Thomas Jefferson famously included the pursuit of happiness in his list of the three principal rights the Creator has given man and that government has a duty to protect. It was a masterful phrase, one that could win over both Evangelicals and Rationalists at the time of the American revolution. By tracing the right to God, the phrase suggests that true happiness consists in pursuing Him. But the phrase obviously connotes earthly well-being as well.
It’s that latter meaning that most survives in American liberalism today. Perhaps the most famous example in American law is the “mystery of life” passage in the Casey opinion. But well-being is not something we recognize without instruction. We are trained to think of some things as meaningful and conducive to happiness rather than others. Which means that happiness is a somewhat manipulable concept. As anyone who watched Mad Men would know.
The manipulability of happiness seems to be the subject of a new book from Penguin Random House, The Happiness Industry, by William Davies. It looks interesting. Here’s the publisher’s description:
In winter 2014, a Tibetan monk lectured the world leaders gathered at Davos on the importance of Happiness. The recent DSM-5, the manual of all diagnosable mental illnesses, for the first time included shyness and grief as treatable diseases. Happiness has become the biggest idea of our age, a new religion dedicated to well-being.
In this brilliant dissection of our times, political economist William Davies shows how this philosophy, first pronounced by Jeremy Bentham in the 1780s, has dominated the political debates that have delivered neoliberalism. From a history of business strategies of how to get the best out of employees, to the increased level of surveillance measuring every aspect of our lives; from why experts prefer to measure the chemical in the brain than ask you how you are feeling, to whyFreakonomics tells us less about the way people behave than expected, The Happiness Industry is an essential guide to the marketization of modern life. Davies shows that the science of happiness is less a science than an extension of hyper-capitalism.