Opinion

'Neuro-wellness' for Sale Is a Scary New Front

When government and business start meddling in 'neuro-wellness,' it's time for serious concern

Actress Sarah Michelle Gellar poses for the photographers holding a puppy as she officially opens the Harrods department store's summer sale in central London, Monday July 2, 2007.
Lefteris Pitarakis, AP

Here’s some happy news for the chronically frazzled: A researcher at Ben-Gurion University this week was awarded a grant to research empathy-based emotion regulation mechanisms for stress relief, with the aim of developing a consumer product.

The idea behind the research is that triggering a person’s empathy can help overcome stress. The Ben-Gurion team, led by Prof. Michael Gilead, will use the money to identify ways to artificially trigger empathy and eventually commercialize a “mentalizing-based emotion regulation mechanism,” perhaps in the form of an app.

The group financing the research is a $50 million Israeli fund called Joy Ventures, which is promoting the concept of “feeling good through innovation” by supporting academic research and investing in startups developing neuro-wellness technology.

Quantifying glee

People have probably always aspired to well-being and happiness, but only in recent years has it become something that science, business and even government have tried to understand in quantifiable terms, and make it a goal of public policy or into a gadget.

The science of happiness, or positive psychology, tries to figure out what makes people feel good, as against the traditional focus on trying to mitigate what makes us feel bad.

Thus we have some recent research by a Harvard Business School academic that found that people derive less joy from buying possessions than by spending their money in ways that give them more free time. They feel better hiring a gardener than buying a top-of-the-line lawnmower.

Governments, too, have taken an interest in happiness. Thomas Jefferson said 200 or so years ago that “the care of human life and happiness is the only legitimate object of good government,” but that was an amorphous idea. Policy makers concentrated on law and order, public works and in recent decades on growing economies and higher incomes. Happiness would naturally follow.

But the newest wisdom is that happiness, or well-being, has components to it, like GDP per capita.

Not very happy in Venezuela

In the West, at least, the basic problems of feeding, educating, providing medical care and the material needs of the population have been solved. Yet people – like those who voted for Trump – aren’t content.

Since 2009, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has sought to redefine its “growth narrative” to put well-being at the center of government concerns. The United Nations produces an annual World Happiness Report that ranks countries by their relative bliss (Israel is 11th, in the last report).

Do gardeners make you smile more than a lawn-mower would? City of Tel Aviv gardener wearing a red shirt and a hat shown weeding.
Nir Keidar

The United Arab Emirates has a happiness minister. Four years ago Venezuela created a Vice Ministry of Supreme Social Happiness, which hasn’t been a huge success (Venezuela’s happiness quotient has since suffered the biggest fall of any country surveyed by the UN).

It would be easy to make fun of all of this, especially as those engaged in the pursuit of happiness can’t help illustrating their work with smiling emoticons, blue skies, content children and adults looking dreamily at beautiful scenery. The gauzy images betray a strong cultural bias that assumes happiness is achieved by all things that liberal, democratic societies officially aspire to, like freedom of choice and equality, and that being happy will cause us to be better people.

But we know perfectly well that many people (say, Hollywood movie producers) derive pleasure from controlling others. Some other lesser mortals get it from abandoning personal responsibility or looking down on others.

We like to think we derive happiness from doing nice things like volunteering at a soup kitchen, but much happiness comes from sleeping in and spending time on Facebook.  

The science isn't in

In defense of happiness as government policy, the fact is that no one is actually trying to promote happiness per se. The OECD, for instance, measures well-being by such things health, work-life balance, social networks and the environment.

"We have no intention as a government to impose happiness, or mandate it, or force it," Ohood bint Khalfan Roumi, the UAE’s beaming happiness minister, told the Los Angeles Times in a recent interview. "We're just doing the right thing for our people ... so they can have a better life."

The danger lies with the newness of happiness as a science. As experts delve more deeply into its mysteries and neuroscience provides more exacting insights into the workings of the brain, scientists’ claims for what they know and what they can achieve will grow. Governments and business won’t be able to resist the temptation to put those findings into policies and products.

We saw exactly this happen in economics, as the tools to measure the economy became more sophisticated. The profession made big claims to understanding the workings of economic life and how to manipulate it for the public good through policy tools. Economists today have a role in policy that no other scientific discipline comes close to matching, but it's far from being an exact science.

The science of happiness presents a bigger danger, because it deals with fundamental human behavior.

Wouldn’t it be nice if the research Joy Ventures is funding led to an anti-stress app that, say, reduces domestic violence? Of course. But stress or other unpleasant emotions, like irritation, fear and guilt, are a part of life, and not necessarily a bad one. They drive people to complete work on deadline, write poetry, act cautiously in the face of danger, learn from dreadful experiences and engage in animated discussion.

We don’t need to celebrate unhappiness, but we certainly shouldn’t be trying to eliminate it.