HAPPINESS AND WELL-BEING: AGENDAS OF COMPLIANCE AND CONTROL?
Notes of the opening contribution I made to the In Defence of Youth Work national conference in Birmingham on, March 22, 2019
Who could be against feeling happy and being well? Where to start?
Well, let me confess I got up this morning feeling sorry for myself, courtesy of painful sinuses. I suppose you could say I was unhappy, not so good, a bit off colour. However on arrival at the Wigan station, I bucked up, my spirits lifted on meeting my daughter Megan. We don’t see one another enough. Once aboard the train we had a wide-ranging chat, diving in and out of the personal and the political, in and out of family and work, grappling in truth with sensitive issues, given my 99-year-old mum’s funeral had taken place only a fortnight before, where we had experienced grief and relief in equal measure. Yet also we were rejoicing in the news that Logan, Meg’s 15-year-old son had been selected for the England Rugby League squad. I’m really pleased we had the chance to talk. Does this mean we were happy? I didn’t think about it at the time. I ask myself quizzically, perhaps we were? By the time though we had reached Birmingham and on our way to today’s venue, I was anxious, worried as to whether my opening to the conference was going to do the business. These fears were set aside on entering the Settlement, meeting friends and comrades – feeling that collective ‘buzz’, created by coming together in common cause. Certainly a morning of shifting emotions.
Enough of my self-centred thoughts. What strikes me is that in all its ordinariness (you will have your own versions of my morning’s ups and downs) it reveals that Happiness is an elusive character to pin down, along with its partner Unhappiness, who is never far away. This contradictory relationship is mirrored in other couplings of mood, emotion, feeling and thought – hope and fear; optimism and pessimism; excitement and anxiety (‘butterflies in the stomach’); pleasure and pain.
And, as individuals, sometimes as a group, finding ourselves in different situations, we experience these contradictions in differing ways and degrees that defy comparison, even as they are perhaps similar. We cry tears of joy. We smile through gritted teeth. I’m minded of an observation of William Blake, the visionary artist:
“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. As a man is, so he sees.”
Happiness and Unhappiness weave in and out of our daily lives. Sometimes they seem to vie for our attention in the very same moment. Perhaps it is poetry that comes closest to unravelling the complex relationship. How can you experience happiness without unhappiness, joy without sorrow? W.H. Auden in a New Year letter suggested that poetry was “the clear expression of mixed feelings”. In a more down-to-earth moment, he wrote: “In times of joy all of us wished we possessed a tail to wag.”
Or, if not poetry, exploring what happiness signifies is a philosophical journey of judgement and interpretation, demanding what Aristotle called ‘phronesis’, a concept which Jon Ord utilises brilliantly in his criticism of the instrumental emphasis today on imposing supposedly measurable, prescribed outcomes on our practice. Not content with pressing us to manufacture the emotionally resilient young person who will put up with whatever society throws at them, the National Youth Agency in its Youth Covenant now proposes we should be rendering him or her ‘happy and positive about the future’. We will return to this bizarre proposal later.
The Happiness agenda is deeply individualistic and a child of its time. For now let me propose that happiness is both visible and invisible, provisional and never guaranteed. It is not an instrument of measurement. It cannot be coached or taught. Yet how we understand Happiness and the broader notion of Well-being are vital questions. Given the restrictions of time, I am viewing Individual Well-being in the same frame as Happiness, although this is contentious. I will focus on Social Well-being as potentially a positive concept towards the end of my argument.
The briefest of historical turns
Way back in Ancient Athens, Aristotle famously viewed happiness as flowing from a flourishing and virtuous life. Perchance he lived in unusual times. Centuries later, Hegel, the great German philosopher, observed, “History is not the soil in which happiness grows. Periods of happiness are the blank pages of history.” Indeed the majority of humanity has led a tough existence, often miserable and grim, much less flourishing.
Classically across the ages religion has sought to offer hope, purpose and consolation. As a church-going child I remember (or is it a trick of my memory) being struck by the similarity between the ending of fairy stories, ‘happily ever after’ and the heavenly promise ‘happy in the hereafter’. Evidently, happiness was not to be found in either real-life or on earth.
