Happiness, Inc.

By Jason Marsh | March 8, 2007 | 0 comments

The San Francisco Chronicle's Steven Winn had a piece yesterday about the recent boom in the study and the marketing of happiness, citing everything from last year's film Happyness (with Will Smith) to the international Happiness Foundation:

As the field fills with social scientists, pharmaceutical breakthroughs and brain scans, the happiness quest grows more complicated and fraught. Philosopher Sissela Bok, in a 2003 address on the subject, argued that "it's in times of high danger and turmoil that concerns for happiness are voiced most strikingly and seen as most indispensable." That's what made the "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" language in the Declaration of Independence so ompelling. It almost might explain why sales of those smiley-face buttons boomed during the Vietnam War (50 million in 1971). And why, in our own anxious and unsettled times, happiness is once again a growth industry.

And, Winn writes, "the converse may also be true. In times of relative peace and prosperity, happiness seems self-evident and therefore a little shrill and vulgar to acknowledge." He refers to Todd Solondz's bleak and cynical 1998 film Happiness as an example of how the subject was treated when the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal seemed to be our greatest threat to national security.

I can agree with Winn's premise, but only to a point. Part of the happiness boom today is surely motivated by scientific breakthroughs, particularly in neuroscience, that just didn't happen until recently. If they were made in 1998, I think the same amount of ink would have been spilled about them then. Indeed, many of the "pharmaceutical breakthroughs" he refers to were made in the mid-90s, and they generated an entire literary sub-genre of books with the word "Prozac" in the title (Prozac Nation and Listening to Prozac both came out in 1997). And it would be misleading to imply, as Winn does, that many of today's happiness scientists embrace the concept uncritically–see Daniel Gilbert's Stumbling on Happiness, which Winn does mention–just as some of those Prozac books were skeptical about the whole idea of happiness ten years ago.

All that said, there's definitely a booming happiness industry, at least in the research and publishing worlds. I only wonder whether this happiness boom is truly sui generis, the product of this particular cultural moment, as Winn suggests–or if it's just a movement that's been escalating for the last 200+ years.

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Jason Marsh is the editor in chief of Greater Good.


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