Architecture of happiness by Reinier de Graaf

"In the age of big data, everything is quantifiable, even happiness"

Measuring people's happiness with architecture is a step towards trying to control them, says Reinier de Graaf.

It has been two years since I last wrote for Dezeen and a lot has changed. I wrote about a house in the former East Germany. I only met the owner very briefly and I have no idea if he was happy in his simple home. Frankly, the question never occurred to me. I simply assumed he was, and if he weren't, it would hardly be because of his home. The owner's private life and the historic significance of his property were two very different things.

Two years later, such a position is hardly tenable anymore. Architecture has come to register on so-called happiness indices: listings which rate the quality of buildings alongside the number of sunny days, air quality, public transport access and the amount of nearby coffee places.

In the age of big data, everything is quantifiable, even happiness. At long last, an elusive subject like architecture can be held accountable: good architecture makes people happy, bad architecture does not.

The logic is hard to argue with – especially for architects, unaccustomed to debating the intricacies of their work with outsiders. Still, even if a less architect-centric evaluation of buildings ought to be welcomed, the problem starts as soon as one tries to establish an objective base for such an evaluation.

How does one measure happiness? How does one logically correlate happiness (or a lack thereof) to the features of a building? And, perhaps most importantly, what is the validity of happiness as a criterion, for architecture, or anything else for that matter?

At long last, an elusive subject like architecture can be held accountable

The tradition to make happiness – the most fleeting of human emotions – an absolute is long and manifold. The pursuit of happiness is one of the unalienable rights anchored in the 18th century US Declaration of Independence. In the same era, philosopher Jeremy Bentham claimed that "It is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong".

In the 1970s, it was economists such as Bernard van Praag and Richard Easterling (of the Easterling Paradox) who first made happiness the object of scientific research. With the help of modern polling methods, they studied the relation between people's affluence and their general sense of well-being, only to stumble on the inevitable conclusion that, even if no definitive proof of such a relation existed, poverty remained a serious obstacle to happiness.

Since the days of Easterling, happiness studies have become an increasingly diffuse intellectual endeavour. Even if meanwhile mainly claimed as the expertise of the social and behavioural sciences, happiness has become a topic of fond speculation for all sorts: Arthur Brooks – a journalist – has come up with a "Formula for Happiness" and architect Bjarke Ingels has championed the notion of "Hedonistic Sustainability", betting perhaps that two clichés combined make an original idea.

Happiness studies have become an increasingly diffuse intellectual endeavour

The change of academic domain has done little to undermine the subject itself. However, a significant shift has occurred in terms of the causes identified. No longer is it material wealth which is thought to account for people's happiness, increasingly it is the things money cannot buy which are presumed to be decisive.

The free eight-week Science of Happiness Course offered at Berkeley University attributes happiness to "strong social connections and contributing to something bigger than yourself". Positive psychology – another happiness program – strives to create healthy institutions, joyful and engaged individuals, and flourishing communities. The nation of Bhutan has gone as far to replace the category of GDP by that of GHN: Gross National Happiness. (According to which Bhutan is the happiest nation on earth.)

It is a commonplace that money doesn't necessarily make one happy. Still, it remains curious how, since the 1980s, the happiness discourse seems to have abandoned material causes altogether. Ever since the global embrace of the free-market economy, inequality in the western world – where the majority of happiness studies are conducted – has risen sharply.

One percent of the world's population currently owns fifty percent of global wealth. By now, that is a commonplace too. Yet scarcely ever is this issue quoted as a source of unhappiness. It is as though the happiness indices are a means to preemptively make people acquiesce to their situation: if all the money in the world didn't suffice to make the one percent happy, why should the rest of us possibly want more?

"Opium for the people", was how Marx described the role of religion in 19th Century England, a foil to distract miserable people from the grim reality of their lot. Are happiness studies the 21st Century equivalent – a last straw for the poor and struggling to cling on to? Or do the effects reach further still? What if the measuring of happiness is not a distraction, but something at the very core of our economic system?

There is no real distinction between trying to control people's happiness and trying to control them full stop

One could argue that to measure something represents the first step in removing it from the realm of free will. Once things are measured, they can be classified, compared and, if needed, encouraged to change in order to compare more favorably.

What is measured is forced to compete. It becomes vectorised. The free-market economy, the raison d'etre of which is competition, has escalated this process to the extreme. Indices now exist for almost anything: goods, services, places, relationships… feelings.

Yet, in subjecting ever-larger segments of our personal lives to quantification, the "free" market increasingly presents itself as a source of un-freedom. No longer is the pursuit of happiness a matter of making our own individual choices, but an imperative to conform and to strive.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that Jeremy Bentham – for whom the happiness of the greatest number was the measure of right and wrong – also invented the architectural typology of the panopticon. This machine for surveillance is perhaps the earliest evidence that there is no real distinction between trying to control people's happiness and trying to control them full stop.

Main image is a plan of Jeremy Bentham's panopticon prison.