Academic journal article New Formations

The Happiness Turn

Academic journal article New Formations

The Happiness Turn

Article excerpt

This special issue represents the first cultural studies collection on the question of happiness and the modalities of its various affects. Happiness has long been at the centre of philosophy, posed as the moral question of what counts as the good life. Different traditions within philosophy have offered very different arguments about happiness, from classical Greek models of eudaimonia as a good and virtuous life, to utilitarian models of happiness as the greatest good. (1) The papers in this special issue offer fresh perspectives on this intellectual history of happiness.

Rather than begin with the question 'what is happiness?' a cultural studies approach asks: 'what does happiness do?' To what do we appeal to when we appeal to happiness? It is certainly the case that happiness is appealing. Happiness is consistently described as the object of human desire, as being what we aim for, as what gives meaning and order to human life. As Bruno S. Frye and Alois Stutzer argue in their economics of happiness, 'Everybody wants to be happy. There is probably no other goal in life that commands such a high degree of consensus'. (2) Happiness might acquire its hold by being given as an essential truth, as 'something' that we have already consented to in the very direction of our wants.

Cultural studies can make an important contribution to debates about happiness precisely given its willingness to refuse to consent to its truth. We might even suspend belief that happiness is what we want, or that happiness is what is good. In this mode of suspension, we can consider not only what makes happiness good, but also how happiness participates in making things good. Cultural studies can allow us to explore how happiness can make certain truths 'true' and certain goods 'good'. By analysing appeals to happiness, we can consider what it is that makes happiness appealing. Our task in this special issue is to reflect on the very terms of its appeal.

Our aim is also to respond to happiness as a way of responding to what comes up. Happiness has certainly 'come up'. In 2006 alone, numerous books were published on the science and economics of happiness. (3) The popularity of therapeutic cultures and discourses of self-help have also meant a turn to happiness: many books and courses now exist that provide instructions on how to be happy, drawing on a variety of knowledges, including the field of positive psychology, as well as on readings of Eastern traditions, especially Buddhism. (4) It is now common to refer to 'the happiness industry': happiness is both produced and consumed through these books, accumulating value as a form of capital. As Barbara Gunnell describes: 'the search for happiness is certainly enriching a lot of people. The feel-good industry is flourishing. Sales of self-help books and CDs that promise a more fulfilling life have never been higher. (5)

The media is certainly saturated with images and stories of happiness. In the UK, many broadsheet newspapers have included 'specials' on happiness (6) and a BBC programme, 'The Happiness Formula' was aired in 2006. (7) This happiness turn can be described as international; you can visit the 'happy plant index' on the World Wide Web and a number of global happiness surveys and reports that measure happiness within and between nation states have been published. (8) These reports are often cited in the media when research findings do not correspond to social expectations, that is, when developing countries are shown to be happier than overdeveloped countries. One article about the 'shocking' findings of global happiness research begins with the sentence: 'Would you believe it, Bangladesh is the happiest nation in the world! The United States, on the other hand, is a sad story: it ranks only 46th in the World Happiness Survey'. (9) The shock reveals the expectation of where happiness should be found. Happiness and unhappiness become 'newsworthy' when they are attached to claims about specific individuals, groups and nations. …

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