Working life forces us to immerse. Immersion in an amnesiac sense: a total erasure of previous thoughts, desires, longings. This immersion is integral to the sustenance of capitalism. Work is so consuming because it functions on our attention. We are distracted precisely from acknowledging the futile nature of our work. If our attention was allowed to rest long enough on the futile nature of our employment we would simply leave and do something else with our lives. Which of course wouldn’t correspond well with the demands of a capitalist economy – everyone sitting around doing nothing, going fishing and eating cake.
Though our capacity to decide to do nothing – or do something else – is severely curtailed by the creeping sense of insecurity in the modern workplace. All employees are disposable, jobs feel precarious. Employees are required to constantly sell themselves, smile, improve their skills, prove their worth. And we do this for the fear of unemployment is too strong. Unfulfilling low paid work benefits greatly from this very climate of precarity that exists in work life. The apparent scarcity of jobs means individuals start to feel anxious even about the loss of a job that is far beneath their experience and qualifications.
What is produced is a continual feeling of insecurity – an insecurity that feeds on the centrality of work to our understanding of what it is to live and be human. Unemployment is a scary abyss of watching the Jeremy Kyle Show and sleeping til noon. Flexible work has not provided freedom but a constant need to market oneself to the next prospective buyer. And we are all commodities selling our teamwork skills and managerial experience.
And it does alarm me how normalised this mode of existence has become. Stood crammed into the tube on the way to work in this wondrous capital city of ours, a morning never passes when I don’t wonder how, why and what we are doing here squashed together, not talking, barely breathing, headphones plugged in, brain switched off, when we could be climbing Mount Everest or sailing around the world in a boat or learning Japanese or starting a jazz band or eating croissants or doing yoga in some shala in South India….
And yes I know – we gotta stack chips – but I wonder how this immersion of work has really caused us to forget. How working life resists remembering. How days pass and it is impossible to separate one from the other, impossible to separate one week to the next. Going home the details are forgotten, each day forgotten, each moment forgotten, each face forgotten.
Ivor Southwood suggests the idea of estrangement – “trying to distance yourself from what you’re having to do, withholding your emotional labour” as a strategy to defend ourselves from succumbing our critical mental capacities to this immersion. The emotional aspect is crucial here, for while we can recognise and perhaps accept our bodies and our physical and mental labour are for sale, it is the occupation of the emotions that make this environment of precarity so uniquely pervasive. Ivor Southwood further advises us “to try to re-occupy yourself and your own thoughts and mind, and to try to evict the language of aspiration and fun that attaches itself to most work.” Occupation is a useful and significant metaphor, considering how ‘occupy’ has in recent years gained a renewed sense of political meaning. Some interesting parallels can be made here with the occupy movement, for the occupy movement has never just been about the occupation of space. The occupation of space was a tangible signifier for an idea – an idea that seemingly needed space to cumulate.
And so we need to find the space – mentally and emotionally – to re-occupy our minds, to maintain our own sense of self – or more specifically to remind ourselves of the very situatedness of our lives. That is to say the historical, social and economical contingencies that has placed us in the very moment we find ourselves. For example next time your find yourself at the photocopier, or filling in some spreadsheet, or folding a hundred pairs of identical leggings, or waiting tables or whichever mundane task it is, the point is not to think that this is inevitable but instead to build up a historical critique of the position you have been placed.
Building a historical critique will allow things to become strange again. Realise a capitalist system of doing things is not inevitable. Free ourselves from the demands placed on us by recognising their arbitrary and fleeting nature. But of course we are encouraged to forget. This process of estrangement requires daily vigilance. As Pierre Bourdieu describes when a sociologist enters the research field, they must adopt a sense of reflexivity in order for the norm to become new again. The researcher takes a ‘second step back’ when encountering their subject of study. Similarly Michel Foucault remained consistently detached from everything he studied. This active detachment meant Foucault could never be captured in definite terms, put in a box or categorised. Putting ourselves in boxes is a key skill we are taught in the modern workplace. By contrast this form of detachment is not merely standing outside the box – not simply an anti stance – but rather a means of demolishing the box altogether. Without the box – without a commonly agreed term of reference – the individual becomes unreachable. It is not possible to communicate with a discourse that is not coming from a position, that is not centred. It is a discourse coming from without – as Herbert Marcuse would say.
