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Bring me home, please

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The tail-wagging cat, symbol for Yellowburn. Image courtesy of Zoë Hough

It's that time of the year again! The merry days of the Design Interactions graduation show. The final projects are as different from each other as possible and the first work in my short series of RCA posts deals with what The Guardian calls the serious business of creating a happier world. Happiness, it turns out, is no longer just the desire of the individual, but of governments and legislative bodies. In 2011, the UN Resolution 65/309 encouraged member states to measure happiness and countries are now ranked according to the happiness of their citizens. Which 3 years later, sounds as weird as ever.

With Smile, The Fiction Has Already Begun, Zoë Hough explores what happens when happiness becomes a political target.

In her scenario, not only is the happiness of a UK town closely monitored and assessed but active measures are also taken to almost enforce happiness upon its inhabitants.

That town is Blackburn which the Office for National Statistics declared in 2013 to be one of the least happy cities in the UK.

As you can see in the video below, men in suit convene in a London office and draw up a series of measures to turn a miserable and distant town into a cheerful one. People get tax discount if they wear yellow and skip gaily down the streets, etc. Even the name of the place is changed from Blackburn to Yellowburn.

Smile, The Fiction Has Already Begun (video)

Although as individuals we may each wish to be happy, when our emotions become an indicator of government 'success', where might this attempted control over our emotions end, and at what price? This project aims to question the motivations behind this global legislative trend of focusing on happiness, which in its essence is immeasurable.

Does the government want me to feel happy, or are there other, greater, unspoken reasons for their focus on my emotions? This project aims to raise a discussion about these intentions by speculating about a future city, Yellowburn, in the north of England.

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A few questions to the designer:

Hi Zoë! The focus of your project is the city of Blackburn which was declared one of the unhappiest places in the UK. Do you know how this level of unhappiness was measured?

Happiness is no longer just the desire of the individual, but of governments and legislative bodies; countries are ranked according to the happiness of their citizens and happiness is starting to be positioned as a better measure of 'success' than GDP.

As to how Blackburn was classed as one of the least happy places: the ONS (Office of National statistics) conduct an annual survey, including four questions which create what is commonly referred to as The Happiness Index. The questions are:

- How happy did you feel yesterday?
- How anxious did you feel yesterday?
- How satisfied are you with your life nowadays?
- To what extent do you feel that the things in your life are worthwhile?

When I was working on this project the data showed that Blackburn, Newport, Stoke-on-Trent and Inner London were among the least happy places in the UK, but the lists of the happiest and unhappiest places often change when new data is announced.

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View of the work as exhibited at the graduation show. Image courtesy of Zoë Hough

Why did you select Blackburn rather than any other unhappy places?

In this speculative project, Blackburn felt like the kind of place that the Government would select for the trial run of these new happiness proposals. It's up north, it's not too large nor too small, and it's in need of regeneration. Also, although economically Blackburn is now struggling, it was one of the first industrialised towns in the world, and so it seemed apt that it should be the first place to have these happiness proposals implemented and lead the UK into a new, happier, era.

The Investor Document explores the profit potential of happiness. Could you elaborate on that and also tell us if there is any existing political or scientific research on that topic? Is the level of people's happiness already valued as an economical asset?

The research shows that happier people are more agreeable, more healthy and more productive. Therefore, happier people are more beneficial to the economy, as they cost less in policing and healthcare, and create more profit for companies.

Having interviewed Dawn Snape, head of the department at the ONS which carries out the Happiness Index, she admits that they do not know, when asking people about happiness, what it is that they are really measuring, and that the results vary according to who asks the questions, whether the questions are asked in person or over the phone, and so on. Yet, countries are being ranked on this data, UN resolutions have been passed which encourage the measuring of happiness, and happiness is being positioned as a measure of 'national success'. However, with happiness being in its essence immeasurable, for legislative trends to be based on such an immeasurable factor seems to me to be absurd. I would question therefore the motivations for this global focus on happiness - is it just that our politicians want us all to feel happy and good, or is it that they want us to be more agreeable, more easily controlled and more profitable? This project aims to raise a discussion about these intentions.

In my research for the project I met with lawyers to try to determine whether a legal definition of happiness could be created, and therefore whether we could be more precise as to what was being measured - it was in this meeting that I was introduced to the term 'mere puff', which is basically that you can say something which is not believable and therefore you can say it without being held to it. Mere puff is what allows advertisers to make claims like 'open happiness' (coke) which is obviously nonsense. In my project politicians are also able to make certain claims about happiness which are absurd (which i see happening in current politics too!)

In your scenario, people are taxed for wearing black, sent to therapy when they look too gloomy, etc. Why are the measures taken to ensure that the population of Yellowburn is happy so authoritarian?

In this speculative project, in order to climb up the Happiness rankings, the UK Government targets one of its least happy cities, Blackburn, and bans NonHappiness in public places by implementing a number of proposals (one of which is changing its name from Blackburn to Yellowburn as black is the colour of insecurity and fear, whereas yellow is the colour of happy, sun and fun).

