Battle in Print: What does happiness mean today?

Ashley Frawley, 12 October 2010

From the speeches of politicians to my well-meaning university’s organisation of a staff ‘Well-being Day’, the fact that ‘concern with well-being has been increasing globally’ has become impossible to ignore. Yet while there appears to be a never-ending supply of reports about the gross national unhappiness of British society at large and studies about what will and won’t make us happy, few have seriously questioned the reasons behind the issue’s rise and rapid proliferation.

Are we simply becoming more aware that, as a pair of ‘happiness economists’ have put it, happiness has ‘always been the “secret motive” behind nearly every human pursuit’ (Frey and Stutzer, 2005:208)? Is this a reclaiming of what one commentator calls our ‘ancient birthright’ (Bowditch, 2009), or an age-old ‘human preoccupation’ that is being ‘reframed in order to challenge our prevailing political assumptions’ (Bunting, 2005)? Is the true meaning of happiness to be found in the grey matter of our brains, or must it be wrestled away from psychologists, redefined by philosophers, historians, or even sociologists?

I would like to suggest that to whichever definition we subscribe will ultimately depend little upon the discovery of some objective truths applicable in all contexts and at all times. Rather, that happiness and wellbeing -two idioms representing a single problem -have taken root now, says less about their deeper meaning and significance than it does about the particular historical and cultural moment in which we find ourselves. As the sociologist Joel Best points out in an important study of the subject, in some sense, ‘there is no such thing as a new social problem’ (Best, 1999:64).

Rather, our conceptualisations of new social problems depend a great deal on the manner in which we’re accustomed to talking about already familiar issues. ‘Happiness’ and ‘well-being’ did not appear on everyone’s lips because the problem had got so pressing that the powers that be were forced to sit up and take notice. Rather, it is part and parcel of a culture is already familiar with claims that problematise emotion, and growing increasingly hospitable to highly abstract and individualised conceptualisations of the social world. Moreover, such claims have been particularly appealing for their propensity to promote consensus and minimise resistance.

The Rise of a Familiar Problem

At a given moment, particular terms emerge and become influential idioms through which we conceptualise our problems and condition our perceptions of the sort of world we believe surrounds us. However, we rarely stop to question from exactly where these terms came. Words like ‘road rage’, ‘economic downturn’ and ‘bullying’ emerge seemingly from the ether and come to dominate the headlines, become the subject of endless debate and of public policy interventions. A few, like ‘self-esteem’ go on to permeate the popular lexicon and influence the way we conceive of ourselves and our social world.

Whether or not this will be the case for happiness and well-being remains to be seen. But we can already discover some of the reasons for its seeming unprecedented dominance in academic and public discourse and in the public policy interventions through which many everyday people may experience it for the first time.

At least part of the issue’s success can be attributed to the effective mobilisation of what some sociologists have called ‘rhetorical idioms’ (Ibarra and Kitsuse 2003:25-27). These are the distinctive ways in which claims about a problem are elaborated, and which encourage us to conceive of issues in some ways and not in others. They are ‘moral vocabularies’ in the sense that they presume a certain degree of familiarity and agreement upon the importance of the values they evoke.

Successful idioms situate conditions within familiar categories and draw upon a ‘cluster of images’ that resonate deeply within a particular culture (ibid.). In our society, claimsmakers and audiences alike are already familiar with and receptive to claims that evoke a ‘rhetoric of vulnerability’, which situates ‘people and their experience within the context of powerlessness and lack of agency’ (Furedi, 2008).

It is little wonder, then, that this rhetoric has been so appealing. Unlike other idioms like ‘bullying’, happiness outwardly appears as a positive development, a much needed emphasis upon values and virtues. But it, along with the ever-growing array of ingredients that are supposed to constitute it, is deeply impressed with the language of deficits.

For one expert, the discovery that ‘individuals are capable of astonishing resistance, coping, recovery and success in the face of adversity’ merely provides an ‘optimistic outlook for intervention’ (Roberts, 2010). It’s a discourse which almost invariably presents people as being constantly in need of expert guidance, who cannot be expected to manage even the most mundane aspects of everyday life.

True happiness, ‘studies show’, is inherently beyond the comprehension of the everyday individual. ‘People are not very good judges of how…to increase, let alone maximize, their happiness’ we are constantly reminded (Lane, 2000:9). Rather, it is something that properly falls under the purview of specialist knowledge and is a feeling best pursued under the supervision of a trained a professional. Or it is not a feeling at all, but actually a moral quest, a philosophical exercise, or a set of skills that must be learned. ‘Everyone wants to be happy…’ one person explains, ‘…but most of us don’t know how to do it’ (O’Connor, 2009).

Familiar problems, problematic people

In addition to the receptiveness fostered by our tendency to view the human condition through the lens of diminished subjectivity, the rise of the problem has also been facilitated by our increasing tendency to conceptualise the social world in highly abstract and individualised terms.

Thus, in addition to the plethora of claims about happiness and well-being, we have also seen an influx of similar psychological traits plucked from the social context and masquerading as critique. While of considerably lesser popularity, qualities and dispositions like ‘greed’, ‘gratitude’, ‘empathy’ and even ‘grit’ have been variously cast as causes, aggressors, explanations and cures.

