Battle in Print: Building ourselves happy

Karl Sharro, 12 October 2010

‘So happiness is good for you.’ - Movement for Happiness

Words of wisdom are best left to the East. The West may have dominated the world intellectually for centuries, but when it comes to the philosophical one-liner Confucius can still command a monopoly over the fortune cookie business. Western thinkers trying to ‘do’ wisdom fare no better than their middle-aged hippie counterparts dressed in traditional oriental attire. Unsightly, undignified and ridiculous.

This brings me to the three personalities behind the Movement for Happiness. A more ridiculous attempt at emulating the Three Wise Men of the East has never been attempted this side of the Urals. Observing the curious way in which the New Labour mind works has been a passing hobby of mine for a number of years now, and this is a classic example. When confronted with an unregulated human activity, no matter how individual or subjective, it springs into action. Everything must be measured, recorded and compared against targets.

So, it was only a matter of time before someone noticed that happiness has somehow escaped official attention. Lord Layard blasted the way with ‘Happiness economics’, a branch of ‘science’ that makes homeopathy look like astrophysics. Happiness economics purports that traditional measures of wealth like GDP and GNP are not sufficient to assess the well-being of individuals and society, so it proposes to measure subjective indications like self-reported happiness.

Layard founded the Movement for Happiness (MfH) with Anthony Seldon and Geoff Mulgan. This manifesto of malaphorisms opens with keen observations such as, ‘everyone wants to be happy, yet many are not’ and the abovementioned, ‘happiness is good for you.’ It goes on to propose that the ‘scientific’ pursuit of happiness should be a central goal for society. Ironically, having banged on at length about how money can’t buy happiness it goes on to say: ‘We would be delighted to hear from people or foundations who could help with money.’ But irony or concern with paradoxes aren’t strong traits of the New Labour mind.

’Happiness is the absence of the striving for happiness.’ - Chuang Tzu

The Movement for Happiness is of course a manifestation of the ‘happiness agenda’, and it’s easy to wonder what Chuang Tzu would have made of ‘striving for happiness’ becoming part of any such agenda. Tzu’s aphorism shows that along with our changing attitude to happiness, we seem to have also lost the ability to appreciate abstract ideas. Contrast the elegance of his words with the crassness of ‘happiness is good for you’.

According to the MfH, happiness isn’t an abstract quality that should be pursued for its own sake; but one that can only be appreciated because of its instrumental value. Its ‘goodness for you’ factor, so to speak. Rather than focusing on what could be done to create the conditions that allow individuals to pursue their own paths to happiness, they turn the idea of happiness into a platform for intrusive monitoring and the setting of acceptable behaviour patterns.

Despite paying lip service to Enlightenment ideals, the MfH in fact is anti-Enlightenment in all aspects. It’s esoteric instead of being in favour of reason. Its aims intrude on autonomy instead of nurturing it. And, perhaps most importantly for this discussion, it’s dismissive of the benefits of material wealth whereas Enlightenment thinkers recognised the value of prosperity for creating the conditions for the good society.

The authors of the MfH mistakenly assume that their crass utilitarianism is connected to the Enlightenment, but their promotion of the happiness agenda is ultimately a revolt against its values.

The rapid dissemination of the happiness agenda indicates the diminishing impact of the Enlightenment legacy on ideas and public life today. The lack of coherent ideas about our place in the world and the absence of any strong visions of how we should organise society make faddish ideas like the happiness agenda look convincing in a climate of intellectual bankruptcy. Architecture, embodying as it does our cultural values, is particularly susceptible to the influence of such faddish ideas.

’Humanity has advanced, when it has advanced, not because it has been sober, responsible, and cautious, but because it has been playful, rebellious, and immature.’ - Tom Robbins

Perhaps I was wrong about wise men of the West; obviously there are exceptions. Sobriety, responsibility and caution are the cornerstones of architectural practice and education today, which doesn’t bode well for its advance if Tom Robbins is correct in his judgement. Robbins once stated, ‘freedom is more important than happiness’, which makes me trust him more than the MfH.

The architectural establishment in the UK takes happiness very seriously. For example, the RIBA’s think tank, Building Futures, wants to, ‘ensure knowledge and understanding of “Happiness Science” is higher on the agenda of Architects and Designers.’

The happiness agenda in architecture is part of a general acceptance of environmental determinism, the idea that we are shaped by our physical environment rather than social conditions. The mainstream acceptance of this idea is illustrated by Paul Finch, chair of the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, who claims that there are many examples of ‘built environments that are conducive to developing and encouraging mental health.’

Environmental determinism is a branch of geography that had its heyday in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But between the two world wars it came under serious scrutiny and was discredited, to the extent it disappeared for several decades. It re-emerged in the ‘80s within criminology through the ‘broken windows’ theory. This asserts there is a direct link between the state of the physical environment and criminal behaviour. Rudolph Giuliani’s draconian ‘zero-tolerance’ policies as Mayor of New York were based on this theory.

