The celebration of happiness as a virtue in and of itself is motivated by a powerful mood of atomisation and disenchantment with public life. Western societies attach less and less value to those virtues and emotions that demand social engagement and civic responsibility. Emotions aimed at self-fulfilment tend to be presented positively, while feelings that bind the individual to others are regarded with suspicion.[snip]
So today, emotions are classified into the positive (joy, happiness, contentment) and the negative (fear, anger, sadness, hate). Positive emotions are those that make you happy; negative emotions are those that make you discontented or miserable. The feeling of contentment has become the defining feature of individual health. ‘Wellness’ has been transformed into a health goal, in line with the World Health Organisation’s redefinition of health in 1946 as a ‘state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing, not merely the absence of disease or infirmity’. Today’s emphasis on feeling good reflects the fact that the individual self has become the central focus of social, moral and cultural life. And since feeling happy is regarded as something like a state of virtue, things that distract the individual from attending to his emotional needs are devalued: hard work, sacrifice, altruism and commitment are presented as being antithetical to the individual quest for happiness.
The shift towards therapeutic governance is underpinned by the idea that individuals are weak and fickle. Individuals are no longer seen as self-determining subjects capable of exercising democratic citizenship, but rather as potentially ‘damaged goods’ who need the support of professionals and Layard’s army of 10,000 counsellors to instruct them on how to be contented. This anti-democratic sentiment informs today’s happiness programmes. People are not so much engaged by government as ‘treated’, ‘supported’ or ‘counselled’ by it.