Review: Manufacturing Happy Citizens

Chris McNutt
November 12, 2020
Manufacturing Happy Citizens: How the Science and Industry of Happiness Control Our Lives by Edgar Cabanas & Eva Illouz provides a convincing condemnation of "positive psychology", the relatively recent scientific study of happiness.

Manufacturing Happy Citizens: How the Science and Industry of Happiness Control Our Lives by Edgar Cabanas & Eva Illouz provides a convincing condemnation of "positive psychology", the relatively recent scientific study of happiness. Experiencing massive growth in the last 20 years, positive psychology is engrained across science, economics, and education, from apps like Headspace and Happify to mindfulness and SEL workshops.

Cabanas & Illouz offer a connection between "happiness", as defined by positive psychologists, to neoliberal individualism. In the same light as the Horatio Alger stories of the 19th century, "happiness" has become centered on "picking yourself up by your bootstraps", focusing on self-regulation and self-care as opposed to looking at systems/societies at-large. In turn, the commodification of happiness is now entirely centered on an individual's ability to control their own emotions. As the authors explain,

…happiness is now generally seen as a mindset that can be engineered through willpower; the outcome of putting into practice our inner strengths and authentic selves; the only goal that makes life worth living; the standard by which we should measure the worth of our biographies, the size of our successes and failures, and the magnitude of our psychic and emotional development.

Manufacturing Happy Citizens offers many film, TV, and novel references to illustrate our new focus on being happy. One of the main examples is the 2006 hit, The Pursuit of Happiness, where Will Smith plays Chris Gardner, a real individual who miraculously became a successful stockbroker while homeless and raising his son. The critique of this film is reminiscent of the happiness industry:

The movie is a very representative instance of this, with Gardner depicted as the quintessential self-made individual, and his life as a sort of Social Darwinist struggle for upward mobility which ends with the key message that meritocracy works because persistence and personal effort are always rewarded.

Instead of the moral of the story being that we must bring about social change to ensure these inequities are remedied, we instead see a message that we should be like Gardner - work hard and success will result. Indeed, this is what Gardner does now. A widely successful speech and workshop coordinator, Gardner focuses his work on resilience, autonomy, and thinking positive.

Before connecting these concerns for educators, it's important to note how positive psychology has become so prevalent, and what exactly "happiness" is now defined as. As Cabanas & Illouz state,

This book is not against happiness, but against the reductionist, albeit widespread view of ‘the good life’ that the science of happiness preaches. Helping people feel better is a commendable intention. That really goes without saying. But in the light of what the science of happiness has to offer in this regard, we are not so sure that its idea of happiness – henceforth, only ‘happiness’ – is without serious limitations, controversial claims, contradictory results and ill consequences.

The authors trace the history of positive psychology over the last twenty years due to an economic influx to research connecting happiness, resilience, autonomy, and the world of work. It's a connection between science that, up until recently, was considered skeptical at-best, to mainstream studies that are utilized by corporations, publishers, and app developers. Timed during a zeitgeist of war, economic upheaval, and political instability, happiness research offered a huge business opportunity:

Happiness research breathed oxygen into a discipline perpetually looking for its object of study and in constant need of conceptual reinvention in order to maintain its social status, keep attracting funds and remain fashionable. Furthermore, the field finally blurred the thin, porous line that differentiated mainstream psychology from its commercial and professional counterpart.

This is, of course, in spite of the ample research that suggests many of these studies are inconclusive or ambiguous. Yet, this research still offered hope. People wanted an outlet to feel better, and happiness research promised to fill that void:

The global economic crisis of 2008 did the rest. After the global economic meltdown, more and more countries taking advice from psychologists and economists thought that they could well use happiness indicators to check whether, despite the continuing decline of objective indexes of quality of life and equality, people were still nonetheless feeling well. Happiness scholars offered answers to policy makers’ concerns, claiming that happiness was an accurate measure of citizens’ felt and perceived well-being. Thus, against hard, objective indexes of economic and social progress, it suddenly seemed a good idea that softer, more subjective indexes such as happiness could provide a more comprehensive and accurate look at society. If people claimed to be happy, then there was nothing much to worry about – after all, wasn’t happiness the real and ultimate objective of politics, a priority over justice or equality?