So here’s to thinking without boxes.
Filed under: Happiness | Tags: happiness, positive thinking, smiley faces, unhappiness
The requirement to smile continues to pervade our everyday lives, but at what cost?
Oh the irony of it all. One year I am amidst a PhD thesis critiquing the modern imperative to be happy. The next year I am employed in an environment that not only demands smiley happiness at all times but actively narrows the acceptable range of human emotions, labelling anything other than hyperactive verging on psychotic smiley-ness as ‘negative’. God knows how I got myself into this one.
What the experience is bringing very directly to my attention however is the pervasiveness and persistence of the obligation to smile. We are selling our smiles, our ‘positive’ emotions, in exchange for making targets and praying for a little extra in next months paycheck. Smiles – like hugs – have become a social commodity utilized by businesses to foster a utopian environment like teletubby land where everyone is happy (that is to say smiley-happy) all of the time. Furthermore smiles – or smiley faces – are increasingly ubiquitous in a world where texting, BBM and other forms of messaging from devices is a key or the primary method of communication. A smiley face emoticon serves to narrow the myriad of possible human emotions through representing emotion as either 🙂 or 😦 (or 😉 or 😀 if you want to mix it up…). Here’s Larry David being outraged like no-one else quite can at the use of smiley faces:
I have personally been told on several occasions to maintain the performance; to play the game. What I am being trained to do is actively participate in this smiley unreal world. Consequently, my inability to perform this smiley happiness at all times is considered a display of ‘negative’ emotion that is destroying the bubble of happy-happy-smileyness. The obligation to smile is predicated on the sharing of smiles. Each member must smile equally else the fragile delusion will falter. Just as the hug created an inward-looking society so too smileyness rather than an outward expression of felt emotion, is used as a barrier against acknowledging the realities of the world around us – that is to say, how things don’t always go smoothly, the complexities of human emotions and behaviours, the messiness of human relationships.
Barbara Ehrenreich brillantly analysed the positive thinking imperative in her book Smile or Die, a book that was intiated following her experience dealing with breast cancer where she found herself told her recovery was dependent on her thinking positively. Her realist stance was interpreted as negativity, a stance that did not find a welcome place in the cancer survivor community. What Ehrenreich articulates so well is how positive thinking – this mandatory optimism – becomes a form of social control. We are encouraged not to complain – even in these double-dip recession times – but to remain optimistic as if the power of positive thinking is sufficient to bring about real changes in our lives. Not to mention this perpetuates the dangerous idea that the problems we sense are only in our heads and thus can be solved through reprogramming our minds.
This is a useful tactic for businesses as its benefits are two-fold: it generates a subservient and passive workforce, and secondly the workforce members become so well-trained they accept the requirement to sell ones smiles – even if they remain aware of ‘playing the game’. For it easy to say it is a merely brainwashing – though it is – but most people I would suggest are aware of the game they are playing, they just accept it and decide to play it well.
Through participating in this game however, you not only suffer from face-ache at the end of each day but a reshaping of how you interpret your own emotions. Happiness and unhappiness are given clear definers: happiness is always positive and unhappiness is always negative. Positive emotion is that which is outgoing; passionate to the point of obsessive. Negative emotion is voicing an opinions against the norm, failing in the required objectives and norms of behaviour. Yet if we strip down positivity to its basic definition it is essentially the possession of characteristics and negativity the absence of them. A calm demeanour for example is considered a ‘negative’ personality in the positive thinking culture. The lack of smileyness is automatically deemed as an absence rather than a presence of calmness. Smileyness is positive as it is considered to be a forward moving emotion, in other words smileyness does things – it creates sales. Calmness is not a productive characteristic to possess in this environment – it is not linear but still, non-moving; it encompasses the present without going forward.
