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Realtors know that people shop for a house according to their needs, but often buy in response to their feelings. That familiar scenario shows how potent the link between emotion and architecture can be.

If a down payment is a bet on future happiness in a new home, what do other expenditures, private and public, tell us about happiness as a social and political force? A new exhibition at the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) in Montreal takes a broad view of how a new “science of happiness” may be affecting the built environment.

The exhibition, Our Happy Life: Architecture and Well-being in the Age of Emotional Capitalism, ponders the flood of data about personal happiness that, during the past decade, has helped make happiness a political topic and a social commodity. The show asks how the proliferation of happiness surveys and more covert measures of emotion may be changing city planning and architectural practice.

It is typical of the wide scope of activity at the CCA, which was founded by Phyllis Lambert 40 years ago. The centre’s range of view includes all the social, economic, political and environmental factors that affect what is built and why.

Philosophers have theorized about happiness for centuries, but the new empirical emphasis on the topic began in the early 1990s, with the rise of “positive psychology.” Rather than focusing on mental illness, positive psychologists study the bases of mental health, including happiness.

The new orientation burst into the public sphere after the 2008 financial crisis, when French president Nicolas Sarkozy, German chancellor Angela Merkel and other world leaders declared that purely economic indices such as GDP were not enough to gauge a society’s well-being. In the United States, for example, happiness surveys showed that Americans were happier in 1946 than they were in 1990, although GDP had soared during that period. The same inverse relationship of rising GDP and declining well-being was recorded in Egypt before the Arab Spring in 2011, and in Britain before the Brexit vote in 2016.

The New Zealand government’s 2019 budget, expected at the end of this month, will focus explicitly on how to “put people’s well-being and the environment into the heart of its policies.” But in many countries, writes Our Happy Life curator Francesco Garutti in his catalogue essay, “the state pretends to participate in the advancement of collective well-being, while relinquishing this power to the market.”

The scope of government action, however, is often limited by the built environment, and by factors beyond its control. A 2015 Statistics Canada happiness ranking placed small communities such as Saguenay, Quebec, and St. John’s, Nfld., at the top of the scale, with Toronto and Vancouver at the very bottom. People in those big cities are more prone to loneliness, anxiety about housing costs, and frustrating commute times, which can’t easily be relieved by the state.

Countries and cities have become avid followers of the many happiness rankings produced by agencies public and private, including the British global affairs magazine, Monocle. The Nordic countries of Europe bask in their reputation as “happiness superpowers,” writes architect Deane Simpson in his catalogue essay. Tokyo routinely scores at the top for safest city, and Copenhagen leads in the liveability promised by its extensive bike network – though outside its downtown core, the Danish capital struggles with the same sprawl as other urban centres. Every mention in the top 10 of somebody’s happiness index counts towards building an image and a brand for city or country.

Advertising has been promising happiness to customers for decades, but happiness studies have produced a new commercial vector Garutti calls “emotional capitalism.” The market for mattresses and sleep aids has benefited from the notion that well-rested people are happier and more successful. New housing developments include and promote green spaces not just because they’re good for the planet, but because we’ve been told that daily contact with nature boosts our well-being. Home security and street lighting schemes respond to the importance, in overall happiness, of feeling safe.

Housing developers, says Garutti, now routinely do post-occupancy surveys, a practice that should result in most satisfying dwellings in the future. That’s a remarkable shift from building practices in the post-war era, when tower blocks were often put up with no consideration of the need for social spaces, green landscaping and safety features.

Our Happy Life, however, takes a rather dystopian view of the new “happiness agenda,” partly because it has been co-opted by the market, and partly because of the threat to privacy posed by online collection of emotional data. According to the 2019 edition of the World Happiness Report, an annual UN study co-authored this year by University of British Columbia professor John F. Helliwell, digital media actually contribute to an overall decrease in happiness, because they tend to erode real-world interpersonal contacts.

Happiness has also become part of the self-improvement economy. According to psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of The How of Happiness, 40 per cent of our possible contentment is determined not by genetics or circumstances, but by our own efforts and attitudes. But the self-improvement industry thrives not on contentment, but on dissatisfaction with oneself, often in comparison to others.

The irony of the new commerce in happiness is that positive psychologists mostly believe that happiness relies on things that can’t be sold, including close connections with family and friends, fulfillment in work, and personal attitudes such as generosity and gratitude. As the song says, money can’t buy you love, or satisfaction.

Our Happy Life continues at the Canadian Centre for Architecture through Oct. 13.

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