Book Review: Manufacturing Happy Citizens by Cabanas and Illouz

Review by William Fleming

Manufacturing Happy Citizens: How the Science and Industry of Happiness Control our Lives by Edgar Cabanas and Eva Illouz was published by Polity Press in 2019.

Edgar Cabanas is Research Fellow at Universidad Camilo José Cela. He is the co-author of Manufacturing Happy Citizens: How the Industry and Science of Happiness Control our Lives (Polity, 2019), co-written with Eva Illouz and translated to more than 10 languages. He is also co-editor of Routledge’s series on Therapeutic Cultures since 2018, and researcher in several R&D international projects. Find more on Research Gate and Twitter @ecabanasd

Eva Illouz is the Directeur d’Etudes at the EHESS, Paris.  Her work focuses on the intersection of capitalism and emotions. She is the author of 13 books translated to 20 languages. 

Manufacturing Happy Citizens is a robust, critical response to the proliferation of research on happiness and well-being and how it has been co-opted and marketised in the neoliberal era. The argument made within focuses on a deconstruction of the positive psychology movement and happiness economics which have increased in prominence since the late 90s. Notably, these academic movements have inspired a plethora of pseudo-scientific therapy and wellness practices which permeate everyday life and which all claim to be the key to being happy and healthy and the answer to the good life. We see adverts, products and initiatives in workplaces, universities, gyms and sports clubs, supermarkets, bookstores, and, of course, on social media. We are inundated with the message that we must strive to self-actualise by improving our well-being. Here, Edgar Cabanas & Eva Illouz discuss in detail the emergence of these trends and in doing so construct, not just a rebuff of this normative and hubristic science and its commercial offshoots, but rather a wider, moral critique of contemporary capitalism.

Cabanas & Illouz’ co-authorship creates an inter-disciplinary approach by building from Illouz’s sociological work on the commodification of emotion (emodification) and Cabanas’ on psychology and neoliberalism. The book is then dual-situated in a tradition of Foucauldian governmentality studies and of critical psychology. The former is evidenced by a sociological concern with rationality and emotions, counter to Ruut Veenhoven’s questionable claim that sociologists are “more interested in what people do than in how they feel” (2008: pp.44); and the latter is shown by the authors’ quoting of Jeff Sugarman’s argument that, historically, psychologists have been “preserving the status quo” and not “agents of sociopolitical change” (pp.81). It is a bullish and effective collaboration between the authors which continues a turbulent history between the disciplines and of an unreciprocated sociological interest in psychological answers and practices.

There are a number of intellectual protagonists (or, perhaps more appropriately, antagonists) of positive psychology and happiness science who are introduced in the first chapter and come under particular scrutiny throughout. Key inclusions are Martin Seligman, former president of the APA, and Richard Layard, of LSE and former economics advisor to the Labour Party during the New Labour years. Their aspirational approach to research and its profitable links to industry and policy are taken as emblematic of the marketisation of academia but, more importantly, it is an approach which has made their research and philosophies ripe for exploitation by a neoliberal logic seeking to absolve itself of the material repercussions of inequality. Relatedly, a highlight of chapter one sees Cabanas & Illouz note the cynical adoption of happiness and general well-being indexes as policy outcomes amidst extended periods of government-implemented austerity, for example in the UK, or alongside human rights abuses and mass poverty, such as in UAE and India. Chapter two continues this argument and emphasises that the social, economic and political turn to ideals of happiness is a product of the fundamental moral imperative of neoliberalism, which places responsibility and accountability within the individual. Again, the authors critique the attempt to displace material concerns of justice and equality with attention towards an empirically dubious “well-being”. They do not argue that there is no benefit to be gained from considerations of psychology, but that happiness is distracting from ensuring basic needs are met. Notably, they discuss the perversity of an overt attention to happiness which paradoxically makes people anxious and depressed at our inability to fulfil such imperatives.

Considering its relevance to my own research interests in workplace health promotion and corporate wellness, I found chapter three to be the most pertinent. Cabanas & Illouz reflect on changes in organizational structures and labour processes since the neoliberal turn and investigate how positive psychology is disseminated into the workplace through corporate culture and how it is altering the ethical relationship of capital to labour. Flexibility, autonomy and resilience are key components of the happiness lexicon which are dissected to reveal the capitalist logic which underlies their prominence. For more immediate concern with how positive psychology and wellness are blurring the ethics of work, readers may wish to turn to David Frayne’s recently published collection The Work Cure (2019).

We are continually told that the secret to happiness is merely a purchase away. Chapter four laments this commercialisation of emotion and so is developed from Illouz’s work. Whether it is an app on our smartphones or the latest self-help book, the message clearly defined by positive psychology is that our self-realization and the Good Life can always be achieved through market participation and individual consumption. Finally, chapter five presents a moral argument against the philosophy and normativity of positive psychology and the associated industries. They argue that marketised happiness contributes to a new structure of citizenship which creates a hierarchy of psychological states, an “emotional stratification” (pp.157-162). The author’s moral response is an impassioned argument against the reductionist and naturalist narrative of happiness as the key to self-actualisation. Whilst the moral objections made by Cabanas & Illouz in the final sections of their book are commendable, it does cause some level of obfuscation. Their earlier chapters on the technocracy of positive psychology emphasise classical sociological concerns with material justice and equality. The shift to a moral objection of happiness science, then, limits, to a degree, the continuity of their argument. However, this is more observation than criticism and productively leaves the reader with a will for political resistance against the invasiveness of neoliberal governmentality.

The literature linked in the text is at times a little underwhelming. The work builds implicitly from that carried out by Nikolas Rose in the 90s but does not reflect on Rose’s later work, with Abi-Rached (2013), on the neoliberal weaponization of neuroscience, a process which Cabanas & Illouz only briefly touch on. By developing these criticisms, the work could avoid the fear that this is a discipline-based sociological attack on contemporary psychology. Similarly, regarding referenced material, citations such as Ulrich Beck (pp.51) jar with the authors’ criticisms of other perceived neoliberal scholars such as Layard. However, a more substantive criticism of this work would be that the authors do not reflect on how the new values of happiness and well-being can further marginalise the already-marginalised. For example, how does positive psychology address generational trauma; higher rates of depression in women; or the normative exclusion of those with long term disabilities? These are questions that require immediate further research.

For those well-versed in literature on the entwinement of psychology and market and on neoliberal technologies of the self, this book may not prove too shocking. However, it does still act as a contemporary update or as a helpful launch pad for those earlier in an academic career or related project. Nevertheless, Cabanas & Illouz present a just-in-timely intervention to the ubiquity of positive psychology in everyday life and the pervasive imperative of a corporate, commodified happiness. For any critically trained sociologist, I am sure that the claims made by such sciences and the wellness industry feel, at times, insidious. It is this discomfort which Manufacturing Happy Citizens so coherently and poignantly articulates.

William Fleming is currently a PhD candidate in sociology based at Jesus College, University of Cambridge. His research is taking a mixed-methods approach to workplace health promotion and corporate wellness and asking if it works, who for and should we even want it to. He tweets @WillJFleming.

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