believing?
            That individuals, aware of and knowing more useful internal dialogue, or ways of relating with stimuli, less distressingly, will on purpose ignore them?

            I suggest a skilled option mentor, would effectively facilitate a client in rather simple, uncomplicated ways, regardless of age, identifying and owning their freedom over the quality of make beliefs they use, and children are generally more receptive than adults.

  6. Not trite at all 🙂 simply a choice
    Do you believe emotions can be mandated?

    Are not emotions simple reflections of the quality of internal dialogue, beliefs one freely chooses, embraces, uses to create relationship? believing them useful?
    Isn’t all motivation, choice or flavor of emotion, ultimately self chosen?
    Little Johnny doesn’t want to bother others,
    he just doesn’t want to be distressed, unhappy.

    INSTANT GRATIFICATION? Isn’t that what this is about?
    Individuals and even doctors, insist on instant gratification, rather than facilitating therapeutic self dialogue with their clients, they dismiss them with drugs, as the pharma financed licensing colleges brainwash em that individuals can’t learn or grow their emotional maturity, chemically lobotomize the unhappy thinking habits. Patients are routinely sold on that kind of thinking, and tend to buy the snake oil from the expert dr.