Big Tech wants to commodify your happiness

By Claire Stanford

“If a simple algorithm could tell you how happy you were – objectively how happy – wouldn’t you want to know?” asks a character at the start of “Happy for You,” Claire Stanford’s gripping and intelligent debut novel. Evelyn Kominsky Kumamoto, the book’s deeply ambivalent narrator, isn’t so sure. Her voice carries us through questions about happiness, the role of technology in our lives, the importance of the body, and how one can find a sense of contentment and belonging in the world.

We meet Evelyn as she takes time off from her doctorate in philosophy. program, where she was struggling to complete a thesis on “the mind-body problem.” It’s coming to the tech-shining land in what’s humorously called “the third most popular internet company.” It’s Evelyn’s new boss, Dr Luce, who asks the above rhetorical question during a bombastic speech to launch the company’s “happiness project”. The goal of Evelyn and the small research team she joins is to quantify this emotion and convey it to consumers in the form of an easy-to-use app.

The project, however, does not help to alleviate Evelyn’s misunderstandings about her personal satisfaction and direction in life. Rather, as she becomes financially dependent on business (which pays “several factors” more than higher education), she finds herself even more disconnected and increasingly skeptical of the outward optimism of those who surround. This includes her white boyfriend, Jamie, a reckless government worker to whom Evelyn’s marriage proposal can only respond in the moment with “I don’t know.” His own racial identity adds to this sense of disconnect; her father is Japanese and her mother, who died when Evelyn was a teenager, was white. She relates less to other people than to the unusual and overlooked animals in the nature documentary she binges, titled “Misfits!” : big-headed mole-rat, tiny leaf chameleon, kakapo.

Stanford captures the allure, absurdity and menace of corporate spaces with wit and levity. “I was proud that the third most popular Internet company wanted me,” Evelyn thinks; “I was delighted to feel useful.” As part of her new job, she attends the Fifth Annual World Happiness Summit, apparently based on an actual event called the World Happiness Summit. She goes to a scary seminar on laughter, experiences undisclosed sensory deprivation, sits on a panel where men talk about her, and meets her peers in the marketplace to sell happiness. One describes an energy bar as “380 calories, 12 grams of fat, 18 grams of protein, and limitless possibilities.”