Episode 125: Psychology is often how societies avoid looking in the mirror

William Davies In this episode I connect with sociologist William Davies from the UK, author of the book The Happiness industry – How Government and Big Business sold us Wellbeing. He is a Senior Lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London, and also the Co-Director of the Political Economy Research Centre. In our conversation we explore some of the main ideas and critiques put forth in his book, perspectives which I must admit shook up some of my own assumptions and values regarding topics such as wellbeing, sickness, mindfulness, politics and capitalism. Feel free to join the discussion by leaving your comments below.

(3:50) How the book came about
I start of by asking William how the book came about. What was is that inspired him to explore the topics of happiness and wellbeing? Earlier on he had written a book about how policy makers and experts from diverse fields influence and shape political reality. He was also interested in economics and how the ideas of neoliberalism have been applied in regards to governance. When the financial crisis erupted in 2008 he was observing with interest what he and many others thought would be the collapse of the capitalist and neoliberal worldview. What he noticed, however, in the world of business and commerce, was a turn towards psychology and mental health as a way to explain and cope with reality. Economists and policymakers would now look to the mind when trying to understand and intervene in regards to challenges such as health, behavior, unemployment and social problems. In stead of exploring possible political, moral or societal underpinnings, they would point to how peoples minds weren’t functioning correctly, or how hormones or the brain were firing up in ways that were dysfunctional for the individual.

(09:45) Are we reducing political problems to psychological issues? 
This tendency to direct one’s gaze inwards, towards the personal, rather than outwards, towards the collective or political, is something that has intrigued me a lot over the last couple years. More so because I have a deep interest in meditation and transformative work in general, especially the approaches to transformation that imply some kind of introspective methodology. I still believe it’s really important that individuals work on themselves and their own issues, because I know from experience how easy it is to project one’s inner and personal turmoil out onto a collective or public tapestry. I suppose this is also why Davies’ perspectives are so refreshing for me, because it’s a reminder of what can happen if we neglect the political or start reducing every problem or issue there is to the personal and psychological realm. Such a worldview could potentially serve an autocratic regime all to well.

(11:15) Societal injustice, positive psychology and the focus on me 
Davies points out that there is statistical evidence showing a correlation between social and economic inequality and the distribution of mental health disorders, such as depression and anxiety. For instance, societies that gravitate towards “1 % owning it all” has higher levels of anxiety than societies where wealth is more evenly distributed. Furthermore, the main problem with mental health phenomena, such as depression, is that they cast the blame on the individual, making the person responsible for his or her sickness. The movement of positive psychology has also helped to anchor our focus on the individual. The story goes something like this: in stead of focusing on other people and all the things that are wrong in your life, rather focus on the positive! Lift yourself up, change your mood, take control over your inner life! Help someone else and be altruistic, because this will make you feel better. However, this approach could be criticized for it’s overindulgence on the individuals wellbeing. What about just doing something good for your neighbor because it’s good for your neighbor? Or, as a sociologist might typically claim, because this is what social groups do to create cohesion and some kind of functioning unity? Hence, Davies calls for a more collaborative and social culture where people can come together and better their lives through common pursuit, and not just as a myriad of individual projects side by side. Davies also makes a point of how directing one’s anger or frustration outwards probably makes for a less depressive society.

Book by William Davies

Book by William Davies

(15:45) Treating the kids instead of changing the system
I raise my concern for how methods such as mindfulness might be used in subtle, but still oppressive ways, for instance in schools. I work as a teacher and practice mindfulness and other forms of meditation myself, and I’ve had a role in promoting the use of mindfulness in different contexts, including schools. At the same time I feel a bit uneasy in regards to how we might be tempted to use such approaches. My biggest fear is that mindfulness is applied to treat “unruly”, “depressed” and “hyperactive” students, instead of actually transforming the school system and making it more suitable and relevant for these “sick” kids in the first place! Such a task is both social and political and probably more challenging than just making students cope better with the existing system. Davies chimes in and points to how in Britain there is a marked increase in the rates of stress-related problems amongst teachers and students in school. If we listen to what the teachers have to say themselves, in regards to why levels of stress are rising, they will point to some pretty concrete reasons, such as government policies and rapid changes in regards to curriculum and testing regimes that don’t serve the students development. Teachers who become sick can of course go to the doctor where they might get subscribed some antidepressants or cognitive-behavioral therapy, but going to the doctor will not change the system! So instead of giving voice to the teachers critique, and challenging the unhealthy school system, we’re just diagnosing and individualizing the problem: You are stressed! Your body is burned out! You are the problem!

(20:05) Capitalism and the diagnostic culture of mental health issues 
We then explore the scary links between pharmaceutical companies and the diagnostic classification system known as DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). In his book Davies argues that there are some clear links between capitalism and neoliberalism, and how we understand and treat human suffering. The first DSM was published in 1952 by the American Psychiatric Association. This first document wasn’t that controversial, but with the DSM-3, which came in 1972, there was a huge shift in the way mental health issues were understood and diagnosed. In addition to supporting the psychiatric profession in their standardization and codification of mental illness, the document also served the pharmaceutical industry and health insurance companies. The impetus to try and understand the human being behind the symptoms was lost, and the appreciation for the depth and idiosyncrasies of individuals were glossed over. In stead, mental illness was likened to some sort of risk-management practice where the goal was to quickly and accurately categorize the patients illness before treating the condition through precisely subscribed pharmaceuticals. This again could lead to clear classifications amongst insurance companies, and maybe more importantly, an overall standardization of how mental illness was spoken about amongst experts in different fields.