But of course calmness does things too. It is just that these things are not valued in the sales-driven corporate world. And what about unhappiness? While we are so busy being smiley where does all our unhappiness go? As the spectrum of acceptable emotions gets restricted to the smiley face we not only sell our smiles but we are selling our unhappiness too. Our frustrations, disagreements, opinions, are all exchanged for increased sales and higher bonuses. But unhappiness is a useful emotion for several reasons. One, the presence of unhappiness shapes the nature of happiness – happiness makes no sense without unhappiness. Smiley faces without un-smiley faces are non-signifiers – what they have come to represent has been detached from any real sense of happiness and how smiles naturally occur. Further unhappiness is not the dark side of happiness that should simply be abolished, unhappiness has a purpose just as happiness does. Its nature is haphazard, similarly to happiness – the idea that happiness is forward moving is a myth. Emotions are often without end points or rationality, but this is lost in a corporate agenda where everything from sales targets to human behaviour must have a consistent level of performance.
Unhappiness is problematic as it can allow things to occur that are out of the norm – beyond the acceptable bounds of thinking. This is why unhappiness is so dangerous but subsequently why it is so vital to our well-being and existence as feeling, sentient beings. And lastly it is important to remember unhappiness and smiles are not mutually exclusive entities. Lets get back to acknowledging the fascinating complexities of human emotions before smiley culture makes robots of all of us.
Filed under: Happiness, Subjectivities | Tags: alternatives, freedom, happiness, letting go, Nikolas Rose, true self, truth
I have always found the idea of there being a true self in all of us simply awaiting realization problematic. We are encouraged to ‘peel back’ the layers of our identity to discover this truer sense of self. The very conceptualisation of the individual as possessing multiple layers, or being a psychologically complex individual, is a configuration of the human psyche brought about by the establishment of psychology as a discipline, the influence of psychoanalysis and the belief in therapy and counselling as a cure-all for all societal problems. What the proliferation of these discourses have caused is a belief that our lives and personalities are somehow lacking in authenticity and that it is our responsibility as autonomous individuals to pursue a more meaningful existence in the name of freedom.
Yet as social beings we are socialized into different norms, explanatory regimes – how could it be any other way? Even if I were born in a cave and lived in solitude in the wilderness, my life would still be constructed by discourse because it would be shaped by its absence (despite my ignorance of it). Instead of trying to demolish these constructions is it not best to first ask in what ways are we constructed? That is to say, to ask who do I take myself to be, rather than to ask who am I? To ask who am I is to presume on some level a whole identity (truth) underneath all the layers, whereas to ask who do I take myself to be, opens the question, it allows the opportunity to consider all the concepts, demands, authorities that impinge upon and claim our identity. In this way we need not ‘let go’ of everything but question which things to let go of and which to hold on to. For we are always tied to someone/something, is it not more a question of choosing to what we are tied as opposed to being freed from it all?
‘Letting go’ has become a modern obligation, an obligation that pressurizes and yet remains frustratingly vague on the practicalities of undergoing such an endeavour. Similarly when it comes to managing grief, the imperative is to recover, to get over it – and within acceptable time limits. Not recovering from grief, not being able to ‘let go’ of past traumas is considered pathological. To not recover is to submit to chaos, to reject the orderly demands on emotions. Perhaps this is why ‘letting go’ has become such a obligation – to the point of a staged process – we fear what lies within the chaos we are instructed to avoid. Now too our happiness, and measuring the levels of our happiness, is of political interest and we are constantly encouraged to be happy (and hug people). But being happy is at the expense of being unhappy – the freedom to be unhappy. The freedom to be unhappy is not advocating a politics of misery but surely part of what it means to be free, to be human.