Architects and urban designers today are drawn to environmental determinism as it seems to offer methods for behaviour modification and control. But whether this is used to prevent crime or promote mental well-being, it starts from the same assumptions about human behaviour. It has no qualms about subjecting this behaviour to control through the design of the physical environment. The promotion of the happiness agenda may appear benign, but as Foucault illustrated in his study of the prison system in Discipline and Punish, such control tactics are disciplinary in nature. 

Discipline in this instance is not as sinister as when enforced in nineteenth century prisons, but Foucault’s study illustrates how it was replicated across other institutions such as hospitals and mental health institutions with the aim of creating ‘docile bodies’. There is certainly a resonance of that in the way the happiness agenda demands conformity and predictability of behaviour. It’s an old joke within architectural circles that buildings look much better without the people. (Architectural jokes aren’t meant to be funny, perhaps another reason why architects shouldn’t ‘do happiness’.)

‘Happiness science’ allows architects to believe there is an empirical dimension to their designs that solves the ‘problem’ of unpredictable users (otherwise known as ‘life’). But when this science is scrutinised, there is very little on offer by way of empirical evidence.
Aside from vague generalisations about daylight and ventilation, the empirical aspect of happiness science is as absent as the elusive homeopathic molecule.

This becomes even less convincing when we consider the fact that there are extensive codes and regulations that specify the technical requirements relating to building performance, and by the time architects finish responding to them there’s very little left room left for manoeuvre. So what is the mysterious component of happiness science that makes it heal patients quicker and raise the performance of students as its advocates claim?

The prolific writer of high-brow self-help books Alain de Botton attempts to answer this question in his book The Architecture of Happiness. To his credit, de Botton doesn’t stray too much into the mumbo-jumbo of happiness science but seems to realise our response to architecture is primarily aesthetic in nature. He considers what works and what doesn’t in aesthetic terms. Some of his explanations were convincing while others were far-fetched. But his singular achievement is to realise the fundamental shift that characterises architecture in the modern era: we have to design for and seek the approval of a mass audience. As he puts it:

‘The great architect-revolutionaries were a synthesis of the artistic and the practical. They know how to draw and think, but also how to cajole, charm, bully and play long, patient, careful games with their clients and with politicians. Because the days of absolutism are over (as Le Corbusier was not the first architect regretfully to observe), we can no longer behave like Louis XIV, who would only have to wave his hands for buildings to be moved as though they were children’s blocks.’

Cajole, charm, bully and play games. To paraphrase The Godfather, architects used to reason with them. Reason, as distinct from empiricism, requires a measure of imagination, and a capacity for conceptual thinking. It may rely on empirical evidence, but it cannot be exclusively empirical in nature. Reason presupposes the ability to take leaps of faith that depart from traditional forms of authority yet remain within the realm of rational explanations. In the absence of reason, empiricism emerges as the unimaginative replacement.

The fourth cornerstone

This is the problem with architecture today. Unable to make such leaps of imagination, architects are falling back on empirical evidence to justify their designs. The situation is not dissimilar to that of politics: there was a time when politicians would inspire people with ideas and politics was perceived as the clash of competing visions for society. Today this has been replaced by that dreaded phrase: evidence-based policy, reflecting the managerial mindset that governs politics. Happiness science in architecture is the evidence-based substitute for the lack of visions.

Le Corbusier expanded all his energy on convincing clients armed not with evidence but visions: he saw the future and wanted to be the one to design and build it. This attitude has been replaced by extreme modesty, the fourth cornerstone of architectural practice today. Our aspirations have been downgraded in recent years and architects have internalised this narrowing of expectations. They are content with playing the role of technical consultants, relaying on happiness science to compensate for lack of vision.

‘Happiness’ however is not an accidental choice; it is carefully selected because it suggests acceptable and undemanding offerings. In that respect, happy architecture is not more challenging that its culinary equivalent, the Happy Meal. It suggests convenience and availability but doesn’t promise much by way of quality. There is an analogy to be made with art here: the happiness agenda represents the dumbing down of architecture. While architecture is not purely an artistic discipline, it embodies within it cultural and conceptual dimensions that make it more than a strictly utilitarian exercise.

Great architecture is challenging. It demands attention and mental energy. In its highest forms, architecture can be dramatic and thoughtful, enigmatic and sublime. How we react to it is ultimately a matter of disposition, but great works of architecture can captivate people while leaving space for individual interpretations and experiences.

It will be a sad day when these distinctive qualities are sacrificed for the sake of something as banal as the instrumental promotion of happiness.


Karl Sharro is an architect and writer based in London. He blogs at Karl reMarks:

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