The capitalist class in recent times paid scant attention to the happiness of those, who laboured under its yoke. As Max Weber stressed its main concern was with the physical health and discipline of the working class. However, the emergence of social psychology, especially in the USA, was closely tied to the world of business, management and profit. On the back of this relationship, Happiness rose up the agenda. As Will Davies notes, one of its pioneering works was Dill Scott’s 1903 ‘The Theory and Psychology of Advertising’ – an exercise in the conscious manipulation of our needs and desires, their sense of what happiness should be. This transatlantic example aside, given that history suggests a lack of interest by the powerful in the happiness of the powerless, at what point does it become an increasing contemporary concern for governments, corporations and the Davos elite?
From social democracy to neoliberalism
To address this question is to visit the history of someone like myself, born in the aftermath of the 2nd World War, into a previous era of austerity. Except that through the 1950s to the 1970s what is often termed a social democratic consensus prevailed within which all parties supported government intervention and the creation of the Welfare State. I don’t know whether anyone from on high said we should be happy but Harold MacMillan, a Tory Prime Minister of the time did claim that, ‘we’d never had it so good’. I didn’t know any better. Despite rationing and an absence of luxuries, we lived in a comfortable, affordable council house. I went to the newly built primary school on the estate. As I grew older it seemed right and proper that my Higher Education was free and, given my parents’ low income, that I got the full grant, a princely £105 per year. After all, I would be repaying my debt to a caring society, to the common good, by becoming a committed teacher. As Liz Heron notes, quoted in Lynne Segal,
“Along with the orange juice and cod-liver oil, the free school milk, we seemed to absorb a sense of our own worth and a sense that the future gets better and better as if history was on our side”.
Ironically as I began both to teach and do some part-time youth work (a bit of money on the side) the consensus was unravelling as class struggle re-emerged. Symbolically Margaret Thatcher, the Education Minister in 1971, ‘Thatcher the Milk Snatcher’, got rid of free school milk for Juniors and above, signalling that life was going to change. Less than a decade later Thatcherism was the name given to an aggressive neoliberal capitalism, hostile to the State, contemptuous of the collective, armed with a quasi-religious belief in the market, caught in Thatcher’s infamous quote that “there is no such thing as society, only individual men and women and families”. As for the Higher Education system which had spawned dissidents like me, she sneered, “the problem with HE is that it is equipping people to criticise and question everything’” Happy she was not, and determined to take her revenge.
If we are to sum up neoliberalism, now dominant for four decades, in one word it would be privatisation. Not just in the obvious sense of putting public services into private hands, but crucially in terms of our discussion about Happiness and Well-Being, wanting to privatise the way in which we see ourselves and others, turn us in on ourselves. It has been a behavioural modification project on the grandest scale, the attempted and singularly successful attempt to make of us possessive, egocentric individuals, for whom happiness is the ceaseless consumption of commodities, shopping the elixir of existence.
The Happiness Industry
Gradually as neoliberalism has become dominant the media presents its way of seeing the world as common sense, normal, even eternal, claiming there is no alternative. And a significant element in neoliberalism’s propaganda machine is what Will Davies dubs the Happiness Industry supported by the development of Happiness Science- a multi-billion pound project complete with an array of gurus, technocrats, research scientists, psychologists, physiologists and more than a few charlatans.
Crucially since its rise to importance in the early 1990s, it has reflected both neoliberalism’s insistence on the self-regulating and self-sufficient individual and neoliberalism’s reluctant recognition that all is not well; that its way of seeing the world is not necessarily a happy one. In this context, the financial bubble having burst in 2008, it is vital that we experience our unhappiness, our dismay as emanating from our personal inadequacies and not at all from the social inequality and injustice at the centre of neoliberal policies.
