Chatting critically about happiness and youth work


We said we hoped to share some musings on our conference. First up: Tony Taylor’s talk, ‘Happiness and well-being: Agendas of compliance and control?’ Tony – an IDYW steering group member, and previously our coordinator – has written up the notes from his talk on his wonderful Chatting Critically website. This write-up is particularly welcome for everyone who couldn’t be there or who wants to revisit what was said.

Beginning in his characteristically personal way with reflections on the waxing and waning of happiness as he makes his way to the conference, he then draws on philosophy and poetry, and discusses history and religion, to build a compelling case against youth work’s collusion with the ‘happiness industry‘. As Tony argues,

The Happiness agenda is deeply individualistic and a child of its time. For now let me propose that happiness is both visible and invisible, provisional and never guaranteed. It is not an instrument of measurement. It cannot be coached or taught. Yet how we understand Happiness and the broader notion of Well-being are vital questions.

These things are contradictory (as is happiness itself) – and at times when reading this critique, I found myself thinking ‘yes, but some of my strongest memories of youth work are rooted in shared laughter, playfulness, and a space and time (however fleeting) of what we might call happiness… Can happiness be resistance too?’ But sure enough, Tony’s piece went on to discuss public happiness and collective joy, and moments of happiness from political activism and youth work…

Lest I be misunderstood as a miserabilist, I hope that youth work is full of fun, play and moments of happiness – ‘the wild zones and free spaces’ lauded by Filip Coussee and Guy Redigand ‘the dancing in the streets’ recorded by Ehrenreich. Inevitably though there will be awkward moments of challenge, argument and tension too. There will be tears of joy and sorrow in any honest relationship.

Tony finishes with some wonderful suggestions for reading, to which I must add Sara Ahmed’s brilliant book, The Promise of Happiness – the following is a quote from this book’s introduction:

Happiness shapes what coheres as a world. In describing happiness as a form
of world making I am indebted to the work of feminist, black, and queer scholars who have shown in different ways how happiness is used to justify oppression. Feminist  critiques of the figure of “the happy housewife,” black critiques of the myth of “the happy slave,” and queer critiques of the sentimentalization of heterosexuality as “domestic bliss” have taught me most about happiness and the very terms of its appeal. Around these specific critiques are long histories of scholarship and activism which expose the unhappy effects of happiness, teaching us how happiness is used to redescribe social norms as social goods. We might even say that such political movements have struggled against rather than for happiness.


  1. Thanks, Tania for the generous comments. In a world less rushed, less pressured for workers I’d dearly like to explore further the contradictions and absences in my provisional musings. And thanks for the link to Sara Ahmed’s book, which will clearly stir up more necessary questions. It’s now high on my reading list.

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