The British political landscape, as we enter 2012, is in the midst of a tumultuous economic downturn. The current political discourses speak of stagnant growth and financial austerity lying before us, of a paradigmatic economic shift to follow years of boom, a shift that invites us to recalibrate how we evaluate what is important in our lives.

Inequality and austerity are contemporary buzzwords, and the reorganisation of society and economy are among the stated goals of government. In tandem with this economic backdrop, the National Wellbeing Project (NWP) is asking us if Gross Domestic Product can be seen as a sufficiently sensitive gauge of our welfare, something initially called into question from evidence drawn from the Easterlin Paradox in 1974 (4). Research on happiness is informing the debates that will conceptualise the wellbeing index. Richard Layard, a member of the NWP forum, has called for the social sciences to help answer the question “what is progress, and how should we measure the wellbeing of a population?” (5). He reasons that “sound measurement will only become possible if social science takes as a prime objective the quantitative study of the determinants of well-being” (6).

Within this wider context, the concept of wellbeing has become increasingly relevant to social and political life. British Prime Minister David Cameron has been quoted as saying that a new measure of national wellbeing “could give us a general picture of whether life is improving” and eventually “lead to government policy that is more focused, not just on the bottom line, but on all those things that make life worthwhile” (1). Since November 2010, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has been asking, via a consultation, for people to rate their own happiness with a view to creating the first official wellbeing index, due in 2012. The consultation document, written as part of the National Wellbeing Project (NWP), explains that “there is a growing demand for wider measures of progress, or a more complete picture of ‘how society is doing’” (2). The stated aims of the national debate included the delivery of “credible measures of subjective wellbeing and of wider national wellbeing to meet policy and public needs” (3).

This paper will empirically investigate the theory that happiness as an agenda has risen in the last 30 years. The first part will set out the data, the second will advance a genealogy of the recent history of the relevant disciplines, protagonists and movements, before an analysis of all in the third part of the paper. Researching media sources and the academic literature at 5 year intervals between 1982 and 2012 will ascertain the frequency of the use of the term ‘happiness’ and illustrate or not an academic correlate to media mentions. Has there been a discursive formation created around the term ‘happiness’? And is the happiness agenda recuperative of the academic focus, enlivening it as a scholarly research interest? If so, what is this recuperation indicative of? Why has happiness become so resurgent in political and social spheres? To what extent have the discourses of wellbeing that have been produced been underpinned by their historical and cultural context? And how, if at all, do they articulate with neo-liberal governance and individual responsibilisation in the last decades?

The Data 1982-2012

Regarding the terminology, a note of caution. There has been an increased use of the term ‘wellbeing’ as opposed to the term ‘happiness’ in recent years. Though the 2 terms will be used interchangeably in this paper, for the data collection the term ‘happiness’ was searched. This data, drawn from the last 30 years, illustrates an increase in the mention of the term ’happiness’ in both newspaper headlines from The Guardian and The Times and from academic psychology journals. This increase is most clearly pronounced in the last 5 years when a surge of mentions can be evidenced, including a six-fold increase in the academic literature between the periods 2002-2007 and 2007-2012. This paper will investigate what this increase may be reflective of.

Time Period     The Guardian     The Times          Academic Journals

2007-2012       190                    182                     293
2002-2007       95                      127                     49
1997-2002       81                      55                       28
1992-1997       56                      49                       7
1987-1992       32                      25                       6
1982-1987       16                      18                       2

A Recent Genealogy Of Happiness

In the genealogical search for the moment or moments when happiness began to be perceived as an object of scientific enquiry, it is instructive to describe the changes that occurred in society for such a transformation to occur by viewing happiness and wellbeing, not as the tracing of a historical lineage from rudimentary early impressions to the triumph of science and reason, but instead to illuminate the intellectual, cultural and political lineage, the factors that shifted, the factors that remained, the accidents and intentions, the exclusions and inclusions, in the hope that this will expedite a fuller portrayal of this contemporary milieu. Michel Foucault (8) has noted that there is a natural inclination with reason to seek linearity, to form a hindsight that is a wonderful trick rather than a wonderful thing, a retrospective illusion which naturalises the present.