In these constructions, impersonal aggressors like ‘capitalism’, ‘economic growth’, ‘competition’ and so on, become abstract symbols of everything that’s wrong (Furedi, 2008). Anyone flipping through the pages of a major broadsheet could be forgiven for thinking that there would be no crises if it weren’t for ‘greedy bankers’, no mental illness if it weren’t for ‘envy’, that everything would be fine if only people could be taught the skills of happiness, show more gratitude, empathy, lower their expectations and be content with less.

Without a strong understanding of the workings of the capitalist system as a whole (much less an idea of how to replace it), it’s easy to believe things like economic growth and mass migration into cities have been propelled by some sincerely well-meaning but ultimately misguided quest for happiness.

In the absence of a sober interrogation of the socio-economic system, terms like ‘capitalism’, ‘consumerism’ and so on, appear as disconnected objects, an immense accumulation of mistakes and bad lifestyle choices.

Fostering consensus

This communication of social problems in such nebulous terms, far from being an analytical weakness, is actually further fuel for its widespread affirmation and rapid diffusion. When evoking the rhetoric of vulnerability, claims makers emphasise the idea that everyone is a potential victim, but they also avoid singling out any particular group who might object to their being labelled as victimisers.

As Frank Furedi describes, ‘the vulnerable suffer from harm for which it is difficult to assign direct responsibility’ and thus the ‘finger of blame’ can be pointed in various directions without offending any distinct constituency (Furedi, 2008). Without a clear group of adversaries, potential claims makers are presented with little incentive to unite in opposition. Why would anyone oppose happiness?

The previous success of claims about things like ‘equality’ and ‘victims’ rights’ attests to the propensity for claims framed in seemingly uncontroversial terms to meet with receptivity and achieve a high degree of awareness. 

The tendency for claims like those pertaining to ‘safety,’ ‘peace’ or ‘national strength’ to promote consensus and create alliances across parties not normally in agreement make such rhetorical idioms particularly appealing to claims makers. Unlike ‘position issues’ like abortion or euthanasia which can evoke a fierce and often polarised debate, an abstract ideal of ‘freedom’ or ‘change’ ‘elicits a single, strong, fairly uniform emotional response and does not have an adversarial quality’ (Nelson, 1986:27).

Thus, happiness and wellbeing share a great deal in common with ideas like ‘child abuse’ and ‘victims’ rights’; it is difficult to imagine how they could be contested or opposed, since few would argue for depression, defend child abusers or ‘blame the victim’ (Best, 1999:108).

Advocates may not agree on all aspects of the problem and may take ownership or lend support for very different reasons, but the widespread agreement that such issues provoke often drives their rapid cultural affirmation.

What does happiness mean today?

It’s worth noting the problem of happiness and well-being has not arisen from communities, organising at the grassroots level, knocking on doors and campaigning to bring about change. Rather, it is an externally imposed condition category which invites us to conceive of social phenomena and of ourselves in particular ways. It’s deeply bound up with a rhetoric of vulnerability, and has found hospitable territory in a culture receptive to problematised claims about emotion and increasingly disoriented from the idea of the social.

Its rise to prominence can’t be explained as the simple result of a battle for recognition. It didn’t burst onto the public agenda because it could no longer be ignored. Although a thorough account of its rise would require a small volume, we can locate some of the contributing factors in the language of the claims themselves.

If we wish to critically assess ‘what happiness means today’, we would do best not to join the cacophony of competing claims by measuring its supposed parameters, definitions, and positing its ‘real’ causes and solutions. In doing so, we risk contributing to the creation of the very thing we’re purporting to describe.


Ashley Frawley, PhD student at the University of Kent researching the construction of ‘happiness’ and ‘wellbeing’ as a social problem. Ashley is also interested in modern social movements, Marxism and studies in the sociology and philosophy of knowledge.


Best, Joel (1999). Random Violence. London: University of California Press.
Bowditch, Gillian (2009). ‘Return of the past master’. The Sunday Times, 5 October. 
Bunting, Madeleine (2005). ‘Consumer capitalism is making us ill - we need a therapy state’. The Guardian, 5 December.
Frey, Bruno S., and Alois Stutzer (2005). ‘Happiness Research: State and Prospects.’ Review of Social Economy 63.2, 207-228.
Furedi, Frank (2008). ‘Vulnerability - Analytical concept or rhetorical idiom’ in Jerome Satterthwaite, Michael Watts & Heather Piper (Eds.), Talking truth, confronting power. Stoke on Trent: Trentham Books.
Ibarra, Peter R. and John I. Kitsuse (2003). “Claims-Making Discourse and Vernacular Resources” in Holstein J.A. and Miller (Eds.) Challenges and Choices: Constructionist Perspectives on Social Problems. New York: G. Adline de Gruyter.
Lane, Robert (2000). The Loss of Happiness in Market Economies. Yale University Press.
Nelson, Barbara (1986). Making an Issue of Child Abuse. University of Chicago Press.
O’Connor, Richard (2009). ‘Psychotherapist Richard O’Connor suggests ways to greater happiness’. The Daily Telegraph, 25 May.
Roberts, Yvonne (2010). ‘If only we can teach resilience to those who need it’. The Independent , 16 January.

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