Interestingly enough, in an effort to study happiness, it's argued that we are now placing all power in defining and fulfilling happiness with those who study and control this research. Who dictates what makes someone happy? If a variety of studies suggest that it is meditation, then corporations capitalize on meditation programs. After all, science "proves" that meditation works. If meditation doesn't work for you, then the issue isn't whatever the underlying problem is - but that there's another commodified solution offered by positive psychology and its neoliberal business partners.

As we center on "solving" happiness through individualized means, we turn away from the structural problems causing unhappiness to begin with. (Or, arguably worse, we begin to no longer question what "happiness" means. The definition of "happiness" as suggested by these organizations is unrealistic.) We stop questioning how economic inequity causes individuals to suffer, or how political decisions have actually impact on others' emotional well-being. After all, if Chris Gardner could become rich and successful by maintaining a positive attitude, then it's up to us to solve our own problems.

This phenomena is heavily discussed in the book with worrying implications:

Apparently, inequality is accompanied not by resentment, but by a ‘hope factor’ according to which the poor perceive the success of the rich as a harbinger of opportunity, thus raising hope and happiness related to a higher motivation to thrive. This shift is not surprising, though. The meritocratic and individualistic values underlying happiness disguise the fundamental differences of class and endorse competition in unequal systems rather than promoting the reduction of economic inequality…

…we argue that if happiness has come to be so prominent in neoliberal societies, it is because it has proven a very useful concept for rekindling, legitimizing and re-institutionalizing individualism in seemingly non-ideological terms through science’s neutral and authoritative discourse.

Cabanas & Illouz connect our modern obsession with happiness to our obsession with individualism, where we see our lives disconnected from the communities around us and where we center all of our problems and successes on our shoulders. In that regard, in order to be truly happy, we must take all matters into our own hands. It is our fault if we're not happy, because we're not taking the necessary, positive steps of being so.

This is backed up through an analysis of "positive psychology":

…positive psychologist Ed Diener and colleagues stated that despite other socio-economic and political factors, individualism was the variable that most strongly related to happiness. This explains why individualistic cultures tend to produce citizens with higher levels of life satisfaction than non-individualistic or collective cultures. The main reason advanced by Diener and his colleagues is that citizens in individualistic cultures have ‘more freedom to choose [their] own life course’, are ‘more likely to attribute success to themselves’ and enjoy more chances ‘to pursue their individual goals’.

As stated before, positive psychology rarely examines systemic problems such as inequity, so the measurement of happiness is on one's actions. Therefore, there's little study on the circumstances of one's happiness and entirely a focus on one's personal "responsibility."


Like many other concepts and techniques endorsed by happiness scientists and experts, mindfulness thrives on the promise of acting as a panacea for many of the endemic problems that plague today’s neoliberal societies. It also thrives on the belief that the root of these problems is to be found in individuals themselves, rather than in a socio-economic reality. Allegedly, it is not society that needs reform, but individuals who need to adapt, change and improve. Like many of its semantic relatives, mindfulness also supplies people with a sense of peace, normality and opportunity in an insecure market economy. What their followers find, though, is nothing but techniques that make them direct their attention to themselves instead of the surrounding world – and not always with the expected beneficial effects that mindfulness promises. As Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm indicate in their book The Buddah Pill, mindfulness often deepens feelings of depression and anxiety, as well as creates some sense of dissociation and detachment from reality as a consequence of excessive self-centredness.

Similar to the claims above, The Manufacturing of Happiness links mindfulness to the same principles of the growing movement around positive psychology. As is the case with schools, mindfulness is often used to push through negative realities without acknowledging the problems that exist, such as by practicing yoga to ease the pressure of standardized testing. This isn't to say that stress management or social-emotional learning aren't important, but that mindfulness without social justice and systemic change is dystopian practice - it's ignoring the obvious while amplifying ignorance.

Mindfulness is one of the many neoliberal reform efforts in schools centered on socio-emotional learning and (now related) industries:

All these programmes were very much welcomed by a neoliberal, educational culture in which developing emotional literacy, learning managerial and entrepreneurial skills, and engaging in the pursuit of happiness have gained increasing prominence over developing critical thinking, learning reasoning abilities and craft skills, or pursuing knowledge as defining features of students.


