2020 has been a year for the history books, for all the wrong reasons. Dr. Ashley Frawley, of Swansea University, proposes that the solution and culprit for the recent waves of social strife may be an unexpected player: happiness. In her book “The Semiotics of Happiness: Rhetorical Beginnings of a Public Problem” she examines the rise of happiness as a social and political symbol. On Thursday, June 18th she was interviewed by Room for Discussion, to discuss the dangers of happiness as a matter of public policy.

First discussed was the role of positive psychology in her research. Initially, researchers predicted that the increases in social conflict could be attributed to an overall decrease in happiness. However, it was later found that human happiness generally tends to stay on the positive side of the spectrum, regardless of the era. This led the field to question how exogenous factors like the unprecedented economic growth of the last 50 years has not been conducive to increased levels of happiness. She goes on to explain that the economy is “much more than a misguided pursuit for happiness”.

Next, she was asked about her critique on establishment Marxism and how that ties into her research. She began by explaining that inequality does not arise from the lack of money to buy products or services but from the perceived power difference between the classes in accessing those products. She then said that she was puzzled by the fact that Marxism is pervading middle-class ideals in many developed countries. The reason, she says, is that they see the market cycle in capitalism also stunting growth, as it tries to reach an unachievable steady state. Dr. Frawley then clarifies that she is not championing capitalism, but trying to bring attention to its underlying mechanisms.

Dr. Frawley was then asked about her stance on the so-called ‘mental health crisis’, which has gained considerable attention in Western media. She explained that the categorisation of mental health problems has exploded in recent years. This is inherently problematic, as humans tend to associate their personality to the categories of the groups they belong to. Moreover, behaviours that used to be considered normal have become mental disorders. Nevertheless, she recognises that despite the boom in categories, diagnosis rates have not followed suit. She goes on to say that this obsession with human emotion is detrimental to the social psyche since it individualises what is essentially a social issue.

These points converge in that they describe how society tends to interpret problems through emotional frames. She believes that as social problems become naturalised, human nature will reassert itself as a form of paradigm. Moreover, she criticises that society has become pedantic and meticulous in defining social problems, rather than addressing the underlying causes of those problems. Furthermore, it has burdened itself with determining what it is to be human. This ultimately stems from the philosophical question of whether human nature is innately static or dynamic. 

If you would you like to watch the original interview, you can do so here, or find it on Room for Discussion’s Youtube page, on Spotify or Soundcloud. If you’d like to read more reviews of Room for Discussion interviews done by Rostra, you can check out our Room for Discussion section.