Happiness, Sadness and Government

G. Duncan


Policy-making that re-presents – as objects of concern and by means of statistics – the suffering or depression and the happiness of populations indicates an evolving form of governance that examines and reshapes subjectivity itself. Never before have states of subjectivity been acted upon, through surveys, statistical and policy analysis, and scientific disciplines, to the extent seen today.

This article:

  • Documents changing epistemic co-ordinates, especially in psychology and economics, that first occluded happiness in the interests of objectivity, but, in recent decades, marked out a renewed ‘science’ of happiness.
  • Examines changes in the discursive formulation of depression, as a counterpart to happiness.
  • Argues that, seen in terms of bio-power, contemporary concerns for happiness and depression are consistent – rather than incompatible – with one another.
How can so many claim to be happy when so many, we are told, are depressed, anxious or suffering emotional pain? There is no underlying contradiction here, for two reasons: Happiness and depression are manifestations of the same political discourse (or aspects of a political subjectivity) characterized by dis-inhibition, consumer self-indulgence and performance anxiety. And, just as we needed madness in order to understand ‘sanity,’ or the prison in order to view ourselves as ‘free,’ so we rely upon concerns about depression in order to understand and act upon ourselves as subjects capable of unlimited happiness.


happiness; depression; biopolitics; human sciences; public policy

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.5195/hcs.2013.130


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