Within the Happiness Industry Will Davies points to psychologists and economists busting a gut to find a common measure of happiness; to neuroscientists scanning our brains to locate neural patterns related to our subjective feelings. One paper claimed to have found specific neural circuits, one dealing with pleasure, the other with price. How convenient! We witness physiologists focused on our bodily activity, aided by all manner of apps with fitness coaches urging us on. Evidently, you can now download Moodtracking, Track your Happiness or even Mappiness. We find doctors and psychiatrists, identifying and diagnosing growing conditions of unhappiness, prescribing drugs to resolve the anxiety. Hence the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health (Version 5) has indeed indicated that to be unhappy, to grieve for more than 2 weeks after the loss of a loved one is to be considered a mental illness. A drug ‘Welbutrin’ will evidently sort your troubles out. Last but not least, the Industry’s marketing arm hosts a parade of publishers and a gaggle of gurus producing books, self-help manuals, organising life-changing courses, all in the service of our happiness.
Talking of gurus brings us to Martin Seligman, the creator of the brand, Positive Psychology, who having forged this step forward for humanity, patents his Authentic Happiness Inventory and runs multiple therapeutic conversations online at 2,000 dollars a touch. As Barbara Ehrenreich observes, the positive thinking movement lays the blame for misfortune firmly in the mind of the unfortunate. According to the PosPsy mantra, Happiness is a personal choice and to be happy is to have an advantage in the competition for increased status, power and more money. Every success, every failure is down to willpower or the lack of it, to individual desire and effort. To be negative is almost sinful. The key to happiness is to master your mind.
In the workplace, once a site of collective struggle, the pissed-off worker is more likely to be sick than join a trade union or be present but disinterested, a condition now named ‘presenteeism’ as opposed to absenteeism. Into this alienating and oppressive environment, the Happiness and Well-Being consultants are summoned.
A friend of mine and an exceptional youth worker was a few years ago a critical voice as a Youth Service was dismembered. She was seen as a pain in the arse by management but refused to be silenced. Frustrated management forced her to go on a Wellness training course. As my friend spoke about her situation the response of the Wellness trainer was to refuse to engage with the issue of bullying and intimidation in the workplace. The problem was her attitude. This had to change not the institution.
Worried about the morale of its workforce Barclays Bank ( the outfit guilty of all manner of deceit in the 2008 banking crisis, but now rehabilitated and the purveyor via TV advertising of Barclays Life Skills) warns its disenchanted employees.
“Today’s brain-based economy puts a premium on cerebral skills in which cognition is the ignition of productivity and innovation. Your depression attacks that vital asset.”
Some positive psychologists suggest that lack of ‘engagement’ by workers is contagious and that workers not responding to well-being interventions should be sacked. Ehrenreich quotes from a motivational speech to a group of fixed-term contract workers, encouraging them to be good team players, to be positive, to smile frequently, not complain, but gratefully do as one is told …… so that employer and employee will be happy and competitive in harmony together.
However, I’ve chosen not to dissect the particular approaches taken in the eclectic Happiness Industry, e.g. Mindfulness with its debt to Buddhism. I have my doubts about this, that or the other, but my main point is that these techniques are overwhelmingly put into the service of the individualist agenda and ignore the social and political. It would be remiss though not to mention the widespread use of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy [CBT] in tangling with people’s anxieties and dilemmas. All the more so as the NYA is organising CBT training courses for youth workers this coming summer. Certainly, CBT, championed by such as Richard Layard, New Labour’s ‘happiness tsar’ has been the cheap, go to therapy in the NHS with its tight structure and timescale. Focusing utterly on the present and refusing to deal with the past, it has had limited success in offering useful tips and cues in relation to the specific concerns but is in no sense a holistic approach. It desires behaviour that is predictable and is suspicious of complication and contradiction. Ironically you can now access computerised CBT treatment online, ‘Beating the Blues’ and dispense with the therapist [or indeed perhaps the youth worker?].
I could go on about the insidious nature of the Happiness Industry’s view of the human condition, but I’ll mark for now that we should not underestimate that this attempted science of human sentiment with its access to a mind-boggling amount of data that we ‘naively’ provide, aims to monitor, manage and manipulate our feelings. And we are complicit in our surveillance. Will Davies wonders if we are moving to a society designed and regulated as a vast laboratory, within which we are unavoidably imprisoned? The question emerges, to what extent are we already bit-players, part-time employees in this Happiness Industry? Certainly, teachers and lecturers are now on board, pressured to deliver a Happiness curriculum in schools and universities.
