The Happiness Fantasy by Carl Cederström

The Blurb On The Back:

In this devastatingly witty new book, Carl Cederström traces our present-day conception of happiness from its roots in early-twentieth-century European psychiatry, to the Beat generation, to Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump.  He argues that happiness is now defined by a desire to be ‘authentic’, to experience physical pleasure, and to cultivate a quirky individuality.  But over the last fifty years, these once-revolutionary ideas have been co-opted by corporations and advertisers, pushing us to live lives that are ever more unfulfilling, insecure and narcissistic.

In an age of increasing austerity and social division, Cederströmargues that a radical new dream of happiness is gathering pace. There is a vision of the good life which promotes deeper engagement with the world and our place within it, rather than the individualism and hedonism of previous generations.  Guided by this more egalitarian worldview, we can reinvent ourselves and our societies. 

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Carl Cederström is Associate Professor at Stockholm Business School, Stockholm University and in this interesting look at the notion of happiness as being the fulfilment of your potential (with failure deemed to result from a poor attitude and inability to manage your life), he examines how the idea started with Wilhelm Reich and tracks its rise with the Beatniks and co-opting by big business to its impending demise with the rise of Trump.

Cederström begins the book with a summary of the life and work of Wilhelm Reich, a psychiatrist and disciple of Sigmund Freud but whose increasing focus on sexual happiness through the achievement of orgasm led to a split between the two. I hadn’t heard of Reich before but Cederström provides a fascinating precis of his life and work and then ties it in with how his work was taken up by the bohemians and the rising counterculture, being built on and incorporated in the rise of treatment centres.

Particularly chilling is the chapter looking at the so-called ‘Me Decade’ and the rise of the ‘est’ training programme.  It is genuinely terrifying what methods this consisted of and how it became so popular and how it led to the belief that people can take control over their own lives and avoid becoming victims.  Cederström does particularly well in linking this attitude in with the social media generation and how we’re all encouraged to confess and be transparent.

I also enjoyed how Cederström then goes on to set out how changes in managerial approaches emphasised focusing on culture as a way of increasing worker productivity by making employees feel like they’re part of the company they work for.  This includes encouraging workers to see work as a way of discovering their true selves, which (as Cederström points out, is the opposite of what the Beatnik generation were looking for).

I was less convinced by Cederström’s look at how drugs have similarly changed from being used as a means of escape to a means of becoming more creative and productive.  It’s an interesting chapter – especially on the development and use of LSD and Prozac in terms of pursuing happiness – mainly because I am not convinced that there’s a serious problem with people taking drugs to improve their task building as Cederström’s evidence seems to relate to what students do and not what happens when they join the work place.

Cederström writes in an accessible manner and draws on a wide variety of sources (from psychology to business studies to literature). I can’t say that I found it particularly witty (as per the testimonials) but it is engaging and it held my attention from beginning to end, offering readers an interesting perspective on attitudes to work and to happiness and as such I think it’s worth a read.

THE HAPPINESS FANTASY was released in the United Kingdom on 24th September 2018.  Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s