It may feel sometimes that we (our self, our emotions) are in a fortress. We desire to shed these defences yet we must be wary of exchanging one fortress with another even if it looks grander and shinier. If we exchange the modern capitalist mindset for the mindset of the ancient yogi for example, we are still adhering to a set of norms. I think it is important to recognise that this is not necessarily a truer way of existence. Each side will claim their reality as truth and will defend it with their own array of evidence. Being here in India away from home people will say ‘Oh but this is not reality’, what a strange thing to say. Similarly it is false to claim life in Mysore is more closer to the truth than the life we know back home. Both are true but in different ways.
What yoga can do in this situation is open us to perceiving alternative ways of being. Yet we must be wary of how we interpret this alternative. The wave of protests the world has witnessed in the past year or more has brought this issue into the public consciousness in a much more visible way than ever before. And still we struggle with how to articulate this alternative in any meaningful way. This alternative must come from the acceptance that there is not one divine ultimate truth, one ultimate way to exist, but that life constantly evolves and dies; things fall apart, we come undone, we fall in love, we fail, and we try again. This is an alternative that must always allow for the possibility of change – a system in which other alternatives are never closed off.
If we install this concept into our individual minds, we can see that the adherence to one set of obligations is at the loss of the potential for a whole other way of being. This is of course the price we pay for the burden of choice. In our everyday lives we must make certain choices, but those choices do not have to become so that we forget the importance of chance, of the haphazard, which is surely the vitality of being human. To promise recovery from grief, to promise the idea of a divine truth, or to promise lasting happiness, can never be anything but a fraud. To make promises and obligations in definite terms seems almost contrary to human nature. We may feel propelled to explain everything – that which exceeds our capacity to explain frustrates as much as it beguiles us. But in this search to explain do we not destroy also, destroy the contingency of life which is in many ways the only thing that keeps us going – for if life becomes so ordered and monitored there would never be anything new or unexpected to experience. If we need to let go of anything then perhaps it is this.
Though if there is some form of true essence to an individual I feel more and more that it is to be found in the details. Why are we drawn to certain activities/places, what stimulates you, what drives you, who do we love? Even the most trivial details – e.g. why do I love Braeburn apples? – is not the truth of the self present in such minor details? Is there not something vital in these basic truths of taste and preference? (the vitality of these truths evidenced by our inability to justify them, we just do) And yet we are taught to be cautious about these irrational or illogical behaviours. Instinctual reactions are unsubstantiated; intuition is disregarded. But is it not in these fleeting moments of whimsy that lies a glimmer of what we could consider our true nature?
Could we not then pose the question….
…at least as an experiment for thought, the question of what an ethic of existence might be that did not refer to itself to that psy-shaped space which has been installed at the heart of each modern individual. Could one not imagine another kind of freedom, whose ethics were resolutely ‘superficial’? An ethics whose vectors did not run from outer to inner, and did not question appearances in the name of their hidden truth, but which ran across the outsides, between, among persons, where subjectivities were distributed, collective and orientated to action? An ethic, that is to say, that did not seek to problematize, to celebrate or to govern the soul? (Nikolas Rose, Governing the Soul, 1989)
Being in India has caused me to reflect upon the hug in the Indian context. The hug is a relatively modern addition to Indian etiquette where the Hindu customs of touching the feet, or Namaste – two hands pressed together and bowed head – or the simple handshake are the commonly used means of greeting someone (variable depending on the context). The hug in India is mostly found amongst the younger generation and the socialite set, the Bollywood starlets etc where the hug is adopted as part of a trend or from a desire to adopt Western habits.
The hug is, however, a common greeting in North India amongst all ages. Having lived with a Punjabi family for many years I have attended many functions where I had to greet guests and my right arm barely had rest from embracing multiple backs one after the other.
The idea of free hugs has also been adopted in India, though limited to young people in big cities. A free hugs movement – Free Hugs India – has been set up by Vinit Mehta inspired by Juan Mann’s Free Hug’s campaign. The video below shows Free Hugs being given out in the streets of Mumbai:
Even A R Rahman – India’s music maestro – was inspired to write a song ‘Jiya Se Jiya’ about the Free Hugs Campaign with an accompanying video.