It is unfeasible to separate the American and British cultural and political landscapes in this study. The two countries share much of this Westernised history. A seminal moment occurred in 1998, when University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman, in his presidential address to the American Psychological Association, urged psychology to “turn toward understanding and building the human strengths to complement our emphasis on healing damage.” This speech was the launchpad for the positive psychology movement. In the preface to The Science of Wellbeing (9), Huppert et al contend that scientific study is needed “to advance our understanding of life going well – a life characterised by health and vitality, by happiness, creativity and fulfilment – along with an understanding of the social relationships and civic institutions that can foster those positive experiences.”

In 1999, the first Positive Psychology Summit was held, bringing together 60 scholars. Two years later, the conference went international. The teaching of positive psychology has grown apace too. At Harvard, enrolment on the positive psychology course in 2004 and 2006 was hugely oversubscribed. Famously, due to the media attention it generated, its enrollment of 854 students was the largest of any course in the Harvard catalogue (10) and there are now more than 200 similar courses across the United States. In addition to the rise in its teaching there has been a corresponding rise in the number of academic journals and conferences across the social sciences dedicated to research in the areas of happiness and well-being. It is the hope of Tal Ben-Shahar, an associate of the Harvard psychology department, to unify academic research with popular psychology, to connect “the ivory tower and Main Street” (11). The stated aim for positive psychology was to build on the science-neutral legacy of humanistic psychology. “The fundamental difference between humanistic psychology and positive psychology is in their relationship to research, epistemology, and methodology,” explains Ben-Shahar. “Humanistic psychology gave birth to the self-help movement, and lots of self-help books have come out with concepts grounded in emotion and intuition. Positive psychology combines those things with reason and research.” The emotion of happiness is giving way to the reason of happiness.

Abraham Maslow, the first person to coin the term positive psychology, wrote about the potential of what a human life could become in Toward a Psychology of Being (1962). Following psychoanalysis and behaviourism, the humanistic psychology movement he was a part of has been described as the discipline’s third force. Though critical of the scientific method as a means to unravel human complexity, the progressive principles of humanistic psychology and the complementing self-help genre that have been dominant since the 1970’s placed the emphasis on the growth of the ‘authentic’ self. Now we arrive at its modern-day incarnation, armed with its desire to marry human flourishing with scientific rigour. On this question, Martin Seligman and Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi (12), generally considered to be the fathers of the positive psychology discipline, proposed a new psychology that “can articulate a vision of the good life that is empirically sound while being understandable and attractive” to both social scientists and public alike. They describe themselves thus: “We are, unblushingly, scientists first. The work we seek to support and encourage must be nothing less than replicable, cumulative and objective” (13).

In the UK Political Scene, a key moment in the emergence of the politics of wellbeing was the publication by the New Labour think-tank, Demos, of a pamphlet called The Good Life (14) in 1998. Demos was set up by Tony Blair’s former head of policy, Geoff Mulgan, who has become a significant presence in the movement to incorporate wellbeing into government policy, at both Demos, the Young Foundation (an organisation engaged with wellbeing initiatives at the local level) and latterly on behalf of the Action for Happiness initiative which was launched in 2011, describing itself as a movement for positive social change. Also a central figure for Action for Happiness is Lord Richard Layard, an economist from the London School of Economics, part of the NWP forum and now pivotal to the wellbeing movement. It was his publication of a report on depression (15) in 2006 that paved the way for the establishment of a national mental health service in 2007, and which recommended the training of 6,000 new cognitive therapists, known as Improved Access for Psychological Therapies (IAPT).

