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On the ideology of happiness


At the Baffler blog, Joseph Todd dissects the ideology of happiness that dominates our neoliberal age. Todd writes that this ideology is manifested in phenomena like Pharrell’s hit song “Happy” and in the compulsive happiness required of many precarious service workers. Ultimately, Todd argues the that injunction to be happy, and the notion that unhappiness is the result of personal failings, obscures the vast material inequalities of our world.

The underpaid precariat are explicitly directed to struggle not just physically but emotionally, too. Their faux camaraderie flows towards the customer through their smiles and pre-planned offers of free tea and coffee and, while breaking down any possibility for genuine human interaction, contribute heavily to the company’s bottom line. In this way, companies like Pret A Manger—or Apple, to name another, with its “Genius Bar,” and its tech-hip attendants who loiter casually, as if midway between flirting and serving you a drink—don’t merely want efficient service with a smile, but also issue a set of rigid, intimate directives ordering employees not just how to act, but also how to exist.

Such a phenomenon seems creepy, but really we should be used to it. While most of us don’t have to endure employers who dictate our emotional state, we do live in a society in which the obligation to be happy is prevalent and the onslaught of cultural and political soma is palpable. The dull success of Pharrell’s 2014 track “Happy” wasn’t just down to its repetitive lyrics or its adherence to the saccharine pop-hit formula, but also because it tapped into this ideological hegemony. When Pharrell sings that “happiness is the truth,” he is, in fact, making a profound ideological statement, and one that accords with much that neoliberalism implies. Our immediate physical reality, Pharrell instructs, is unimportant. What matters is how individuals interpret and react to it. We have the agency to choose, our politicians and pop singers tell us, and thus the logic of the market is extended beyond the realms of commodities and services, engulfing our emotional states, too.

This pressure to be happy is part of a trend that disconnects our emotions from their material realities. When fringe theatre companies try and cheer grumpy commuters up, they have adopted the belief that it is possible to individualize our wellbeing, and disconnect our emotional states from their material realities. It fails to occur that the commuter or sandwich-shop worker is unhappy for a reason, that spending hours a day crammed into a neon-lit underground to work a monotonous, spiritually unfulfilling job that occupies the majority of their time on this earth may be valid grounds for discontent.