And indeed India is home to the Hugging Mother, Amma, who is effectively the saint of hugging. Millions from India and abroad journey every year to Amma in Amritapuri to receive a hug from her, a hug that is believed to contain healing or even miraculous qualities. What is perhaps most remarkable about Amma is the truly indiscriminatory nature of her hugs. Her embrace marks no boundaries between genders, ages, caste or ethnic background.
This is in contrast to how intimacy between men and women male is frowned upon throughout India. The conservatism over male-female contact highlights another of the many paradoxes of India. India is a place where you are constantly being rubbed up against people on public transport and elbowed in the markets; where you will be forced to strip naked in a massage and have all your bodily parts rubbed vigorously but in public (aside from big cities) you cannot show a bare shoulder. In a country where everything is so raw and open; men peeing on every street corner, herds of farm animals sitting/shitting on the highway, litres of mucous and flem being propelled from mouths and noses in every direction, where bodily fluids are so free and unconfined, the shunning (or fear) of intimacy is a curious contradiction.
Though in India, boys and men certainly do not seem to shy away from showing their affection for one another. Everywhere you look boys wander the streets holding hands and grown men embrace one anothers shoulders. This form of male intimacy is bizarre to the western eye, as contact between two men is presumed to have homosexual undertones.
Touch has become so intertwined with sex, almost to the point that touch becomes graphic – it feels invasive to our sense of personal space. Perhaps in a country like India that suffers from over population and where privacy is a luxury, not hugging is a means of defense against the fact people are up in your face all the time. Whereas the West adopted the hug as a way to free individuals from the cold, unfriendly nature of modern life, in India hugs are almost unnecessary – at least not a requirement to prove oneself as an emotionally mature person. When life is lived out in the open there is nothing left to hide, or to be freed from. Or at least what is deemed as necessary to individual well-being may be far more immediate and essential than a hug.
The meaning of the hug is still controversial in India. But this leaves the hug in an ambiguous space that allows possibility for the hug to become more than merely a social obligation. India has the foresight to see the hug is not a remedy to the world’s ills. This could be due to the fact that individual subjectivity is considered differently than the ‘I’ centred self prominent in the West. The hug is something to be desired when one’s sense of self is constructed in competition with others, when the self is only after satisfying one’s own interests. Yet when the self is considered as one of many, the self is always tied to others, so there is no need to demonstrate closeness – (closeness is always there).
But as India continues to develop rapidly into a capitalist power it may not be long before we see the spread of an individual centred self – no doubt already prevalent in India’s cities. In turn India may then undergo a similar process of emancipation from emotional and psychological repression as experienced in the West and the hug, along with cognitive behavioral therapy and happiness babble, will rise in popularity, falsely promising to liberate the Indian population from their psychological misery and relieve them of their craving for intimacy.
Regrettably as a consequence this may cause India to lose its delightfully grotesque openness and boundaries will be placed on desires; eradicating India’s contradictions leaving only formality and a one-dimensional sense of self in its place.
Filed under: Happiness
Filed under: Happiness, Subjectivities | Tags: Adam Curtis, alternative, demands, emotions, happiness, hugs, London riots, Slavoj Zizek, St Paul's protests, Wall Street protests
Have hugs and happiness led to a better, more enlightened world or to increasing levels of self-absorption?
The ubiquity of the Hug, as Adam Curtis has recently highlighted, on TV and across media has promoted certain standards about how we should display our feelings and what our ability to show our emotions says about us as human beings.
I want to suggest that the Hug has become a part of the modern problem of not being able to imagine any alternative to the world of today. The Hug is no longer liberating, it is restraining.
For Curtis the hug, contary to its promise, is not liberating nor is it an opportunity to connect with a deeper sense of authenticity but rather has led to the creation of a population of inward-orientated, self-absorbed people.