The National Youth Agency is very keen, taking leave of its critical senses in my view in its Youth Covenant, which promises amongst other things that we will render young people happy and positive about the future, underpinned by the deeply problematic theory of adolescent developmental psychology. Evidently, as Hans Skott-Mhyre suggests we are asked to be “the missionaries of development, spreading the good word of adulthood as salvation from the storm and stress of adolescence”. In the words of the NYA Covenant, we are the adults who know what is needed, a position utterly at odds with a Youth Work tradition, which seeks to negotiate a relationship with young people within which we don’t claim to know what is best. There’s more than a whiff in the NYA’s pretentious claim of the Happiness Industry’s emphasis on experts knowing better than us how we feel. It shares too the Industry’s utter unwillingness to ground its relations with people, young people, in their actual lived circumstances.
Facing the Future
For a moment let’s compare my generation’s optimism that the future was going to get better, that history was on our side, with the situation facing young people today. It’s utterly legitimate, sense-making and not at all negative for young people to feel things are getting worse and that history’s face is set firmly against them.
The future is precarious. It’s not for nothing that the ‘precariat’ has replaced the proletariat. Berardi, the Italian critic declares that the future has been cancelled. Young people experience a world of short-term contracts, low wages, mounting unmanageable debt, little or no access to affordable housing, asked to hide their insecurities by projecting an upbeat self, a commodity with a smiling face, forced to be part of a cult of compulsory happiness. Looming over them (and of course ourselves) are the consequences of neoliberalism’s casino capitalism, where the rich get richer and the poor poorer, where its inability to face the consequences of perpetual, unfettered production and ceaseless consumption threatens the future of humanity.
And let me make a crucial point, young people are not just young people, a homogeneous category. The precarious experience outlined above is experienced in general but also in specific ways, according to the mixture that is a young person’s identity, informed by class, gender, race, sexuality, disability and faith. Austerity has spawned rising prejudice and xenophobia. It has also fed growing misanthropy, a lack of trust in others.
What kind of illusion allows some to suggest that young people should feel happy and positive in this depressing scenario? Unhappiness is a legitimate and even necessary response to injustice and exploitation. Anger and indignation perfectly in order. In a spirit of critical negativity and resistance, I’ll outline some possible areas for us to explore. The prevailing view of Happiness and Well-Being is thoroughly individualistic. Rather than beginning with the body politic, it refers only to the body personal. We must turn this upside down.
We can draw inspiration in thinking about social well-being as the underpinning of individual well-being from the work of Critical Community Psychologists with their commitment to ‘Responsible Togetherness’ and to the feminist inspired Ethics of Care and its notion of reciprocal compassion.
Let me propose to you a way of exploring social well-being through a triangle of the Material, the Relational and the Subjective., drawing on the work of Sarah White.
For example, thinking about well-being at the level of a community, electoral ward, village, the catchment area of a youth club – what we often called the community profile.
The material would involve looking at income levels, levels of debt, quality of housing, employment opportunities, the presence of public services, the range of amenities, the quality of the environment.
The relational would involve investigating the makeup of the community in terms of class, gender, race, etc.; the diversity of supportive organisations from churches, sports clubs to activist groups; relations with the law, with welfare agencies, with schools, with the youth club; and the history of collective action.
The subjective would involve the community’s sense of identity; its hopes and fears; its sense of its place in the wider society.
This outline is sketchy but I think it has possibilities and my challenge would be to ask you to take back into your projects a willingness to embrace this larger picture of well-being as a prerequisite for exploring well-being at an individual level.
