America is Obsessed With Happiness
And it’s making us miserable.
I’m at the gynecologist for my Pap smear, feet in stirrups, idly wondering what Emily Post might have suggested as appropriate small talk for those moments when the person you are speaking to will be replying to your vagina. We’ve been living in America for a few months now, having moved here from London for my husband’s job.
I needn’t have worried — the doctor is doing all the talking. Delving deep with her speculum, she delves deeper into matters of the heart. Apparently, she is reading Gretchen Rubin’s best-seller Happier at Home and finding it very instructive. I’ve read that book too and am suddenly overcome with crippling self-consciousness. I hope desperately that my gynecologist is not currently reading the part about how in order to achieve true happiness, it is advisable to give total mental focus to how everything around you smells.
Six months ago I would have found it hard to believe that I would be discussing the path to everlasting bliss with the OB-GYN, but after a stint living in California, it feels almost routine. Since arriving here, I feel as though I have had more conversations about my own and other people’s happiness than in the whole of the rest of my life put together.
We moved to the States from the UK when my techie husband, Neil, was offered a job with a software startup in Silicon Valley. A lifelong Americanophile, he had jumped at the chance, and I had quit my frenetic job making television documentaries to be a stay-at-home mom to our toddler son, Solly.
A few months in, desperate for adult conversation, I am sidling up to anyone and everyone — moms pushing swings next to me in the playground, the dry cleaner, the man in front of me in line at the grocery store, and a range of random local contacts scratched together for me by friends back in London. Oddly, the same topic comes up time and time again. Happiness.
The conversations tend to fall into two broad categories: the agonizing kind and the evangelical kind. As a compulsive overthinker myself, the agonizing ones feel more familiar to me. These conversations are all about questions. Am I with the right person? Am I following my passions? Am I doing what I love? What is my purpose in life? Am I as happy as I should be?
As a Brit raised on a diet of armchair cynicism, the evangelical-style conversations are newer territory. In these, people claim to have found the answers. They enthuse about their chosen paths to bliss, convinced, at least temporarily, that they have found the definitive thing that will pin down the “happy ever after.”
It seems as though happiness in America has become the overachiever’s ultimate trophy.
Their answers range from the mundane to the mind-boggling. Yoga and meditation. Keeping a “gratitude journal.” A weekend seminar on how to Unleash the Power Within. Keeping your baby attached to your body for a minimum of 22 hours out of every 24, and, most bafflingly, not least on a practical level, the drinking of wolf colostrum.
A friend of a friend that I meet for coffee livens up a rather dull conversation about what time her husband gets home from work with the observation that it really doesn’t matter one way or the other, as the most important person in her life is actually Jesus.
It seems as though happiness in America has become the overachiever’s ultimate trophy. A modern trump card, it outranks professional achievement and social success, family, friendship, and even love. Its invocation deftly minimizes others’ achievements (“Well, I suppose she has the perfect job and a gorgeous husband, but is she really happy?”) and takes the shine off our own.
It all feels a long way from the British approach I was brought up with. Jefferson knew what he was doing when he wrote that “pursuit of happiness” line, a perfectly delivered slap in the face to his joy-shunning oppressors across the pond. Emotionally awkward and primed for skepticism, the British are generally uncomfortable around the subject and, as a rule, don’t subscribe to the happy ever after.
It’s not that we don’t want to be happy. It just feels embarrassing to discuss it and demeaning to chase it, like calling someone moments after a first date to ask if they like you.
Self-help books and yoga classes and meditation all exist in the UK, of course — there is no shortage of people willing to take your money in return for the promise of bliss — but they somehow don’t have the same magnetic pull, our inbuilt cultural skepticism providing a natural check.
Part of this is that Americans seem to have a deep cultural aversion to negativity. This can be a welcome change, but the pressure to remain positive at all times often results in some complicated mental gymnastics. My son’s report card at preschool divided his performance not into strengths and weaknesses but into strengths and emerging strengths.
American problems are routinely rebranded as “opportunities”; hence the filthy bathroom in our local supermarket displays a sign saying, “If this restroom fails to meet your expectations, please inform us of the opportunity,” as if reeking puddles of urine are merely an inspirational occasion for personal growth.
Cynicism is the British shtick, our knee-jerk starting point. I think back to a time a few years ago when I was working at the BBC in London and our managers booked a motivational trainer to come and attempt to galvanize the dispirited employees in my department. The trainer identified the problem. We were all far too negative, and would be much happier and better motivated if we would just stop saying no all the time.
He suggested that next time someone put forward an idea, instead of responding with the words “no, but…” (insert mean-spirited objection to other person’s creativity), we should instead force ourselves to respond with a “yes, and…” (insert positive-spirited, constructive comment building on other person’s idea). He made us try it out, kicking things off himself with an initial sample idea, then throwing it over to the next person in line to pick up. “Yes, and … that’s bollocks,” said the next person. This pretty much sums up the British attitude.