Since that time Layard has been a leading influence in the ONS consultation process to develop the measures that are expected to inform government policy development and appraisal. But it was the publication of The Stiglitz Report (16) in 2009 that proved to be the most significant factor in the formation of the National Wellbeing Project in the UK. This report, commissioned by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, detailed leading intellectuals to assess the viability of including well-being as part of national accounting. It “is widely seen as setting the agenda for measuring societal wellbeing, going beyond the established headline measure of economic performance” (17). This led to the decision by the French government, and subsequently encouraged the British government, to measure national well-being and make it a stated goal of public policy. This last step happened under the Coalition Prime Minister David Cameron, who has been explicit in his support of wellbeing as a policy goal.

An Analysis Of The Science Behind Wellbeing

“Every period is characterised by an underground configuration that delineates its culture, a grid of knowledge making possible every scientific discourse, every production of statements…… Each science develops within a framework of an episteme, and therefore is linked in part with other sciences contemporary with it” (18).

So how may we interrogate this political and ideological use of happiness discourse? As a theoretical framework, Foulcauldian ideas may help in the unpacking of the issues around the science of wellbeing and its political and ideological implications. For example, Nikolas Rose (19) develops a Foucauldian critique of the wellbeing discourse when arguing that for the last 150 years, wellbeing and happiness have increasingly been constructed as dependent upon “the production and utilisation of the mental capacities and propensities of individual citizens” (20). In its attempts to make us knowable, psychology, he argues, has played a significant role in the individualising and objectifying of ‘subjects,’ with the result that we increasingly look inwards for the solutions in the search for our own identities. It is a complex task to dispassionately understand ourselves and how we are understood by those who administer us, in assessing which norms and values we are we living by, to see our lives from outside of the discourses within which we live. There are inevitably presuppositions built into our structural practices, the culmination of a series of historical shifts and diversions. But it is in attempting to discern the genealogy of our subjectivity that we may be able to illuminate the aspects of this narrative that we want to keep and those which we may choose to resist. Within the psy-disciplines (psychology, psychiatry and psychoanalysis), current ideas of the self depict a movement towards understanding ourselves as subjects and objects of a particular knowledge that has played a constitutive role in moulding the ways in which we conduct ourselves, of how we think of and act upon ourselves.

It was Michel Foucault’s belief (21) that since the 1960’s a seeking of self-truth within individuals developed. From this change in emphasis in the subject, we have today arrived at the intersection of the rapidly-growing science of wellbeing and the informing of policy with research drawn from advocates of the positive psychology and science of wellbeing movements. The work of the psy-disciplines over last 3 decades and prior, is embodied within the current well-being research that is playing a contributory role in constructing us as governable subjects. The political analysis addressed here is not merely a ‘state-centred’ approach in which the psy-disciplines and social science act as a servant of power to governing bodies, but rather in how these forms of scientific knowledge actively shape and transform power. The target here is not scientific truth in itself but the claims to scientificity of the objects of wellbeing and happiness which take as natural something that they have in fact shaped, in ways and for reasons that are often largely exterior to the object itself.

According to Foucault (22), the political economy of truth (here, the ’truth of happiness’) is characterised by 5 important traits, namely; it revolves around a scientific discourse and its institutions; it is subjected to continual economic and political incitement; it is the object of immense diffusion and consumption as it circulates the social body; it is produced and disseminated by a few dominant apparatuses (eg. the media, academia); and it is the centre of an ideological social and political debate. The discourses around well-being are played out in a number of social settings, in education, healthcare, the workplace, in the media, the family. Its discoveries are all around us. Rose describes such phenomena as veridical discourses, forms of positive knowledge or truth expertise that have been essential to the rationalities of government. Analyses of government reveal particular rationalities of politics, of how governing is conducted in time and place, underpinning, as in the case of the National Wellbeing Project, the strategic texts which analyse ‘problems’ and unveil ‘solutions.’ A lattice of commonsense assumptions then permeates the training and education of professionals or public, and filters through cultural forms, such as the self-help genre or advice columns.

The Office of National Statistics published the findings of its national survey into well-being in July 2011 (23). Gathered from 175 events across the country, attended by 2,500 people, and supplemented by social media resources (emails, tweets and blog comments) the public of the UK (in the Integrated Household Survey from April 2011) gave answers to 4 subjective questions on subjective wellbeing. They were:

• Overall, how satisfied are you with your life nowadays?
• Overall, how happy did you feel yesterday?
• Overall, how anxious did you feel yesterday?
• Overall, to what extent do you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile?

