It is no secret to readers of Tricycle that the current craze for all things mindful is controversial. It is especially controversial where representatives of corporate culture—like Google’s Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute (SIYLI)—lead the way.
Corporate apologists claim that their programs are not about Buddhism; they’re about employee wellness. This position would be more plausible if so many programs and publications didn’t feature the iconography, language, and spokespersons of Buddhism, such as one finds, for example, at the Wisdom 2.0 conference held annually in Silicon Valley.
Then there are those scholars and practicing Buddhists who complain that corporate mindfulness removes meditation from its religious context for purposes that are contrary to Buddhist ethics. Worse yet, they say, it tends to make religion secondary to neuroscience and mathematical quantification.
Finally, there are those who don’t get what the uproar is about. Surely meditation for stress relief is better than what we used to have: martini lunches and cigarettes. (Granted.)
The larger question that isn’t asked often enough is why corporate culture has decided to get its Zen on. Are its leaders just large-hearted people concerned about the welfare of their employees and willing to offer compensation beyond a salary? Or are they cynically affecting a religious philosophy only in order to enhance profit by reducing absenteeism and to sustain customer loyalty by Buddha-branding their products?
William Davies’s The Happiness Industry offers a comprehensive account of corporate mindfulness. In his view, what Google and others are doing with mindfulness is merely part of a long tradition, part social vision and part business strategy, that seeks to address the unhappiness of workers without having to change anything about the way they are run. Thus meditation seminars help Google’s employees to manage stress without suggesting that Google itself has any role to play in the creation of that stress.
Davies acknowledges that there is a problem. Nowadays managers may be largely free of the obligation to deal with unions, but they do have to deal with “employees who are regularly absent, unmotivated, or suffering from persistent, low-level mental health problems.” A large part of the reason for their psychological suffering is the unrealistic image of perfectibility that contemporary capitalism offers, in which there is “one ideal form of human existence: hard-working, happy, healthy, and, above all, rich.” Striving to achieve this ideal produces a society with “nothing but private fulfillment as its overarching principle.” Unfortunately, for the vast majority of people private fulfillment is a chimera. The reality is that this ideal “condemns most people to the status of failures, with only the faint hope of future victories to cling onto.”
Davies contends that capitalism addresses the unhappiness of its workers by leading them to think that the source of their unhappiness is “inside themselves” (as corporate mindfulness advocates would put it) and not outside in the material context in which they work. In short, people need to be convinced that if they’re unhappy it’s their own fault. This is the role of ideology. (It also has more than a passing resemblance to the more familiar claim, usually forwarded by those on the right, that if you are poor it is your own fault for lacking self-discipline, for failing to get an adequate education, and for refusing hard work. Again: Blame yourself.) And so the stressed-out software designer or the data drone with eyes crossed after a long day writing code needs to “look inside,” not at the nature of the work or the company and certainly not at the production system in general. A worker’s unhappiness is a call for treatment, but it is not a call for critique and reform.
This theme is plenty revealing on its own, but Davies’s supporting narrative about how capitalism succeeded in getting labor to blame itself is rich and compelling. The “blame yourself ” tradition begins, according to Davies, with Jeremy Bentham and utilitarianism in the mid-19th century. Bentham argued that “nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure,” much as our culture has reduced human emotions to happiness and depression. Bentham was opposed to philosophical speculation and desired to base his theory on a quantifiable basis, a science of signs of pleasure or pain. He looked to the scientific investigation of physiology to provide an index of pleasure based on things like pulse rate, but he was most interested in how money could provide a measure. Pleasurable things, he thought, would command high prices, while unpleasant things would not, making it an ideal way to measure well-being.
These were and remain the options: money or the body. Economics or physiology. Payment or diagnosis. . . . When the iPhone 6 was released in September 2014, its two major innovations were quite telling: one app which monitors bodily activity, and another which can be used for in-store payments.
