When David Cameron announced plans to measure nationwide happiness he was mocked. The thought of the government asking how happy you are is ridiculous and faintly sinister. Still, you can always put the phone down on the Office for National Statistics (or, better still, deliberately mislead its nosey parkers).
But what if these smiling clipboard fanatics made it in our offices, at the insistence of our bosses?
That’s just what has happened.
In his new book The Happiness Industry, William Davies of Goldsmiths University exposes the manipulative and lucrative methods of ‘happiness experts’. The worst examples come from America, as you’d expect. One US entrepreneur quoted by Davies believes that ‘the most successful businesses are those which deliberately and strategically nurture happiness throughout their organisations’.
Note the word ‘strategically’. How does that strategy take shape? By employing ‘chief happiness officers’ who identify the 10 per cent of the workforce who are the least enthusiastic about the happiness agenda and sack them.
As for the remaining 90 per cent, they are encouraged to become ‘super-engaged’ (which is sort of like super-keen, only worse).
One of the many flaws in this thinking is that it’s polarised. It can’t see a middle point between Work Capability Assessments that say even the near-dead are fit to work and trimming, target-obsessed fanatics.
I’m sorry to keep repeating the horrible term, but I’ve worked with people who are ‘super-engaged’. They don’t have a life outside the office – for good reason – and spend their working hours flirting and sucking up to the boss without actually being good at anything at all. They are former teacher’s pets, every last one of them.
Also, they burn out. Being ‘super-engaged’ is exhausting, not fulfilling. The happiness industry creates its own unhappy people. Not that this paradox is likely to trouble its gurus. They’re smiling all the way to the next TED talk.