This was because back in the early 1990s economists in the Global North began to recognise on a large scale that workers in their nations were increasingly suffering from depression at work. This was clear in the large increases of workers taking time off, being absent or quitting, and citing mental and behavioural illnesses as the reason.
Economists, governments, and private enterprise were greatly concerned. So they came together to fund and promote a new alliance between psychologists and economic policymakers to tackle this increasing depression-driven drag on corporate profit (alongside the antidepressant industry, too). According to its State and academic originators, the supposed purpose of positive psychology is to make people happy using the most up-to-date methods of “scientific” understanding.
Great claims were made by this new social science such as, in the power of positive thought negative emotions can be overcome and as such anyone can achieve personal happiness. Of course, the hard data does not support that, and most people might implicitly realise happiness is much more than a positive mental attitude, something you buy or an individualist project.
Yet, no matter the lack of supporting evidence, a massive and successful corporate field dedicated to promoting personal happiness emerged to re-write how we understand it.
This success is easy to see in the emergence of positive psychology as popular culture—think endless TED talks on the happiness manifesto, companies employing a chief happiness officer, and constant ad campaigns centred on happiness. On cable TV, in our local programing, and overflowing off the bookshelves, the happiness industry—and its constant desire for product diversification—has exploded and is making private enterprise a lot of money.
If we look at the claims of this industry about the production of happiness—such as the idea happiness results from the cognitive outlooks of individuals—we glimpse the cultural logic of our modern times. Much like the ethos of the modern corporation the quest for happiness is today driven by profit imperatives, not social justice.
While the economies of most nations suffer from some combination of dead-end jobs, austerity, inequality, debt, insecurity, poverty and decline, advertisers and health professionals bombard us with daily messages to effortlessly enjoy, create and be amazing by relying on our personal dynamism, enthusiasm and optimism. But what happens to the majority of people that cannot do that? Or people with dead-end jobs? What about their happiness?
In labour terms they become a depressed and mentally withdrawn worker. And under neoliberalism the disengaged worker must be overcome because they harm profits and offer little potential. Or put another way, happy workers are valued higher in terms of costs and benefits to a company than unhappy workers.
On an implicit level this marriage between the self-production of happiness and the ideas of neoclassical economists transform the basic understandings of our personal emotions. Atomistic individualism with its stress and desire for personal choice and responsibility, self-resilience, success, money-making, getting the upper hand at work and much more, now remake happiness from a social matter into an emotionally individualist moment.
According to the academic researcher Sam Binkley happiness today “is more than ever tied to economic freedom and the inclination to act in one’s own self interest.” Another way to say this is that money or entrepreneurship buys happiness. But the world is not equal for all. Not all vocations are valued. Nor do all jobs provide sufficient dignity, purpose or money.
And while some can buy whatever they want, to understand happiness as competitive—as economic and status driven—is to privatise happiness and make it a personal enterprise; no longer a social good connected to the development of empathy, compassion, and social connection.
As such, we might caution that the happiness industry is socially destructive and based on a worldview that suit employers, business and profits. Its genesis was to make workers less depressed, which includes making people more likely to stick it out at their dead-end jobs. Rather than calling it the happiness industry, we might call it instead the unhappiness is bad for profits industry.