“What is at stake for the next 100 years? When I asked Stathis Kalyvas, he replied ‘happiness’. I agree. It is happiness as a concept that is connected to the way we work and the way we live our daily lives, combining everything we are entitled to as citizens and as individuals and unique personalities. And Greece can claim this ‘happiness’ of the future.” (Kyriakos Mitsotakis, 2021, March 21)
The notion of happiness has become a recurring subject of governmental proclamations in Greece, signalling a departure from the moralizing discourses of guilt, blame, and debt surrounding the crisis of the past decade. While tourism in the crisis-years thrived and became the growth engine of the Greek economy, unemployment rates skyrocketed, and the country experienced a significant wave of out-migration. In this context, speaking of ‘happiness’ appears somewhat curious at first glance. But at a closer look, it serves a dual purpose. On the one hand, happiness is used by the Mitsotakis government to radically re-brand Greece after a decade of austerity to attract ‘human capital’ (and foreign investments), desirable migrants (especially ‘digital nomads’) and visitors. On the other hand, happiness is to discipline the Greek population.
The epistemic foundations for mobilizing happiness to such ends can be found in the fields of psychology, economics, and self-help literature. Martin Seligman (2004) argues that psychologists have focused for too long on the pathologies, dysfunctions, and disorders of the human behaviour. Instead, he claims, we should shift our focus to the creative and productive potential of individuals, and, ultimately, examine what makes people happy. Seligman argues that the ‘science of happiness’ can teach people how to have a pleasant, good, and meaningful life. Faced with the consequences of the global financial crisis, many governments were looking for ways to justify the massive bailout packages they were putting together, without having to radically challenge the system that made the bailout packages necessary in the first place. The science of happiness works to this end, in that it allows for a reading of the reasons of the crisis as stemming from individual behaviours, rather than systemic failures, which can be corrected with ‘nudges’ – tricks to alter our behaviours to pursue more active and resilient lifestyles. This is because, as Will Davies (2015) informs us, appealing to happiness becomes the best way of subjecting individuals into line with agendas that they have no say over. Happiness – and its virtues of comfort, joy, pleasure, or hope – is instrumentalized for political and economic ends.
In Greece, we witness the slow, but steady, proliferation of these logics in governmental and public discourse, which are not reduced to the proclamations of the prime minister. Stathis Kalyvas is one of the prominent figureheads that shape and transport the happiness discourse. In his instructive book, aptly titled ‘The Greek Dream’, Kalyvas argues that “the future of the country lies in the production of happiness” (Kalyvas, 2020: 186), through the commodification of its natural beauty, antique culture, healthy cuisine, laid-back way of life, and crisis-chic aesthetics into authentic, yet consumable, experiences. This vision is already being adopted by the Greek government (Mitsotakis, 2021), providing policymakers with blueprints and epistemic authority to produce and circulate positive imaginations of experience, to attract tourists, and desirable (‘lifestyle’) migrants, such as creative professionals and digital nomads, but also Greek ‘brain-drainers’. This wooing of diaspora Greeks begs the question: how is this vision of happiness meant to relate to people already living in Greece?
For those “young people” of Greece that “have culture and kindness” and know “the parameters of life elsewhere” (Kalyvas, 2020: 172), Kalyvas foresees a servicing role vis-a-vis happiness: They are to create desirable experiences for visitors, by “translating the Greek peculiarity” (Ibid. 172). Somewhat apologetically, he adds that “human happiness is not so much a function of professional or financial success but rather of sociability, our constant contact with other people” (Ibid. 168). Kalyvas’ analysis is very much in line with promoters of positive thinking that, as Barbara Ehrenreich tells us emphasize how “to be disappointed, resentful, or downcast is to be a ‘victim’ and a ‘whiner’ (Ehrenreich, 2010: 9).
In this sense, the Greek government’s vision of happiness serves the purpose of refashioning the relationship between the Greek state and its citizens. For those Greeks already living in Greece, there is an imperative to be happy, which places responsibility for one’s life course firmly on the individual, rather than on structural constraints. We can either choose to be happy (and consequently successful) or choose to be miserable (and suffer the consequences). Happiness arises not by challenging and overcoming the precarizing qualities of state-market-citizen relations, but by having a positive attitude in navigating them. It remains to be seen whether and how emerging scandals and crises such as Predatorgate, the war in Ukraine, or climate breakdown, will impact the configuration and proliferation of the political imaginary of happiness in Greece. But judging from the fact that this imaginary has been presented as a lesson from, and answer to, the financial crisis and the pandemic, happiness may arguably remain at the horizon of its intellectual supporters in the same way in which modernization was for modernizers in the past.
This blogpost is based on the authors’ LSE working paper ‘The political imaginary of happiness in Greece’. Full paper can be accessed here.
Davies, W. (2015). The Happiness Industry. How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being. Verso.
Ehrenreich, B. (2010). Smile or Die. How Positive Thinking Fooled America & The World (2nd ed.). Granta.
Kalyvas, S. (2020). The Greek Dream. Metechmio. (In Greek)
Mitsotakis, K. (2021). Interview of the prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis in the newspaper Vima. 21st March 2021, https://primeminister.gr/2021/03/21/26059 (In Greek)
Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Can happiness be taught? Daedalus, 133(2), 80–87.
Dimitris Soudias is a postdoctoral researcher at the Research Centre for the Study of Democratic Cultures and Politics, University of Groningen. His book 'Paradoxes of Emancipation: Radical Imagination and Space in Neoliberal Greece' is forthcoming with Syracuse University Press.
Philipp Katsinas is Teaching Fellow at Queen Mary, University of London and Visiting Fellow at the Hellenic Observatory, London School of Economics.