Each was measured on a scale from 0 to 10, ranging from 0 (extremely unhappy) to 10 (extremely happy).” Among the findings were health, contact with family and friends, relations with our spouse and partner, job satisfaction and economic security and the environment. Yet there is a concern that self-reported happiness and life satisfaction are unreliable barometers of a person’s well-being. They may often reflect the situatedness of knowledge and relations of power rather than genuine well-being and this decontextualised reliance on self-evaluation means that the data cannot contain enough rigour to become a policy driver. Surveys asking how happy people feel are problematic as the information lacks utility and is ill-advisedly used to influence policy-making. The ONS sought to separate out the measures of well-being between those considered subjective and objective. The objective measures included:

• household income and consumption
• wealth
• distribution of income and wealth

The report counterbalanced the public responses with feedback from an advisory committee, the majority of whom are social scientists, economists, statisticians and bureaucrats. The lack of breadth of professions within the advisory committee limits the possibilities for cross-disciplinary critique. The confidence bestowed on social science in critically answering the questions of wellbeing illustrates an over-confidence in statistics and economics, and the capacity for these disciplines to accurately and dispassionately quantify the objective quality and value of our lives. This is an optimism that comes amidst a recession in part caused by an excessive faith in the accuracy and objectivity of social science. It is notable that within the text of the 27 page report, there are large unattributed quotes on every page, likely to be taken from the various nationwide ONS-organized debates. However, they offer a particular slant to the report. One such quote says: “I think wellbeing is related to having a fair distribution of wealth, greater social mobility and being able to slow the pace of life.” It is important to ask why this quote was chosen out of all the possible quotes and why it was given a conspicuous place within the report. Who’s interests does this serve? There is a level of subjectivity in the report that suggest it is not merely mirroring the opinions of the UK public but is mediating them into a particular narrative. The filtering of responses diminishes the objectivity that a document informing government policy would require. In delivering objective findings of GDP this would be difficult enough to justify, in delivering the subjective findings of the values we hold this is even more difficult to warrant.

There is a danger that the leading proponents of wellbeing science are prescribing the constituents of wellbeing to an absorbing, accepting public. There is insufficient guarding against the pre-creation of a happiness framework. The New Economics Foundation, an NGO, uses the findings of happiness research to forward the argument for a reform of policy objectives away material accumulation toward the activities that they have found to be more closely aligned to wellbeing, such as civic and family life and meaningful work. NEF champions the introduction of redistributive policies as a means to level inequality, and their wellbeing manifesto (25) advocates the idea of a universal citizen’s income. The dissemination of happiness research in this manner risks shepherding the populace into naming pre-packaged objectives in the promotion of happiness. This matters. The conclusions of happiness research could easily find their way into political orthodoxy. In a similar vein, Aileen Simkins, of the ONS, speaking on Radio 4 (26) following the release of the consultations deliberations, professed that any national measure of wellbeing has “got to include equality…it’s got to include sustainability.” This is an assertion that is doctrinaire and subjective rather than scientific or objective. Yet within the same report National statistician Jil Matheson said the measures would need to be “reliable and impartial and improve our understanding of the UK’s society.” This spring, the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) will be holding a conference to follow the public consultation process, the danger is that the agreed official definition of wellbeing will be unreliable and partial, decontextualised and value-laden and will provide a measure that cannot be considered objective or scientific.

