Has Happiness Movement Led to Happier People? Historian Raises Skepticism

Dec 28, 2017

For the last 20 years, a cultural movement and industry based on "happiness" has gained considerable traction in the United States. 

Book authors, corporate consultants and motivational speakers -- who claim to understand the secrets of happiness -- often show up in TED talks.

A new book by Smith College historian Daniel Horowitz called "Happier?" chronicles the rise of this field, known as "positive psychology."

Horowitz said it's a mix of neuroscience, eastern religion, evolutionary biology and behavioral economics.

Daniel Horowitz: It represents a shift in the field of psychology from mental illness, from anxiety and depression, to mental health, to subjective well-being-- and if we will, happiness. A slippery word, to be sure.

Karen Brown, NEPR: My sense is this is largely a white, middle-class movement of people who are looking to maximize their happiness in this particular way, and positive psychology. You think of -- to me, a higher income population. Is that true, and are those the people that need the most help with happiness?

The most interesting thing in the field, to me, is by and large, many scholars in the field don't want to talk about race, class, gender, sexuality. The evidence is abundant, although sometimes ambiguous, that poor people need more help in achieving happiness.

Clear from the research [is] that above a certain income level, additional income doesn't matter, but poverty is not a happy condition for most people in that state.

My sense is that you have a bit of a historian's skepticism about the happiness movement, and particularly the science behind it, the science of resilience, the science of happiness. Is that right?

I am absolutely convinced that millions, tens of millions of people, have benefited from practices proffered by positive psychology, mindfulness, grit, resilience, altruism, etc.

What am I skeptical about? That perhaps the claims of science are excessive; that at certain moments, some people in the field have moved too quickly from lab results -- laboratory studies -- to popularizing; that at certain points, the claims of what can be achieved by pursuing some of the things people advise -- and people among positive psychology advise -- are excessive.

Nonetheless, I'm both a skeptic and an appreciator.

So who's making the most money out of the happiness industry?

There are speakers who charge $40,000, $50,000 a talk. There are books that sell millions. People make money that way.

Corporations, especially high-tech corporations, have on their staff chief happiness officers who promote exercises and methods to make people happier.

And is there anything wrong with that? 

We live in a capitalist society. Does it shock me that some people try to make money off ideas? No.

I find some of the excesses verging on hucksterism, but if that's what people want to do, and it helps some people, that's OK. I remain somewhat skeptical about the effectiveness and the motivation behind this.