It feels good to be away from this sometimes life-leeching negativity, but I also find it hard to throw myself full tilt into the American approach to hunting down bliss. Happiness over here has its own vocabulary: mindfulness, empowerment. Whenever I hear the word empowerment, it always makes me feel slightly edgy, as if at any moment I might be asked to take my clothes off. If someone suggests that a given activity is going to be “empowering,” I know it is almost certainly going to be undignified or mildly humiliating, or involve heights.
As a rule, “empowerment” appears to be the consolation prize for those of us who will never have any actual power, and you can safely assume that no one in any position of genuine authority will be joining in. Creating a Tumblr of photos of your post–C-section wobbling and scarred naked stomach? Empowering! Creating a Tumblr of photos of your post-prostate surgery rectum? Not so much, senator.
Mindfulness is everywhere, the hugely popular zeitgeist theory that in order to be happy we must live fully in the present moment, with total mental focus on whatever we are doing or experiencing Right This Second.
Time magazine published an eight-page spread with the front cover title “The Mindful Revolution.” It opened with the author, an impressive and decorated journalist, bringing the full force of her considerable mental capacity to bear on a raisin. The raisin “glistens.” I can’t help thinking that, as a rule, food shouldn’t glisten.
During my first few months in America, I come across mindful parenting, mindful business dealings, mindful eating, and even mindful dishwashing, complete with a detailed set of instructions on the Huffington Post, in printable format, to pin above the sink. According to the practice’s thought leaders, in order to achieve maximum happiness, the mindful dishwasher must refuse to succumb to domestic autopilot and instead fully mentally engage with every piece of congealed scrambled egg and clump of oatmeal on the saucepan.
I find mindfulness a hard theory to embrace. Surely one of the most magnificent things about the human brain is its ability to hold past, present, future, and their imagined alternatives in constant parallel, to offset the tedium of washing dishes in Pinole with the chance to be simultaneously mentally in Bangkok or Don Draper’s boxer shorts or finally telling your mother-in-law that despite her belief that “no one born in the ’70s died,” using a car seat isn’t spoiling your child. I struggle to see how greater happiness could be achieved by reining in that magical sense of scope and possibility to stare down some oatmeal.
My son’s report card at preschool divided his performance not into strengths and weaknesses but into strengths and emerging strengths
Though I’m probably just being defensive. As a person who is ridiculously distractible, the whole philosophy of mindfulness comes across almost as a personal attack, an intervention from some well-meaning body to compel me to stop doing the “Which Brunch Entrée Are You?” BuzzFeed quiz and go read Llama Llama I’m a Self-Harmer to my son for the 19th time this morning.
(Anyhow, I’m convinced that the idea that distraction is a product of the modern age and that our foremothers spent their days in a state of total mindful focus on their children is a myth. The desperate urge to escape the more grinding realities of child care was surely just as strong for our mothers’ generation; they just used Valium instead of iPhones.)
I start to wonder whether the high-octane approach to the pursuit of happiness that I’m seeing here in middle-class California is in any way representative of American culture more widely. California has always been the headquarters of the Great American Search for Happiness, and the people I am meeting, although generally not rich or part of any kind of mega-elite, do tend to be college-educated professionals, a similar bracket to me and most of my social network back in the UK. Is all this joy hunting just the ultimate luxury for a privileged bunch of high-income Californians?
A bit of digging suggests not. The explicit and focused quest for happiness as a goal distinct from the rest of life is seeping through virtually all sections of American society. Oprah Winfrey, the reigning queen of the happy-seekers, is widely considered to be one of the most influential people in America, having brought her signature brand of self-improvement and spirituality to hundreds of millions of Americans. Yet around half of her audience had a household income of less than $50,000, the US median, and a similar proportion had no education beyond high school.
Mindfulness is seeping into the public education system throughout the nation. In Ohio, Congress member Tim Ryan recently received a sizable federal grant to bring mindfulness classes into the state’s elementary schools (although at least one school discontinued the program after parents complained that they were “taking valuable time away from education to put students in a room of darkness to lay on their backs”).
Americans buy a billion dollars’ worth of self-help books and audiobooks each year. Meanwhile, the internet bursts with links to motivational happiness seminars all across the country aimed at the unemployed, rebranding destitution as “an exciting opportunity for personal development.”
It occurs to me that all these happiness pursuits often don’t seem to be making people particularly happy. When a new American friend persuades me to try out a yoga class, you can almost smell the tension and misery in the room. Although it’s a little hard to determine cause and effect, as anyone who was already feeling happy would be unlikely to waste the sensation in a fetid room at the YMCA, contorting their body into uncomfortable positions. The happy person would be more likely to be off doing something fun, like sitting in the park, drinking.
Before moving to America, I didn’t really give a whole lot of dedicated thought to whether I was happy. Like most people, in any given day I will experience emotions and sensations including (but not limited to) hilarity, joy, irritation, ambivalence, excitement, embarrassment, paralyzing self-doubt, boredom, anxiety, guilt, heart-stopping love, resentment, pride, exhaustion, and the shrill, insistent buzz of uneaten chocolate somewhere in the house.