A critique of wellness finds itself in a strange position. After all, who can resist the call to happiness, in all its commonsense irrefutability and desirability? Who can resist the ‘goodness’ inherent in its goals? Rorty (27), calls this a ‘conversation-stopper,’ as it can easily appear to be an unquestioned good for government to maximise our happiness, and this view can only gather in pace and persuasion with the contemporary development of a ‘science’ of wellbeing that further removes the object in question from questioning. The ineluctability and tautology of happiness-as-a-goal leaves us in thrall to the obviousness of its charms as a personal and political goal. In the production of truth claims as to the desirability of happiness as a goal, it is possible to create a set of practices, apparatuses and norms that are taken to be authoritative and ‘true’ and which thereby exercise personal, political and moral authority over people, whilst simultaneously passing this agenda off as driven by notions of progress, autonomy and individuality (ie. it is for our own ‘good’). The messages inhabit and infuse the social body. We are obliged to be better because autonomy lives there. To be the best we can be. With our choices we bring meaning to our lives. But this knowledge can be understood as a thing of this world, not the thing of this world.

In the question of public acquiesence to the prescriptions of what constitutes our wellbeing, Foucault is informative. His belief is that Western man has become a confessor. A figure who, in confessing himself has become subjectified. Disclosure renders private life still more surveilled, judged and consequently open to classification, to modification. The role of confession as subjectification is a process of self-constitution mediated by an external authority figure, “be he confessor or psychoanalyst.” This takes place through a number of “operations on people’s own bodies, on their souls, on their own thoughts, on their own conduct” (28). Foucault’s analysis is unrelenting in its admonishment of the idea that within human beings there is a thwarted, undiscovered essence that upon unveiling, will enable autonomy. All that we have, states Foucault, is the task of producing ourselves. The task he speaks of is to liberate man in his own being, to face up to the task of inventing himself. Yet, he states, the moment in which one believes they have discovered a truth about themselves is simultaneously the very moment power has been exercised over them. In the process of constituting oneself, as a subject, as an individual, the production of this knowledge makes one an object of discourse. “If I tell a truth about myself ….. it is in part that I am constituted as a subject across a number of power relations which are exerted over me and which I exert over others” (29). It is a common assumption that in examining past experiences, we can discover the essence of our very being. But the changes in thought are not necessarily due to thought itself, the causes may be the social forces that affect the behaviour of individuals. Power can transform the frameworks, the epistemes and the discursive formations that underlie our knowledge. Much of the power behind the science of wellbeing and its cognitive authorities is in their presentation of themselves as grounded in a benign neutrality of disinterested evidence.

It is presumptive to take the meaning of happiness as a given, and its application to social science and public policy cannot be taken as self-evident. It is neither value-free nor culturally universal. The NWP cannot inform policy-making from a level that is beyond political contestation. The way the ONS has disseminated the results of the consultation has failed to sufficiently recognise this. Although ‘happiness’ is universally compelling, this is a universality assured only by its circularity. The imperative to achieve happiness through a self-scrutinising, regulated lifestyle and the contemporary development of social indicators creates a form of statistical reporting that actively constructs political understandings of various social and health factors, including experiences that are subjective in content. In their attempts to widen political planning and measures beyond economic indicators such as GDP, institutions play an active role in the construction of social phenomena as social ‘problems.’ The corollary to the increasing sophistication and application of social wellbeing indicators could, if taken to its logical conclusion, be extended into an overarching programme for the ‘maximisation of happiness’ all armed with the official, objective scientific evidence of social statistics and national surveys of happiness. This functions to construct happiness as a positive social goal, without separating the delivery of government policy from the ideological problems of the political deployment of happiness-as-positive-social-goal. The self-evident, tautological characteristics of happiness lends itself to ideological use, a use that can be suffused with the objectives that satisfy the needs of the current economic and political system.

