Your Workplace Wants You to Swallow a Happy Pill. What if You Found Collective Joy Instead?
There are 11-year-olds with dyed blue hair, ripped men in their 40s and dirtbag hipsters in their 20s, all hanging from plastic crimps on the walls of a high-ceilinged gym. As electronic dance music plays loudly, Gatorade and microbrews are being served to the audience. They dance and clap in unison. Some gather to chat and cheer at those climbing the walls around them. It’s exuberant, anarchic, and although I am not a climber, I am in the middle of it, sitting cross-legged on the sweaty floor.
I’m not attending the event, which was organized by a Brooklyn climbing gym, because I love dim lighting, relentless bass and beer – although I do like these things. I am here because my tween daughter has a gift for climbing, and my attending those competitions turned parties is a requirement – she’s still a kid – but it also further connects us to this community. Watching her do “beta” with dance-like hand and arm movements to figure out a climb before she gets on the wall or smile shyly at the crowd when she “tops” and waves to her friends make me proud: she is thinking with her body, but also anchored in a group of enthusiasts I had never known of before she showed them to me.
I am also here because these days I find happiness, like a growing number of Americans do, in something I like to call “collective joy”. And it might be our best answer to the diktat of the corporate happiness industry.
Happiness as a pill to swallow
For much of my life, happiness was neatly sold as a product I could purchase, like a pill I was supposed to swallow. Happiness could be bought as literal medicine – Wellbutrin, Zoloft – or found in the self-help books and retreats. This idea of happiness was something one should achieve on one’s own, by mastering one’s own pessimism. And it had a serious business angle: a happy worker was supposed to be more productive.
That notion of happiness took something from positive psychology, the movement that took hold in the 1990s. Martin Seligman was a supporter of this school of thought, saying in the American Psychologist journal in 2000 that he was seeking to “change the focus of psychology from a preoccupation only with repairing the worst things in life to also building positive qualities”. Or as he said at the first Positive Psychology Summit in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1999: “Psychology was half-baked.” What was “unbaked”, he continued, was “the side of strength, the side of what we’re good at”.
It made sense that such focus on power and skill would appeal to American corporations more than the visceral slog of what caused unhappiness in the first place. Soon, companies like Google began employing someone called a “jolly good fellow”. The first of these was Chade-Meng Tan, also known as Meng, a software engineer with an added mission: he was to cheer co-workers while also greeting celebrities at the Google campus.
Meng was not alone; he was part of a larger Silicon Valley tech ideology that focused on getting workers to work until the wee hours, using corporate happy talk to convince them to do so.
It was also peddled by the likes of Tony Robbins, Dan Harris and Rick Hanson. (The latter’s tech-accented book Hardwiring Happiness offers a “recipe” for how to weigh positive experiences more heavily in one’s life.)
The happiness industry was soon in full bloom: the so-called Happiness Business School, which offers a certificate program that produces chief happiness officers with international trainings that include a lesson in the “ROI of Happy Workplace”, established itself; a Buddhist monk discussed happiness at Davos; happiness-themed Ted talks multiplied; mugs with sayings like “Positivity Is a Choice” or “Make Happiness Your Business Model” proliferated.
This theory morphed depending on what platforms were popular. We were promised glee and resulting efficiency on social media, but if only we’d buy “mindful” mayonnaise and nail polish, “happy” aromatherapy products or “mood-supporting” vitamins. We are also, not coincidentally, sold those things on platforms like Instagram, where illusions of personal happiness enshrined in sunshine-laden individual accounts abound.
One recent embodiment of this corporate philosophy is the AmaZen, a closet-sized meditation chamber offered by Amazon in May 2021 to supposedly soothe its workers. Inside the booth, employees could use a computer to view mindful practices, which included screen-guided meditation videos and positive affirmations. (That the booths resembled toilet stalls in size and shape was ironic, because workers at the company had said they had to fight for bathroom breaks.) These “practice rooms” stood within warehouses, and employees were told to lock themselves into the “individual interactive kiosks” during exhausting work shifts, all during a union-busting era when they were being discouraged to organize.
I spoke to Will Davies, author of the 2015 book The Happiness Industry. He sees the happiness industrial complex as one in which “negative thoughts and low moods were simply caused by bad habits”. This view, he argues, relies on an “impoverished view of what a human being and what boredom is”.
As Davies says, this is “a post-human understanding of the workforce”, where workers are assets to be rented for the day and have to be happy to boot. (The television show Severance, in which workers are given a brain surgery so they forget their non-work lives when they are in the office, might not be just sci-fi after all.)
The pandemic changed this paradigm. It’s not that the happiness industry is over, exactly – it’s just that Covid and its aftermath of so-called “quiet quitting” showed us a way out of the buying-happiness-so-you-are-more-productive game.
Today, we can see the other option: collective joy.
What is collective joy? It’s a kind of happiness experienced in groups. It’s found in meaningful occasions, like marches and celebrations of identity, but also in communal events that might otherwise seem trivial. For me, this might also include a reproductive rights event where people are dressed as uteruses but also things that are more hedonistic, like a large dance party that features at least two acrobats, a Reiki practitioner and a tarot reader. According to a 2022 Pew study, 21% of those surveyed had a renewed appreciation for social activities following lockdown, with many of them noting that large gatherings in particular were more cherished than ever.