The proposals for Yellowburn were all based on research but I wanted to balance fact and fiction and so chose proposals which best worked to highlight the absurdity of measuring something as vague and changing as happiness. In order to measure something one needs to know what one is measuring. It is for this reason that in this speculative future, happiness is defined quite neatly and peoples behaviour can therefore be analysed as to whether it fits the new definition of Happiness. In this way the data gathered can show the UK to be happier, and thus push the UK up the global happiness rankings.

Other proposals include FRCCTV (Facial recognition CCTV) which tracks the happiness of residents by their smile and body language and rewards 'happy' residents with tax credits, and punishes nonhappy residents with tax penalties and escorting them off to the Y-Districts for various therapies. Another proposal was the tail-wagging cat, which becomes a symbol of Yellowburn. Most people feel happy when they see a dog wagging its tail; the thinking of politicians was therefore that cats should also be trained to wag their tails, so that we would feel happy when we see them wag their tails too.

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View of the work as exhibited at the graduation show. Image courtesy of Zoe Hough

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View of the work as exhibited at the graduation show. Image courtesy of Zoe Hough

Let's talk about that therapy. Any citizen who doesn't adopt a happy behaviour is escorted to the Y-District. What happens there?

These Y-Districts would have a range of therapies including CBT, NLP and Psychotherapy. People would also be coached on how to smile better and have body language training to appear happier. There is a cost to the resident for attending the Y-Districts, but attendance is not optional. This cost serves as another deterrent for a resident to exhibit any NonHappiness in public places.

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Still from 35mm Videos. Image courtesy of Zoë Hough

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Still from 35mm Videos. Image courtesy of Zoë Hough

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Still from 35mm Videos. Image courtesy of Zoë Hough

When i talked to you during the press view, you seemed to doubt the sagacity of positioning happiness 'as a better measure of a nations success than GDP.' Why so?

The pursuit of happiness is accepted as a good thing almost without question. This project aims to be the question, one which I think is very much needed to be more audible in our minds. The pursuit for happiness has been raging for centuries despite the fact that we each experience the reality of emotions as rising and passing away. Yet today, scientific research into methods to rid us of unwanted emotions is attracting financial resources from around the globe and the possibility of removing unwanted feelings is fast becoming a reality; this project aims to help people pause, think and feel what the costs of such advancements might be.

I feel that positioning happiness as a measure of success of a country, although it sounds great and lovely at first glance, is ultimately rather dangerous. Once our emotions are important to the government in terms of their world standing and respect from other nations, these emotions are then rife for manipulation and control. We already live in a society where happiness is the 'correct' way to be, where happiness is encouraged, where brands sell to us promising us happiness, where anxiety is treated with drugs, where transhumanists dream of a future where we won't have to feel any negative emotions. For me, happiness is just one emotion, and other emotions should be equally as respected. I wish we would place more value on emotions such as melancholy, as for me they have always been present in my life and I think they need to be listened to more, rather than swept under the carpet or otherwise disregarded.

I should point out that this speculative project is aimed to create debate around the consequences of ranking nations according to happiness, rather than be seen as a reality of a future.

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FIlming through Blackburn. Image courtesy of Zoë Hough

Has anyone from Blackburn reacted to your project, either while you were there filming or later on?

I am very grateful to the residents of Blackburn who I met: they were all extremely friendly and very kind and patient while the filming was going on. Each film is a 3.5 minute continuous steadicam shot - doing rehearsals and then take after take through the back alleys and wasteland of Blackburn with the steadicam rig certainly attracted attention from local residents and a reporter from the local paper came down to find out what we were doing.

Although the data shows the residents of Blackburn as being amongst the least happy in the country, this was not my experience, which perhaps further highlights the difficulty of measuring happiness and adds to the debate as to what it is that we are really measuring.

Could you also remind me of the golf tournament in Newport story? and its impact on the happiness of the town?

Perhaps ironically, the ONS is based in Newport, which is one of the least happy places in the UK alongside Blackburn. So when I visited Newport I interviewed residents about their (lack of) Happiness. Time and time again I was told the story of how, when the owner of Celtic Manor (a golf course just outside Newport) wanted to bring the Ryder cup there, he lobbied to turn the town into a city. This new city status brought with it increased council rates and business taxes, which people could not afford. Coupled with a large retail park opening up outside the town, the town centre saw a decline in business and many of the residents attributed the unhappiness of the people of Newport to this event - one man wanting the Ryder Cup to come to his golf course.

Is the UK government taking measures at the moment to make the nation happier?

David Cameron introduced the measuring of Happiness, and government departments now consider happiness when making decisions. Recent data showed the UK to be in 22nd place in terms of happiness, but just this morning (19-june-14) new data shows that the UK is now ranked in 11th place - a jump of 11 places. I find these statistics fascinating and absurd in equal measure.

Are you planning to push the project any further?

This was the final project of my MA at RCA, and I will continue to work on design projects in this subject area.

Thanks Zoë!

You can check out the works at RCA Show 2014 until 29 June.

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