There is a sense that in placing autonomy and the right to individual self-actualisation to the fore, something else may be obscured and left untouched, a way of understanding ourselves as interdependent, committed to others, self-sacrificing, part of a larger picture. There is an ethical barrenness in a self-fulfilling individual, achieved in the mundanity of progression in the various aspects of her life, all judged according to the extent to which these aspects, such as personal happiness, add to or subtract from her self-improvement score. The injunction to self-actualisation, to incessant confession is merely one of an inexhaustible number of pictures of a human life. Yet, this commonsense view pervades our culture and the costs of such a distinct horizon means that the call to be better is a cloaked imperative that demands people take responsibility for everything that happens to them, including the things they cannot control. This is the sinister flip-side to the measuring of happiness. What is this call to happiness doing for my wellbeing, I may ask? Ultimately, it can position us as failures if, or rather when, we do not meet the exacting and impossible telos that is happiness. As an unsustainable goal, happiness can harm in its imposition as the way to be, and serves to polarise the abnormality of unhappiness against the normality of happiness, creating binary ways of being and undermining the limits of a human life, prescriptively delivering a message of what constitutes normal functioning in public consciousness. The subjectification of the work of the self means private lives can become beholden to a discourse of success and failure. Characterising the un-happy by what they lack in this way is symptomatic of the parallel formation of a modern, political, hyper-individualist rationalism.


The phases of the discourse of happiness over the last few decades reflect a mode of production of wellbeing to the exclusion of other possible productions. And this history, this paper included, will itself be selective and contestable, just one version among many, often overlapping, accounts. The discursive formation of happiness is not a linear passage from ignorance to illumination regarding what it is or how it is best achieved. Happiness has been described as a human right, a teleological imperative, a constituent of the good life, a commonsense desire and now a scientifically measurable target, yet such conceptions can be viewed not as mere discoveries, but rather as historical constructions of meaning. Each is reflective of a different mode of understanding to the exclusion of others. The entrenching of one set of truths about the world, one set of descriptions of those realities acts to close off other possible productions of truth. The project of analysing the discourses around wellbeing is to question quite specific claims to cognitive authority, those made by psychologists and social scientists in general. The mundane is psychologised and made part of a subjective order for which we learn skills to cope, seek confession to impart, seek to categorise our relationships and seek opportunities for personal growth. In the detailed techniques for self-government we render ourselves transformable.

The ubiquity of the goal of happiness is endemic. Happiness can actually be viewed as a flight from something, a philosophical-existential search, or a dissatisfaction with oneself or one’s world. The quest may be a sign of disquiet. A longing for positive affect may be a symptom of a lack of meaning, or at least of a belief in meaning. To imagine for a moment the achievement of a universal happiness would be bizarre, requiring as it would the means to lose touch with reality in a denial of what it is to be human. In the words of Isaiah Berlin, “Man is incapable of self-completion and therefore never wholly predictable; fallible, a complex combination of opposites, some reconcilable, others incapable of being resolved or harmonised; unable to cease from his search for truth, happiness, novelty, freedom, but with no guaranteee…. of being able to attain them” (29). If there is universality, it may reside in a human need to feel we are on stages towards happiness. Certainly, not seeking it seems disempowering or too overly-modest a goal to Western cultures. Yet its pursuit is a moral distraction, and of an arguably trivial value, and as an aim it is ethically questionable. It is one thing to see obstacles within one person’s life being removed, but it is something else entirely to centre the policies of government around its societal achievement.

The happiness focus is a diversion that adds a technocratic, bureaucratic level to a time and space in which political resources could be filled with other more objective measures. The choice of whether or not to make happiness the place of government to build policy around it is vital. Empirically, there is only unreliable evidence that the human condition can be systematically bettered. The science is not rigorous. The history is unforgiving. The imperative to be happy denies the conditions that are not of our making. We are born where we were born, speaking the language we speak, to the parents who parented us and enculturated by the culture that surrounds us. There is much that cannot be changed about our deeply contextualised lives. To Western-individualism, to political ideologists and to our economic systems, such a Foucauldian-style analysis is an unpalatable thought that generates a host of questions regarding agency, morality, autonomy, progress, subjectivity and normativity to name but a few. Foucault is noted for his reticence in becoming advocate. For him description can act as critique. However, occasionally he does lift himself to evaluation: “Maybe the target nowadays is not to discover what we are, but to refuse what we are…. The political, ethical, social, philosophical problem of our days is not to try to liberate the individual from the state, and from the state’s institutions, but to liberate us both from the state and the type of individualisation which is linked to the state” (30).

Word Count 5,040.


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