I am not the first to name the potency of celebration and mass public expression. My late friend and colleague Barbara Ehrenreich wrote about this in her book Dancing in the Streets, describing the power of spectacle and carnivals, in culture, politics and sports, including Pride, rock festivals and football matches. Such events, she wrote, offer individuals a communal glee that can ultimately transform for them into meaning and power.
Take movements and phrases like “Black joy”, which has nearly half a million posts under it on Instagram. The idiom refers to what Kleaver Cruz, founder of the Black Joy Project, says is an account of Black life that doesn’t simply create an “alternate” Black narrative that ignores the realities of collective pain, but, as Cleaver says, holds it “in tension with the joy we experience”. Thinkers like adrienne maree brown, in her book on the joy possible within Black liberation, Pleasure Activism, has written about extending the intimacy of romantic relationships to more public networks, encouraging people to “cultivate collective agency” as well as to “dance when you make decisions”.
As I reported in my book Bootstrapped, collective resilience also includes new directions in the labor movement. It also consists of a growing number of mutual aid groups offering reciprocal altruism on a community level, participatory budgeting collectives, or even groups like peer therapy communities where informally trained people relieve the unmet need for licensed therapists around the country, including on college campuses. (In 2021, researchers with the Mary Christie Institute and Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation surveyed more than 2,000 college students and found one in five had received peer counseling.)
In addition to these earnest collective encounters, there are more hedonistic gleeful communities. The most striking thing about “dance culture” post-pandemic, says the DJ Tasha Blank, who founded the large dance and party project formerly known as the Get Down and now called Body Lvnguage, is that “new people are coming to it, people who may not have been interested or willing before”.
Blank’s events tend to have between 250 and 500 attendees, as well as drummers, poets and greeters at the door adorning dancers with glitter (partiers surrender their drinks and phones there as well). Blank, who lives in Nevada City, California, travels the country DJing and says she has seen how the pandemic has not only increased the number of revelers, but that those who come to her dance parties are “embracing more connection”. They are doing so paradoxically because they have been, she says, “traumatized by the experience of having everything taken away and by being afraid of invisible danger”. Blank also cited a rash of new community singing groups – drum circles for voices.
Claudia Cuentas, a Portland-based member of some of these singing circles, therapist and self-described Peruvian immigrant, sees those around her “as relying on their own community more and more, seeing that being together and enjoying resources together is a life requirement: we need to be together to be coherent and healthy.” They include Bipoc-specific singing circles, where Cuentas found collective joy.
During the pandemic, partiers brought their own speakers and generators and DJs to Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, near my home, where sometimes as many as 200 people danced at free gatherings. Some of the ringleaders have since created an informal club in a nearby house with electronic music playing all night long in the basement. And every Sunday morning up to 16 or so New Yorkers don their headphones and dance around the circumference of the park, listening to their own music, writhing and jumping in a free meet-up. The organizer of these dance meet-ups, Joanne Nerenberg, described them as an “incredible catharsis”. Among the collective activities that are in the same expressive vein yet slightly different are the new giant and sometimes illicit literary readings in the streets and private houses of Los Angeles; a recent gathering was replete with nitrous-filled balloons.
A theory of radical happiness
Part of the appeal of Ehrenreich’s version of collective joy is that it highlights the destabilization of roles. “At the height of the festivity, we step out of our assigned roles and statues,” she wrote, “of gender, ethnicity, tribe and rank – and into a brief utopia defined by egalitarianism, creativity and mutual love.” (This was over a decade before the pandemic: as usual, Ehrenreich was ahead of the curve.) This take stands in sharp contrast to the happiness preached by the happiness industry, which tended to be more about burrowing further into the possibility of wellbeing of whatever social identity the market and our unequal society had assigned you.
The theorist Lynne Segal continued this line of thinking in her book Radical Happiness. Collective campaigns, however limited in their gains, can take ordinary, lonely geographies and transform them, she writes, “into spaces of hope”.
Embracing collective joy may well rest, though, on vanquishing the punishing, singular idea of happiness – that it’s connected to efficiency, a person’s job or even our individual wellbeing. Collective joy, in contrast, is an attempt to alchemize, say, loss or powerlessness into significance, through physical movement, sound and embodied politics. As brown, Pleasure Activism’s author, writes, we need to make “justice and liberation the most pleasurable experiences we can have”.
Every summer, I experience this joy when I read poetry out loud with many inhabitants of an upstate New York town on 4 July. In 2021, we attended a nearby parade led by local artists – this was back when my daughter still thought it was fun to dress in costumes and make festive flags made of recycled turquoise toile scraps. We did so, joining hundreds clad in thrift finery, bearing noisemakers and hula hoops. In the midst of the crowd, I felt part of a single entity, as if I was obtaining a more real kind of happiness.
That feeling was instructive: it’s part of why lately, when I have been invited to do almost anything involving celebrating with strangers, I have almost always said yes. I’ve never been sorry.
Alissa Quart is the author of five books of nonfiction including Bootstrapped: Liberating Ourselves from the American Dream (Ecco, 2023), Squeezed and Branded.
Co-published with The Guardian.