Such is the exuberant optimism of the staff at Pret A Manger that you’d assume they were treated well. But Pret A Manger’s employees aren’t overjoyed because of good workplace conditions, generous wages, or regular hours; instead it’s because management have told them to be, and with sickening specificity. As Paul Myerscough explosively outlined in the London Review of Books, Pret A Manger have an internal list of behaviours that they encourage their staff to exhibit through a combination of pre-selection, peer pressure, and public shaming—a culture stoked by management-employed mystery shoppers who have the power to reward or punish the entire staff of a branch if just one individual comes across as downbeat. Employees are told to avoid using “jargon inappropriately,” and to keep things personal by engaging in physical contact where possible and making sure they don’t put out a “just here for the money” vibe; indeed, their behaviour is micromanaged so that it seems like selling sandwiches to tourists and commuters is the sum of their aspirations. Meanwhile, the happiest sandwich shop on the high street engages in low pay and union busting.
This “affective labor” psychologically manipulates both sides of the exchange. The underpaid precariat are explicitly directed to struggle not just physically but emotionally, too. Their faux camaraderie flows towards the customer through their smiles and pre-planned offers of free tea and coffee and, while breaking down any possibility for genuine human interaction, contribute heavily to the company’s bottom line. In this way, companies like Pret A Manger—or Apple, to name another, with its “Genius Bar,” and its tech-hip attendants who loiter casually, as if midway between flirting and serving you a drink—don’t merely want efficient service with a smile, but also issue a set of rigid, intimate directives ordering employees not just how to act, but also how to exist.
Such a phenomenon seems creepy, but really we should be used to it. While most of us don’t have to endure employers who dictate our emotional state, we do live in a society in which the obligation to be happy is prevalent and the onslaught of cultural and political soma is palpable. The dull success of Pharrell’s 2014 track “Happy” wasn’t just down to its repetitive lyrics or its adherence to the saccharine pop-hit formula, but also because it tapped into this ideological hegemony. When Pharrell sings that “happiness is the truth,” he is, in fact, making a profound ideological statement, and one that accords with much that neoliberalism implies. Our immediate physical reality, Pharrell instructs, is unimportant. What matters is how individuals interpret and react to it. We have the agency to choose, our politicians and pop singers tell us, and thus the logic of the market is extended beyond the realms of commodities and services, engulfing our emotional states, too.
This pressure to be happy is part of a trend that disconnects our emotions from their material realities. When fringe theatre companies try and cheer grumpy commuters up, they have adopted the belief that it is possible to individualize our wellbeing, and disconnect our emotional states from their material realities. It fails to occur that the commuter or sandwich-shop worker is unhappy for a reason—that spending hours a day crammed into a neon-lit underground to work a monotonous, spiritually unfulfilling job that occupies the majority of their time on this earth may be valid grounds for discontent.
Individualization of happiness is related to the de-politicization of welfare. Once our mental state becomes a choice—to pop a pill, consume some more, or simply smile because why not? —our material situation wanes in importance. Why moan about inequality, spiralling rents, cuts in welfare or service provision when improvements in your material condition make little difference to your happiness anyway?
This line of thought finds its ultimate expression in the charity Action for Happiness, an organisation which funnily enough throws me into a deep-set depression every time I read about it. Founded by privileged individual Lord Richard Layard, Action For Happiness claims that “our circumstances (like income and environment) affect only about 10%” of our happiness. The other 90 percent is down to genes, upbringing, activities and relationships, with the charity framing the latter two as arenas in which individuals have near-total agency.
If this sounds crass then it should, because it is little more than a collection of half-truths twisted into reactionary propaganda. Layard is right in asserting that income past a certain point has little bearing on happiness. But that point is around $75,000, an income that is sheer fantasy for the vast majority of the world’s population.
In a similar way, how can we decouple our upbringing from material conditions? It’s as though Lord Layard believes that having enough to eat, a decent education, and parents who are able to read to you at night rather than having to work shifts in a warehouse would have little to no positive impact on your childhood.
Action For Happiness’s idea is to encourage people to find happiness through their choice of “activities,” a notion which may have been true of the 18th century bourgeois gentleman who could spend his day shooting grouse and riding horses, but is utterly divorced from the daily reality most of us face. Even the relatively privileged have no choice but to spend vast swathes of their lives at work, the majority in jobs that are dull and alienating. And in our sparse periods of time off we find ourselves still plugged into work via the tyranny of our smart phones, anxious about rent, bills or the possibility of being fired, and unable to properly relax into or afford the increasingly commodified nature of leisure activities anyhow.
And what of the global south? Here we find the majority of individuals with next to no agency; at the behest of droughts, disease and economic imperialism, persecuted by propped-up dictators and futures traders playing with the prices of wheat and corn. How can we say to these people that they should just choose to be happy, while their very survival is threatened by macro forces so far beyond their control?
The bottom line of this ideological attempt to paper over the cracks of late capitalism is the idea that if material conditions don’t matter, neither does inequality. If happiness is down to the individual, then why bother changing the system? Indeed, Lord Layard unwittingly reveals himself: “Unhappiness means feeling bad and wanting things to change,” he chimes. Wouldn’t that be just terrible.