Amber Murray ponders whether happiness has become the currency of our times.
Happiness. Success. Fulfilment. Difficult concepts to pin down, and even more difficult to achieve. Right? Well, no — not if you work in advertising. A good life can be yours for the price of one overly stylized, well-lit IKEA showroom. Happiness appears to be the currency of the times, and the market is booming.
Money On Our Minds
Americans spend more time and money in the search for everlasting happiness than any other nation in the world, but they consistently rank as some of the least happy. The form of happiness advertisers sell us is unaffordable and frankly unattainable — and yet we appear to obsess over it. For many, life and the pursuit of happiness revolve around the constant quest to acquire more money to buy more things (often in direct competition with our peers) at the sacrifice of both our personal relationships and free time. Of course, this is not to say that everyone should up sticks and move to a rural farm to grow beets, free from the shackles of free-market capitalism. As a response to this many have found a simpler solution: mindfulness. Mindfulness has its roots in Buddhist teachings, yet it is a relatively recent phenomenon in the West. It aims to immediately declutter your life and focuses on being present in the ‘here and now’. It is touted by everyone from business executives to celebrities who praise it as ‘revolutionary’ and ‘ground-breaking’, despite that scientific research on the topic being extremely limited. The paradox is, then, that this new anti-consumerist trend is — you guessed it — being capitalized on by consumerist forces.
Mindfulness has produced a consumer product with an ideal dual purpose. On the one hand, it promises to alleviate stress in employees — often in organisations where corporate culture is at the root of the problem. On the other, a commodity with infinite sales potential. This makes it almost the perfect product. According to the Global Wellness Institute, the global health market grew 10.6% to $3.72tr from 2013 to 2015, while the global economy shrank 3.6% over the same period. However, in refracting mindfulness through the lens of consumerism we are allowing the quick-fix neoliberal mind-set that dominates our politics and culture to exploit it. Equally, in many ways this phenomenon has opened a new market for happiness in the form of buyable lifestyles rather than just tangible goods. The market for happiness suddenly appears endless.
An All Consuming Happiness
This quick-fix happiness industry of self-help books and meditation courses can only be a short-term solution to the serious socio-economic problems in our society. Instead of asking ourselves, ‘what we can do to make ourselves happy?’ we should be asking ourselves why we are so focused on this question in the first place. Simply, ‘happy’ goods are in such high supply because of the phenomenal growth in demand for them. Not coincidentally, the industry boomed in the wake of the 2008 recession, during which countless lost homes and livelihoods practically overnight — many of whom continue to struggle a decade later. The number of food parcels handed out in the UK increased from 41,000 in 2010 to 1.2m in 2016. Thirty-seven percent of Britons identify as ‘JAMs’: Just About Managing. Buying a self-help ‘mindful’ book is not very different from buying a lottery ticket — both provide the very real albeit unlikely possibility of an immediate solution.