In a call centre in Burwood, one of Melbourne’s leafy eastern suburbs, there is a sign posted on the back of the toilet doors telling staff that they can become happier if they smile. If they’re having trouble maintaining a cheery disposition because of the pressure of weekly sales targets or are copping abuse from irate customers whose evening dinner they’ve just interrupted for the third time in a week, staff are advised to smile their frustrations away.
The company is drawing – directly or indirectly – from a fast-growing movement called ‘positive psychology’. Unlike other branches of psychology, which tend to be preoccupied with disorders such as depression and anxiety, positive psychology pays close attention to what makes people optimistic and happy.
Writing in the Chronicle Review in 2009, Jennifer Ruark notes that the US National Institute of Mental Health handed out around $226 million over the previous decade for positive psychology research.
Research findings about what makes us happy have begun to influence public policy. In December 2011, the US Department of Health and Human Services convened a panel of experts charged with devising a reliable measure of ‘subjective wellbeing’ – the academically respectable term for happiness. If successful, measurements of Americans’ happiness may be integrated into official statistical data collection.
The US move came on the heels of David Cameron’s government announcing in November 2010 that £2 million would be spent to measure the happiness of Britons on a regular basis. In 2007, an advisor to Tony Blair’s government argued that happiness ought to be taught as part of the standard school curriculum as a way to tackle increasing rates of depression. The following year, the Sunday Times reported that 1500 eleven-year-old students from twenty-two schools around Britain were taking part in a positive psychology program. Closer to home, the prestigious Geelong Grammar School reportedly employed a former president of the American Psychological Association for two terms to help ‘students become happier, more resilient and less prone to depression’.
But the more we know about happiness – or think we know – the greater the temptation becomes to manipulate people’s emotional states.
Call it Happiness™: a form of happiness that, like any other industrial product, is manufactured in a predictable, standardised and, perhaps most importantly, reproducible fashion.