And so we go on measuring our well-being either through surveys and data-driven happiness indexes, or through the lingering Calvinist ethos that says that money equals happiness.
Subsequent chapters trace the Benthamizing of the American lifeworld in frightening detail, modestly but regularly punctuated by the author’s own “honest indignation,” as William Blake put it. Davies argues that capitalism not only reduces pleasure to neurological events but also makes it the central economic fact.
In the early 1980s it was discovered that dopamine is released in our brains as the ‘reward’ for a good decision. To economists, this posed an enticing question: could value in fact be a real, chemical substance, in quantity, inside our brains? When I decide to spend $10 on a pizza, might this actually be because I will receive an exactly equivalent quantity of dopamine, by way of reward? . . . Perhaps it might be possible to identify the exchange rate through which these dollar-for-dopamine trades are undertaken.
A hypothetical: once a Google employee has been educated in the (sometimes questionable) neuroscience of meditation, and once she has experienced the pleasurable, calming effects of a meditation seminar over in corporate wellness, she might consider attending a weekend retreat up in Mill Valley, depending on the cost of registration. How much money is a weekend of dopamine-rich meditative equipoise worth? $200, for sure. $500, maybe. But unless it’s a celebrity guru, a $1,000 price tag will lead this fictional employee to take what dopamine she can get from Netflix and pizza. She is “constantly making cost-benefit trade-offs in pursuit of [her] own interests.”Davies concludes:
Why would anyone believe that, in our fundamental biological nature, we operate like accounting machines? The answer to that question is simple: to rescue the discipline of economics and, with it, the moral authority of money.
And that, as much as any one thing, gets at why it is worthwhile to question what is going on with presenting Buddhism as a scientifically proven, corporate-friendly stress-reduction technique.
Davies is a brilliant research sociologist but not a theorist, and he is under no obligation to solve the problem he has described so well. Still, one can’t help wishing his proposals for constructive change were stronger. The first seven chapters of The Happiness Industry are revealing, thoroughly researched, and frequently jaw-dropping in their conclusions. But the last chapter, unhappily, is disappointing. In contrast to Robert Browning’s dictum that “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for,” William Davies’s grasp in The Happiness Industry could be said to exceed his reach: that is, his powerful analysis is much stronger than the set of recommendations he provides for “what’s to be done.”
For example, Davies suggests that placing distressed workers in nature or on farms is a superior form of therapy compared to self-help technologies. He also thinks we should have more opportunity to talk in order to allow our emotions to be more richly developed and not reduced to mathematical quantifications of “verbal behavior.” His last word on the matter is that understanding the “historical and political origins” of our condition “involves a strange tinge of happiness in spite of unhappiness: hope.” The problem with this prescription is that it is too much like the malady. We are instructed by our corporate masters to be hopeful just as often as we are told to be happy. Moreover, Davies offers better therapies for those workers who are supposed to be the winners in the economy of the future, but he has little to offer the bottom half of the income curve.The fundamental problem that Davies confronts is not only the “neuro-industrial complex.” The problem is that we live in a money regime. As Marx put it, “We carry our relation to others in our pocket.” With Davies’s guidance we now understand that we also carry our relationship to ourselves in our pocket. Many of us dislike this society of money, but we also live under the following threat: you will find a way to get money to flow through you or you will suffer. (It is the specter of homelessness that currently haunts us.) If we accept the authority of money, if we “get a job,” we might have access to pleasure and happiness—if we don’t have a mental breakdown first.
The fundamental problem that Davies confronts is not only the “neuro-industrial complex.” The problem is that we live in a money regime. As Marx put it, “We carry our relation to others in our pocket.” With Davies’s guidance we now understand that we also carry our relationship to ourselves in our pocket. Many of us dislike this society of money, but we also live under the following threat: you will find a way to get money to flow through you or you will suffer. (It is the specter of homelessness that currently haunts us.) If we accept the authority of money, if we “get a job,” we might have access to pleasure and happiness—if we don’t have a mental breakdown first.
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.