Political Well-Being and Collective Joy
What needs to be added to the triangle is a more explicitly political dimension. What sort of power has the collective, the demos, over the conditions of its well-being? The question brings us to the crucial issue of an authentic democracy. Interestingly Hannah Arendt talks of ‘public happiness’, which she sees as the active and enthusiastic participation of people in the creation of norms, laws and institutions which serve the common good. William Morris called for the liberation of the desire to question all existing values, knowing together we can create values most pertinent to the common good. Lyman Sargent and Ruth Levitas speak of the collective longing for an improvement of the human condition, of the need for utopian rather than dystopian imaginings. In drawing our attention to these radical democrats Lynne Segal argues for the revival of collective joy, that uplifting sense of being at one with others in struggling to prove ‘another world is possible’.
Some of us in this room have been privileged to share such moments. Forgive the personal recollection, I am talking about years ago now, for example, the startling impact of the Women’s Caucus on the Community and Youth Workers Union in the early 1980s (gendered collective joy?) or being together, men and women, freezing on an early morning picket line during the Miners Strike. Nostalgia aside I believe the young people on Climate Change Strike last week felt something of the same festive joy, all the more intense when in Goethe’s words, ‘the festival is not really given to the people, but one that the people give to themselves’. I suspect too the idea of collective joy can be much less politically explicit – making or listening to music, dancing together, being in a team together (although in sport where there is collective joy, isn’t there collective misery?) [Or as Janet Batsleer pointed out in the ensuing discussion what do we make of a collective joy inspired by fascist ideas? It would be good to explore this further.]
In Praise of Resistance
I want to argue strenuously that we should resist being incorporated into the Happiness industry, but should try to develop a politicised and collectivised sense of Social Well-Being. which ought to be at the heart of our relationships with young people.
I would suggest that the best of the open-ended youth work tradition has something significant to contribute to what ultimately is a struggle for democracy, what Castoriadis terms the struggle for the inextricably interrelated notions of individual and social autonomy, ‘taking control of our lives’ in concert with one another. Recently I’ve taken to suggesting that a young person-centred practice, within which listening intently is the bedrock, within which learning from one another in a critical dialogue is central, might be seen as a form of what Rosi Braidotti calls ‘intimate democracy’. Thus youth work produces a proliferation of intimate democracies important in and for themselves, but also a preparatory and essential ingredient in the flowering of direct democracy, Arendt’s arena of ‘public happiness’.
Lest I be misunderstood as a miserabilist, I hope that youth work is full of fun, play and moments of happiness – ‘the wild zones and free spaces’ lauded by Filip Coussee and Guy Redigand ‘the dancing in the streets’ recorded by Ehrenreich. Inevitably though there will be awkward moments of challenge, argument and tension too. There will be tears of joy and sorrow in any honest relationship.
Let me finish by remembering a meeting of a few years ago, a Social Work conference in Durham, where the final plenary was held in the church-like hall of the NUM Headquarters. On the platform was a diminutive woman in her late 70’s, she began sotto-voce asking us ‘were we sitting comfortably?’ Then as we shuffled our bums, the pews were hard on our posteriors, she posed the question afresh and then shook the hall to its rafters with a ringing ‘well you bloody well shouldn’t be!’, before cataloguing the misery inflicted on her community as a result of pit closures. Her heartfelt cry can be inspiring, but also off-putting. In the face of such a call to arms, we can feel overwhelmed. However, at the very least if we claim to be critically reflective practitioners committed to social justice we are obliged to scrutinise what we are up to, where we are up to in challenging the self-absorption of much of the Happiness and Well-Being agenda.
To paraphrase a classic humanist concern:
‘I cannot feel well unless you too feel well’.
‘I cannot be happy if you are not happy too’.
Thanks for listening.
A glaring omission in the above is the lack of attention paid to the need for love and sexual intimacy in the pursuit of happiness, which in itself poses the question of to what extent is this discussed in youth work? As to its significance across history, it’s only necessary to point to the tradition of love songs traced in Love Songs: The Hidden History by Ted Gioia.
POSSIBLE READING – hopefully I’ve indicated sufficiently my debt to these writers
The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being by William Davies, Verso 2016
Radical Happiness: Moments of Collective Joy by Lynne Segal, Verso 2018
Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America by Barbara Ehrenreich, Picador 2010
Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy by Barbara Ehrenreich, Picador 2007