An article by Slavoj Zizek recently featured in The Guardian, discussed the Wall Street protests and the (lack of) demands of the movement. In this article Zizek remarked: “One of the great dangers the protesters face is that they will fall in love with themselves.” It could be seen that both Curtis and Zizek are grasping at a similar theme. The protesters of Wall Street, St Pauls and elsewhere may find they share a common goal of a desire for an alternative. In these moments of marginalisation a sense of solidarity is fostered amongst the protesters. But the danger Zizek speaks of is the danger of failing to counteract the desire to belong, to be part of something special, to feel exclusive. If they fail in this the protesters will subsume into a clique, too busy facilitating their own egos, admiring their own feats of courage. For the protesters should realize they are merely an instrument in the process; they are not an end in themselves.
The hug however serves to boost this ideology that tells everyone they are unique and special and makes everyone feel good. Organisations such as Action for Happiness in the UK embody and actively embrace this idea of showing and feeling positive emotion as the way to change ourselves and resolve the world’s problems. This ‘happiness agenda’ stimulated by David Cameron and the creation of an index to measure the country’s happiness, has seen the emergence of groups such as the Free Hugs Campaign. Here is a video that gives you a flavour of what the campaign is all about:
The hug is presented here as the ultimate way to connect with others. It is utilized as a way to counteract the isolation and alienation of modern life. Similarly happiness rhetoric re-emerges at moments of crisis as a means to overcome the discontentment we feel. While there is nothing inherently wrong or problematic about wanting to feel good; problems do occur when the desire to feel good is at the cost of dealing effectively with the inequalities in society. Feeling happy becomes a way to avoid and turn a blind-eye to world outside.
The hug is thus used actively or passively as a quick-fix solution to both internal (problems of the self) and external (social, political and economic issues) dilemmas. This display of emotion via the hug is deemed as a truer more authentic action in contrast to the cold, mechanical world around us. And yet the hug in its ubiquity has become a shallow and meaningless instrument used to provide the idea of intimacy. A hug becomes an obligation that shows what a caring, kind-hearted person you are. If you do not engage in this required etiquette you are somehow deficient, your personality is flawed.
The obligatory hug simply forms a new identity, no more or less true than the previous one. What is revealed is not the ‘true’ self but another false sense of self, another disposable identity. For any identity we adopt is ultimately disposable and thus we should recognise them as such rather than deem them as truth. We should be vigilant to all demands on truth and all personas we adopt that parade themselves as being more authentic than others. If we are to engage in grouping emotions and actions by their truthfulness we are automatically imposing false criterion on our emotions and losing the possibility for organic feeling. The expression of emotion through the hug is an attempt to transcend the binds of day-to-day life. But as we categorise emotions into acceptable forms, we bind our feelings also. In the words of Luce Irigaray:
Don’t force yourselves to repeat, don’t congeal your dreams or desires in unique and definite representations. You have so many continents to explore that if you set up borders for yourselves you won’t be able to “enjoy” all of your own “nature”. (Luce Irigaray, ‘This Sex which is Not One’, p203-4)
The obligatory hug can serve to smother the potential to explore our nature rather than stimulate it, as it limits the possible ways for self-expression. The protesters too will find their potential smothered if they continue to limit their gaze with short-sighted vision. The lack of tangible demands of the protesters is a real and pressing one. And while it is fair to say that creating a space for questions and ambiguity is important, the struggle to provide an alternative message speaks to the consciousness of the protesting generation. This could be witnessed in full effect in the London riots in August. What began with a purpose swiftly descended into incoherence and apathy. It would seem young people (and indeed old) don’t know what they want, so they latch on to ideas easily and easily fall back on to old ideas when the new ones fail. The rioters in London lost their intentions and returned to the wants they had been indoctrinated with, i.e. consumption and materialism.
The question of what do we want – as Zizek details – is an significant one and not only in regards to the current protests against capitalism. The ability to decipher what we want has been destroyed by growing up in a generation in which each individual has had to endure the bombardment of fantastical images that tell us what we want. Silence is no weapon despite what Zizek may claim but a poor offering that exposes the confusion at the heart of the protesters and the fear of radical visions.
A gap in the political consciousness has opened, a space that has been steadily worked and fought for, so why are we not asking the right questions? Why are banners such as this one being held at the St Paul’s protest?