…the many pressure groups and lobbying organizations advocating for more happiness in educational settings seem to seriously entertain the idea that educational systems need to address many pressing, fundamental issues in the present other than the psychological. Again, structural and social aspects such as multicultural and social exclusion issues at schools, the growing education gap between rich and poor, the increasing economic difficulties of the population in accessing higher education, the declining investment in study grants and in quality state schools, colleagues and universities, and the increasingly competitive and precarious environment of universities, to name a few, do not usually receive much credit as pressing challenges.

Again, we see the ignoring of the system in favor of simple, easy-to-understand strategies that won't see lasting change.

But these problems go beyond an ignorance of the system. Cabanas & Illouz persuasively showcase through ample research that the practices implored by positive psychology actually worsen depression and anxiety. When we tell students that they are control of their happiness, and that happiness starts with the self - we are also stating that unhappiness is ultimately the student's fault. Incidentally, when we push this narrative students internalize their anxiety and depression further.

Buzzwords and Soft Skills

The manufacturing of happiness is centered in educational buzzwords, namely resilience, autonomy, and flexibility. Each of these concepts is deeply analyzed and traced to the power of "positive thinking."

Each of these soft skills is described in the workplace:

Making ‘happy workers’ – not merely making workers happy – has become a first-order concern for many corporations, which increasingly turn to happiness experts in order to cheer up their employees, restore their enthusiasm for work, help them to cope emotionally with layoffs, and, especially, instruct employees in how to become more psychologically autonomous and more cognitively and emotionally flexible.

And the same language could easily be applied to classrooms. To make classrooms engaging, teachers aim to make their classrooms fun and help them cope emotionally with testing and non relatable standards, and especially be more flexible with day-to-day power struggles between teacher and student.

To extend the connection:

Indeed, a closer look at the organizational reality shows that far from fulfilling this promise, these techniques have proved rather useful for organizations to compel workers to internalize corporate control, to sideline the importance of objective working conditions when it comes to job satisfaction, and to make work contradictions, and self-exploitation more tolerable and even acceptable for employees.

Nothing fundamentally changes in school when we institute small programs to assist in SEL or to focus on soft skills or to make classrooms "fun." Instead, we are making classrooms more tolerable.  (See our article on Neoliberal Schooling.)

Happiness and Teaching

The same ethos is found in the teacher/administrator dynamic. A slew of positive teaching coaching sessions and workshops have popped up across schools to treat teachers as "superheroes" and to "never give up on their students." Speakers (many former teachers) have started to earn ridiculous sums in speaking (often, quite loudly) to emphasize positive thinking and "pushing through" to be a great teacher.

This is a natural extension of the "power of positive thinking" that mirrors corporate policies that make employees accept the detrimental systems they work in. Positivity workshops and publishing is common in the educational marketplace, with authors writing entire books on loud, "passionate" teaching filled to the brink with anecdotal evidence, success stories, and little research. Although it is important to care about teaching and our students, it does not mean that we should ignore dehumanizing classroom systems (which again, almost all of these publishers, speakers, and courses ignore.)

Commodified Happiness

Cabanas & Illouz point out that the power of positive psychology lies within a shallow definition of happiness that consumers can easily latch onto without taking time to truly reflect on their emotional wellbeing. They state,

…whereas happiness scientists and professionals claim that finding meaning and purpose in life is essential for leading happier lives, they never specifically say what exactly gives someone purpose: this is something that only individuals can tell. In this regard, the narrative of happiness lacks specific content so it can be highly plastic and mobile, that is, adaptable to a wide variety of situations, capable of being shared by many others, and able to acknowledge individual particularity but without being sensitive to it. This allows happiness to become an easily commodified narrative able to potentially accommodate anyone regardless of particular circumstances.

In other words, we have taken happiness and turned it into a product, allowing consumers to attempt and purchase "happiness" as a concept instead of exploring why happiness is decreasing systemically. In turn, we relate higher economic spending power as more power to "purchase happiness", further pushing the narrative of individualism and a hyper capitalistic society. This is referred to as creating psytizens, or citizens in neoliberal societies whose worth is built upon "self-optimization" - it's all about chasing the dream through constant purchasing.

When we create a nation of psytizens, we promote quick consumption. We lead ourselves to techniques that don't require much critical thinking or analysis, focusing on quick, fun activities that engage us, make us feel good, and leave us wanting more. A quick survey of Western culture easily highlights this: our social media habits, SEL-tracking activities/tools, and spending sprees.