It’s hard to pin one definitive label on all this clattering emotional noise, but I’m conﬁdent that if you add them all up and then divide by the number of emotions (or whatever other formula they use to calculate the statistics in all the research studies on happiness that I start to notice in the press), then you reach an average falling squarely into the box marked contentment.
But the more conversations I have about happiness, and the more I absorb the idea that there’s a glittering happy ever after out there for the taking, the more I start to overthink the whole thing, compulsively monitoring how I am feeling and hyper-parenting my emotions. Am I happy? Right at this moment? What about now? And now? Am I happy enough? As happy as everyone else? What about Meghan? Is she happier than me? She looks happier. What is she doing that I’m not doing? Maybe I should take up yoga.
The whole process starts to become painfully, comically neurotic. Workaday contentment starts to give way to a low-grade sense of inadequacy when pitched against capital-H Happiness. The goal is so elusive and hard to define, it’s impossible to pinpoint when it’s even been reached — a recipe for anxiety.
To an outsider, it can sometimes feel as though the entire population has a nationwide standardized happiness exam to take and everyone is frantically cramming the night before to get a good grade. Like a stony-faced “that’s hilarious” after a joke in place of laughter — another mildly unnerving staple of conversation in this country — it appears that somewhere along the line, the joy has been sucked out of American happiness.
Oddly, even adjusting for emotional openness, my new happiness-seeking American acquaintances seem no happier, and often more anxious, than my cynical, joy-slacking British ones. My instinct is that this is because happiness should be serendipitous, the byproduct of a life well lived, and chasing it in a vacuum just doesn’t really work. I want to dig a little deeper and find out whether this hunch stands up to scrutiny.
After some initial research, I find a couple of somewhat surprising studies by psychologists from the University of California Berkeley. In the first, participants were given a questionnaire and asked to rate how highly they valued happiness as an explicit goal and how happy they were with their lives.
Surprisingly, the higher the respondents rated happiness as a distinct personal ambition, the less happy they were in their lives generally and the more likely they were to experience symptoms of dissatisfaction and even depression.
This in itself doesn’t prove cause and effect — after all, it makes sense that people who are unhappy would be likely to value happiness more highly — so the researchers designed another experiment to determine which way the effect was going.
This time, they gave one group of people an article to read about the importance of happiness, and then afterward showed them a happy ﬁlm. A second group of participants were shown the same ﬁlm but without reading the article first. The group that had read the happiness article reported feeling less happiness from watching the happy ﬁlm than the group that watched without reading first. The authors of these studies concluded that, paradoxically, the more people valued and were encouraged to value happiness as a separate life goal, the less happy they were.
Like an attractive man, it seems the more actively happiness is pursued, the more it refuses to call and starts avoiding you at parties.
Americans as a whole invest more time and money and emotional energy into the explicit pursuit of happiness than any other nation on Earth, but is all this effort and investment paying off? Is America getting happier and happier? Are Americans more content than people in other countries? Is this Great American Search for Happiness actually working?
Like an attractive man, it seems the more actively happiness is pursued, the more it refuses to call and starts avoiding you at parties
The answer appears to be a pretty clear no. Somehow, this great nation that included the pursuit of happiness so prominently in its founding principles has been shown by various international comparison studies to be one of the less happy places in the developed world.
Although these studies are not without their problems, with different methodologies producing different results, Gallup’s 2014 Positive Experience Index, an international comparison study of the moment-to-moment happiness of people living in different nations, ranked America at an underwhelming 25th in the world, two places behind Rwanda.
For all the effort that Americans are putting into hunting down happiness, they are not actually getting any happier. According to the General Social Survey, a large-scale project that has been tracking trends in American life since the early ’70s, there has been almost no change in American happiness levels since 1972, when records began. Every year, with remarkable consistency, around 30 percent of Americans report that they are “very happy.” It’s a fair chunk, but a figure that remains surprisingly constant, untouched by mindfulness or megachurches, by yoga or meditation or Gretchen Rubin or attachment parenting.
According to the World Health Organization, as well as being one of the least happy developed countries in the world, the United States is, by a wide margin, also the most anxious, with nearly a third of Americans likely to suffer from an anxiety disorder in their lifetime. A 2012 report by the American Psychological Association warned that the nation was on the verge of a “stress-induced public health crisis.”
There are many reasons why life in America is likely to produce anxiety compared with other developed nations: long working hours without paid vacation time for many, insecure employment conditions with little legal protection for workers, inequality, and the lack of universal health care coverage, to name a few.
The happiness-seeking culture is clearly supposed to be part of the solution, but perhaps it is actually part of the problem. Perhaps America’s precocious levels of anxiety are happening not just in spite of the great national happiness rat race, but also in part because of it.
Ruth Whippman is an author, journalist, and documentary filmmaker from London, living in the USA. Her website is ruthwhippman.com.
Extract from AMERICA THE ANXIOUS: How Our Pursuit of Happiness is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks by Ruth Whippman. Copyright © 2016 by the author and reprinted with permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.
Originally published at www.vox.com on October 4, 2016.