The self-help industry is just the other side of the economic neoliberalism coin.
We’re accustomed to accepting the search for happiness as a life goal. But could it also be seen as part of an extremist ideology? According to Edgar Cabanas and Eva Illouz in Manufacturing Happy Citizens (Polity Press), the answer is yes. From the authors’ perspective, we live in societies where it’s impossible to escape the tyranny of happiness. That’s the impression we get from an industry worth over 12 billion dollars in self-help books, conferences, videos, morning talk-shows and training organised by companies who employ happiness experts, “positive psychologists”, “happiness economists” and self-development gurus.
Through international foundations and large companies, increasing numbers of “experts” come up with public policies, school programmes and what changes we need to make in our daily lives to lead a more successful, meaningful and healthier life. But is this happiness agenda particularly positive? Cabanas and Illouz show how this has created a new and oppressive form of social control mechanisms, where the idea of happiness has produced a guilt culture that turns structural inequalities into supposed psychological deficits.
The happiness industry tells us about small changes we can all make to become more content. However, the idea that the only way to improve our lives is to create better versions of ourselves is a dangerous one. If poor social mobility is the fault of individuals rather than public policies, the so-called “happiness index” applied to countries has essentially been acting as a smokescreen to mask structural political and economic shortcomings, diverting attention away from more objective and complex socioeconomic indicators of well-being, such as income redistribution, material inequalities, social segregation, gender inequality, corruption and transparency, social support or unemployment rates.
This ideology is the other side of the economic neoliberalism coin, i.e. a project to reshape people’s hearts and minds. Because, if we’re unhappy, it’s not society’s fault. It’s ours. It’s our fault, because it’s the product of genetic, cognitive or emotional factors and not external aspects, like education and access to material resources, ignoring the importance of social conditions on our happiness.
by Gustavo Cardoso
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