Happiness does not have to be synonymous with wealth, yes, but why are we asking to be measured in any form? Happiness can be – and is already – easily exchanged with wealth as a measurable factor, through a process that will go the same way as the hug: bound up in obligation, destroying contingency, spontaneity, the haphazard nature of emotion; a mere token in the capitalist game.
The desire to protest and the desire for hugs and happiness all come from the same place. They are all caused by a dissatisfaction and discontent with the state of things and a need to make it all better. Yet in the flurry of protests and hugs it is easy to look inward rather than out and get absorbed in fostering each other’s egos. This is perhaps a tactic to avoid what is happening in the wider world, but it is also a tactic to avoid looking truly deeper into ourselves. When we take a look deeper we see we don’t really know what we want. There is fear and confusion and ambivalence. A hug provides a comfortable space of introspection without the danger of entering territory that will question your sense of self. The protesters too will remain in this non-space of no alternative if they refuse to step out of their comfort zone. It is not possible to conjure radical visions from a subjectivity that is so entwined with the form of individualisation – the identity – tied to the state, for each time they provide an alternative it will only be a demand for an adjustment of the system – e.g. measuring happiness instead of wealth.
So how to voice this alternative? Lets start with less hugging and more awareness; let’s finally open our eyes and (to paraphrase Luce Irigary) lets not congeal our dreams and desires in unique and definite representations any longer.
Filed under: Happiness | Tags: attention, behavioural economics, happiness, Howard Davies, LSE, Paul Dolan
This week I attended a lecture at the LSE entitled ‘Absolute beginners: Behavioural economics and human happiness‘ given with a certain car salesman charm by the slightly slimy Professor Paul Dolan. Thinking about it now I am not sure whether I have ever felt quite so alone as I did that Tuesday evening. As Howard Davies, who was chairing the event, cracked bad jokes and the numerous suited grey-haired or poncy-haired men around me guffawed in response I felt for the first time a deep soldarity with the unwashed dishevelled looking types at Goldsmiths, not to mention the reawakening of my contempt for Davies. But my discontent was something more than that. I will attempt to document here the distinct bad taste I was left with after my visit to LSE (a distaste caused only partially by my envy of the fancy interior of the New Academic Building).
Paul Dolan is an advisor to the current government and one of the Mindspace team that are responsible for introducing the idea of behavioural economics into policy. Dolan’s lecture encapsulated the recent themes and ideas that have been propagated recently; the role of nudges and incentives; the fact that people don’t do the ‘right’ things and the findings of positive psychology and the happiness ‘data’. He introduced a new theme as well however, namely the importance of attention in understanding individual behaviour. Essentially Dolan was arguing that where attention is drawn affects the judgements a person will make. When we are asked to reflect on something it becomes ruined, or becomes a distorted version of the ‘truth’. This causes problems and can explain why we are ‘prone’, in Dolan’s words, to making mistakes about happiness. This is because when we imagine the outcome of a decision, to give up smoking for example, it may seem hideous and frightening but afterwards Dolan says we realize the reality was not as bad. But we avoid making these ‘right’ choices because of what we imagine may happen.
Our attention is therefore is not allocated properly. Dolan goes further to state that attention is either voluntary or involuntary and that us humans are largely driven by involuntary attention. This involuntary attention is an unconscious response and outside of our control. Therefore when we make a decision we often think we construct a rationale before making a choice, but instead in Dolan’s opinion we make an unconscious decision and then rationalize afterward with an explanation that is actually at odds with the subconscious reasoning behind our choice. This subconscious decision is the ‘real’ behaviour as it were and Dolan et. al. (the government) are now trying to find ways to measure this ‘in the moment’ choice on deciding that what people say about their choices cannot be trusted.