This has found its way into schools as well, where education products are marketed on Teachers Pay Teachers as fun and engaging, usually ignoring critical questions that make people "feel bad" - tending to be quick SEL activities integrated into the school day with no questions asked, taking no more than 10 minutes.

The SEL apps are described by Cabanas & Illouz:

…they are depicted as services focused solely on practical aspects which can be easily understood, controlled, managed and changed by individuals themselves. On the other hand, all of these techniques claim to offer fast and measurable returns on little investment and effort. Thus, instead of entailing thorough and complex psychological analyses, these techniques concentrate on providing easy, time-saving and theoretically affordable guidelines to problem-solving and effectively turning everyday drawbacks into productive stimuli.

And then connected to the concept of emotional intelligence:

Notions such as emotional intelligence are indeed expressions of a much wider social demand for emotional rationality, with emotions falling heavily into the private sphere of individual responsibility. Emotions are today at the centre of the self-care therapeutic ethos of neoliberal societies: they are considered one of the principal sources of mental and physical health and social adaptation, but also the source of suffering, maladjustment and mental and physical disorders, so it is demanded that individuals strive for their correct regulation and management. Accordingly, the demand for emotional self-management stands out as one of the key elements to incentivize consumption. This is so to the extent that what drives consumers today is not the desire for higher status so much as the desire to efficiently govern and control their own emotional life,15 something that has been both shaped and channelled by a happiness industry that expands to the analogic as well as to the virtual market.

The authors go on to state the problems of applications, big data, monitoring, research, and woeful compliance to engage in self-surveillance for large corporate profits. And they outline the specific issues of quick, one-and-done commodified happiness:

Ultimately, we call into question the effectiveness of one-and-done reflections:

How can a fifteen-minute writing exercise yield any actual improvement in people’s lives? All too often, these exercises give the impression of being little more than a solemnization of common sense (e.g., thinking about one’s goals is expected to make anyone think about how to best achieve them), rather than scientific techniques.

A Movement Away from Social Justice

This argument coalesces into an argument for organization, social justice, and systemic reform. Positive psychology has blurred the lines between science, self-help, and workshop development. As these faux-authentic programs influence professionals, students, and other consumers, we ignore the deep psychological problems of mental health and further ignore systems that dehumanize.

Our students have felt these ramifications, turning to social media to focus on their individual happiness:

There is an ingrained, oppressive demand made on younger generations to curate, craft and communicate via social media an authentic yet only positive version of themselves. Indeed, failing to conform to a positive presentation of oneself to the rest of the world, including showing any trace of negativity, defeat, failure or even political signification, is overtly stigmatized and sanctioned by others, as well as being threatening to the sense of self-worth and social fitness of the youngest…

To this regard, 79 per cent of the students responded affirmatively to the statement ‘I’m aware that my name is a brand and I need to cultivate it carefully.’ In line with these results, one of the interviewees responded: ‘I think [social media] is a good way to market. I think you can market yourself though it […] I try to show myself in a positive light.’

Cabanas & Illouz combine hundreds of research articles to effectively demonstrate a need for a second look at positive psychology and an in-depth analysis of school programs promoting positive teaching or positive SEL workshops for students. Instead, why not focus on the overarching problems? To quote at length a fantastic work:

We need a kind of hope based on critical analysis, social justice and collective action, that is not paternalistic, that does not decide what is good for us on our behalf, and that does not aim to spare us from the worst, but that places us in a better position to confront it. Not as isolated individuals but together, as a society…

To hide such negative feelings under the rug of positive thinking is to de facto stigmatize and make shameful the emotional structure of social malaise and unrest.

…pleasure and the pursuit of happiness cannot trump reality and the pursuit of knowledge – critical thinking about ourselves and the surrounding world. An ‘experience machine’ of the type that Nozick imagined and Huxley novelized is today the equivalent of a happiness industry that aims at controlling us: it not only blurs and confuses our very capacity to know the conditions that shape our existence; it also makes them irrelevant. Knowledge and justice, rather than happiness, remain the revolutionary moral purpose of our lives.


Chris McNutt
Chris McNutt is the co-founder and executive director of Human Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization focused on student engagement, well-being, and motivation. His work centers on realizing systems-based change, examining how progressive pedagogical shifts (e.g. PBL, ungrading) reimagine school to best suit the needs of students and teachers alike. He was a public high school digital media & design educator who focused on experiential learning, portfolio-driven assessment, and community involvement.
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