(25:10) When grief becomes a disease 
There has also been great controversy in regards to how the DSM-5 classifies grief, for instance in relation to loosing a loved one. Even in the DSM-4 there was a so-called “bereavement exclusion”, implying that the diagnosis for depression would not be given during an extended period after loosing a loved on. But in the newest edition this exclusion principal has been eliminated, and clinicians can now diagnose patients even within a couple of months after loosing a loved on. A new diagnosis has also been inserted labeled as Prolonged (Complicated) Grief Disorder, which, must be said, aims to differentiate between normal grief and depression. Nevertheless, Davies points to how the inclusion of new diagnoses correspond to new pharmaceuticals being introduced onto the market. If pharmaceutical companies are to sell a product there has to be a clear link to the specific ailment it can treat. The precise language of the DSM therefore serves their purpose and makes it easier to market their products. It’s also a fact that members of the advisory board for the American Psychiatry Association have clear links to pharmaceutical companies! Someone is making it easy for someone to make money, perhaps? For more information and a balanced discussion about the controversies surrounding grief, and if or how to diagnose it, see these two articles from Psychology Today:

→ “DSM-5 Controversy Rages On in the Bereavement Community”, by Deborah L. Davies Phd. in Psychology Today.
→ “More Than 65,000 Grievers Must be Heard and Should Be Heeded“, by Allen J. Frances M.D

(26:50) The scientific study of positive and negative emotions
We shift our focus to how the emerging field of neuroscience is having a huge impact in relation to discussions on wellbeing. Davies explains that the scientific and seemingly objective study of positive and negative emotions dates back to the 1960s, when there was an increase in phenomena such as depression. This was also the time when governments started to conduct large scale happiness surveys on a regular basis. But it was the advent of fMRI and other types of highly sophisticated imaging technology that really opened our minds (or brains rather) to further scrutiny. For the first time scientists could pinpoint the neurons that were active in relation to different mental conditions, making it possible to explain such things as sadness and happiness with reference to firing patterns in the brain or the release of certain chemicals. The positive thing about this was that it made it easier to speak about mental health because people could just blame a “faulty organ”, like any other form of disease.

(30:31) When the political is taken out of the equation
The flip side of this development is that the political or social is taken out of the equation. In positive psychology there is a notion that you can “choose” to be happy or sad, because it’s possible to take control over your thoughts and train your mind into positive states. But this is also a provocation towards underprivileged people, or anyone who might have some really good reasons for being pissed of or sad! Davies remarks that this focus on the individual is probably strongest in the United States where the so-called “American dream” is heavily imbued with values of personal effort. It’s up to you if you want to make it! On the other side of the pond, Davies explains that in Britain there are huge efforts being made to get people of the welfare system and back into the labour market. In some cases positive thinking and even cognitive behavioral therapy is issued to propel people back to work. The problem is that these approaches can be out of touch with the reality of poor people or social groups who for different reasons have problems entering the labour market. Slogans such as “every time I fall I will pick myself up again” could perhaps become an easy substitute for actually pushing through real material changes?

(40:10) Beyond happiness – how could the movement become more wholesome? 
Davies’ book is a critique on the happiness an wellbeing industry, but are there other ways of approaching these themes that might be more wholesome? His main argument is that we have to take a closer look at the underlying societal causes for unhappiness, such as the competitive culture in schools. Competition will of course create winners and losers and our capitalist society is imbued with the same divisive and competitive culture. It’s important that more people engage in non-competitive activities and support efforts that are non-commodified. In general, our capitalist society is probably not working very well when it comes to serving the larger community in regards to general wellbeing and happiness.

(43:00) Feedback and reviews on his book
I ask Davies how his book has been received. As one might expect there has been some kickback from representatives of the happiness and wellbeing movement, for instance the British “happiness guru” Dr. Anthony Seldon wrote a book review with a fair amount of criticism. On the other hand, many have welcomed the critiques put forth by Davies because they point to some possible ways in which the happiness and wellbeing movement can go astray.

Episode links:
William Davies, personal website
The Happiness industry – How Government and Big Business sold us Wellbeing, book by William Davies

James Alexander Arnfinsen (redaktør)
James Alexander Arnfinsen (34) er lærer og arbeider i Osloskolen. Han har bred erfaring innenfor dialogbasert prosessledelse, nærværstrening og konflikthåndtering. Ta kontakt med James på følgende adresse: james.arnfinsen @ gmail.com
James Alexander Arnfinsen (redaktør)
James Alexander Arnfinsen (34) is a teacher, his subjects being geography, religious studies and sports science. He is currently working as a teacher in Oslo, Norway. In his spare time he practices Aikido, a Japanese martial art.
  • James Arnfinsen

    In the interview with Will Davies I point to how mindfulness could be misused in schools, for instance being used as a disciplinary tool. My concern is echoed by what co-director of the Mindful Schools Organization Megan Cowan points to in this remarkably lucid and inspirational talk. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D83VV18Lc5s

  • James Arnfinsen

    Here are a couple of articles that discuss similar themes as was pointed to in my interview with Will Davies:

    Mental illness is largely caused by social crises such as unemployment or childhood abuse and too much money is spent researching genetic and biological factors, psychologists have warned.


    I think it’s interesting that when I talk about my depression in a public manner people usually feel the need to prescribe things to help the situation. As if I have a cold and I just need to drink some lemon tea or something, not understanding that depression is, at least for me, something that is structurally created. I am depressed because I live in a white-supremacist, patriarchal, capitalist world. I am depressed because people that look like me are constantly being murdered. I am depressed because the State has purposely made it difficult for black families like mine to survive. I am depressed because I have suffered traumas from white supremacy and the police state. I am depressed because the only way this will end is if we have continual revolutions. I am depressed because I don’t know if I’m going to know how it feels to be free.