What I find strange about this is less the verity of the argument concerning the process of decision-making but the usage of the subconscious in the understanding. Again the paradox emerges where on the one hand we see individual responses taken at face value in happiness studies (which inform a lot of this behaviour economics thinking), and the proliferation and championing of cognitive behavioural therapy, which rejects psychoanalysis and the subconscious and maintains a superficial understanding of the human psyche, and on the other an embracing of the role of the subconscious in decision-making. Now this selective usage of the subconscious is nothing new. We only need to think back to the ways in which Freud’s ideas were picked up and then utilized by heads of marketing and advertising and politicians (as illustrated so brilliantly by Adam Curtis in the Century of the Self). Both then and now the ideas were taken not for the emancipatory tool they had the possibility of being but as a new technique to manipulate the masses. The aim of exploring subconscious drives is not to understand where they come from, what they do, how they are constructed, but rather to find out how these involuntary attentions can be redirected. Yet something far more pernicious is occuring now for these actions are being spoken out in public. As Dolan spoke about the aims to re-orientate our desires a packed lecture (people had to be turned away) applauded – whereas I felt we had officially reached the End Times. For now this manipulation is being undertaken under the guise of ‘for your happiness’ or to increase your well-being. Happiness is beyond reproach, an unquestionably good endeavour, right?
But scratch a little beneath the surface and it is not hard to discover the foundations of this happiness agenda – simply economics. Unhappy people are expensive and they increase unemployment. This is the reason behind IAPT (Improving Access to Psychological Therapies) which emerged following the finding that countries with high GDP aren’t necessarily happier. The move in positive psychology appeared as a happy coincidence as suddenly all this data emerged to say that what people think they want (money) doesn’t make them happy. IAPT with its deliverance of nationwide time-efficient CBT was then created in order to remedy the increasing depression rates that now were a cause not of lack of wealth or socio-economic status but simply maladaptive thinking. This was also a convenient solution for the government as it would resolve the problem of unemployment and demands on health services without having to change the structures of an unequal society.
This is even more apparent in the new developments in IAPT where clients/patients are provided with employment advisors. The intention has never been so clear, a report declares unemployment makes people depressed so therefore lets get them back into work asap. But what about considering why people may become ‘depressed’ when they are unemployed? Because they live in a society with a high precedence and value on being employed and a disgust of those who do not work perhaps? Even the language – you are ‘un’ employed, you are defined positively or negatively by employment, to have a job is not be ‘un’ leisurely for example.
So whether it is to get us to get a job, or give up smoking or recycle more the strategies used by the government are designed to reorient our thoughts not only on a conscious level but also it would seem now on a subconscious level.
This new approach is once again reshaping the common conception of subjectivity. There has been a move from taking an individuals account or reporting of their own lives without question, and holding up the subjective account as the most valuable claim on experience, to claiming that what people say they want is at odds with their true desires. In the hands of politicians this seems a troubling situation as the presupposition that there is a ‘true’ unconscious drive behind our each choice or act, and further that our drives are always bad or deviant or uncontrollable, grants the powers-that-be the permission to harness this abnormality and remould it towards the ‘appropriate’ goals that suit their ends, i.e. creating an easily malleable population.
Conscious thoughts are undermined or are viewed as unnecessary in this understanding of the subject. When we are consumed by something or pay it too much attention we are allowing thoughts to take on different proportions or more importance than should be attributed to them. This is also classic CBT speak, in which thoughts are labelled irrational or logical. Depression for example is a result of a consumed mind according to Dolan. A mind consumed with depression leads to poor judgement, as do wandering minds. A recent study in Science claimed ‘ a wandering mind is an unhappy mind’. The article presented research that claimed the people reported to be less happy when they were thinking about things other than what they were doing in the present. Instead of considering the fleeting, contingency of thoughts or the importance of uncomfortable thoughts, thinking at all, other than about the act you are undertaking is apparently problematic because it may produce a feeling of being less than ecstatic.
Too much thinking is a bad thing. It would be best it seems to now stop thinking altogether and just let the government through its nudges and incentives do it for you.
P.S. Dear Howard Davies if you are still Director of LSE/alive in three years time please find it in your heart to forget the bellend comment above and please, please, please give me a lecturing post, regards.