America’s self-help industry is worth upward of $11 billion and trades on the promise that each of us can become our best selves if we follow a specific path, diet or practice. Over and over, we are told that the thing standing between our dissatisfied current self and our blissed-out future self is us. If only we’d move out of our own way and [fill in the blank here], we could be happy.
In her new book “America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks,” British journalist Ruth Whippman takes on Americans’ preoccupation with happiness. We are not, she maintains, any happier for trying so hard. Still, this collective pursuit reveals a lot about our culture and the ideological underpinnings of our nation. For the latest in our blog series, Inspiring Reads, we interviewed Whippman, who also revealed the actual secret to a fulfilled life.
Q: You started reporting this book several years ago, after you moved from England to the States. What got you interested in America’s obsession with happiness?
Whippman: Several years ago, my husband was offered a job with a start-up in Silicon Valley. He loved America and desperately wanted to move here. I was a freelance documentary filmmaker and loved the idea of moving somewhere new. California sounded so glamorous, like paradise. When he got this opportunity, we both said, “Okay! Let’s go! Let’s do it!”
Then we did it. We got here. We were in this new place, and we didn’t know a soul. Our son was a year old at the time and knew about 10 words. When my husband would leave for work in the morning, he’d close the door behind him, and it would be 12 hours before I spoke to an adult again.
I wasn’t particularly happy at the time. I tried to make friends, so I had more random conversation than I normally would. … This idea of happiness kept coming up. People were agonizing over it. They kept asking themselves, “Am I happy? Am I happy enough? Am I as happy as that other person? Can I be happier?”
And they evangelized methods for becoming happier. They pushed positive thinking, self-help groups, mindfulness, gratitude journals, yoga and so on. There was a real anxiety around “happiness.” Finding it didn’t sound fun. It sounded like hard work, like doing your taxes rather than anything pleasurable.
So I started to report what makes for a happy life.
Q: What did you find?
Whippman: I learned that not only are Americans among the least happy people in the developed world, they also report the highest levels of anxiety. So here’s this country that prioritizes and values happiness — it’s there in the nation’s founding documents — but the people are not particularly happy. That was the starting point for the book.
Q: Are specific groups of Americans particularly preoccupied with achieving happiness?
Whippman: No, though it may feel more extreme on the coasts and among the privileged, the trend is seeping throughout society. I spent quite a bit of time in the Midwest; these trends exist there as well. There’s a huge push to bring self-help-based and spirituality-based ideas into low-income communities. The message is that the individual must work hard and expend effort to improve themselves.
It is also true that the self-help industry in America is female-dominated; approximately 80 percent of all self-improvement books are bought by women. There is a natural inclination among women to try to improve themselves and their lives, which isn’t a bad thing. But embedded in that is the belief that women need to be improved. Consider the titles of the “Women who __ too much” series: “Women Who Love Too Much,” “Women Who Think Too Much,” “Women Who Do Too Much” and so on. The culture tends to blame women for life’s problems. It is who women apologize too much or don’t “lean in.” The implication is women should try harder. If you’re not getting paid enough, you should be better at negotiating your salary and not worry about the system. The culture’s tendency is to downplay the structural and systemic realities.
Q: So the message from the industry is that women aren’t good as they are — they are too much or not enough, women must become “better” to be happy?
Whippman: Right. This kind of self-improvement is all about improving yourself rather than improving your world. Circumstance doesn’t matter. Whether your boss just fired you or your rent is too high, everyone has an equal shot at happiness if we think positive, be mindful, work hard and improve. But this thinking doesn’t acknowledge privilege. It doesn’t acknowledge injustice. It can easily morph into a kind of victim-blaming.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about your critiques of popular practices, like yoga, meditation, and mindfulness, which are based in Eastern philosophies?
Whippman: Obviously these are all ancient practices, and yoga is a little different, because a lot of people do that for exercise. I want to be clear, if something is working for a person, if they think it’s helpful, then that’s great. But, for example, mindfulness — I actually hate mindfulness, but it is hugely fashionable right now, and there are some good principles embedded in the practice, like observing our world and paying attention to our lives. It can be used to treat anxiety. … [But] to stay focused on the present for any sustained period of time is nearly impossible. It’s a kind of thought-policing and ignores the fact that sometimes we want to get lost in memories, daydream about our vacation and what our kids will like when they grow up. These forms of thought are lovely and valid.
Q: If self-help books and mindfulness can’t make us happy, what will?
Whippman: It’s common sense, really, and the research is consistent on this: Our social connections and personal relationships will make us happy. The absolute most important thing is to spend quality, present time with your family and friends. You have to make it a priority. Stop canceling on your friends. No flaking. The more time we spend socializing with friends and family, the happier we will be.
This is another reason why yoga, mindfulness, and meditation by themselves can’t make us happy. Those practices are all about being inside our own head and having a private experience.
Q: Does hanging out on Facebook count?
Whippman: No, though social media does have its positive side. It gives people access to like-minded peers, makes it easier to facilitate plans and to stay in touch, but the friends that we have online don’t give us the same level of happiness as our real-life friends do.
The currency of social media is happiness, it’s all about showing people photos of ourselves looking perfect on vacation with our tanned legs and cute kids. Research shows this can lead to social comparison, which in turn can lead to anxiety.
Q: Through working on the book, did you eventually find happiness?
Whippman: Yes, absolutely. It’s partly a function of being in a place for longer. For a long time, I was lonely in America. I felt isolated and culturally different. I didn’t know anybody. It takes a long time to put down roots in a new community. It really does. But now we’ve been here five years, and we love it. We have a wonderful community of friends. We have people who will help us out in an emergency. We’ve seen each other through good times and bad times.
It’s also true that if you spend a lot of time focusing on happiness, you will become anxious and unhappy. You can’t write a whole book on happiness without thinking about your own happiness an awful lot. At one point, I dribbled into a puddle of anxiety and stress, but I came out the other side.
Q: Do you believe happiness is important?
Whippman: Happiness is an instinctive human desire. Negative emotions have their place, but happiness is what we all want for our kids. Every person feels it is important to be happy. It might be the most important thing.
Neda Semnani is a freelance writer and former columnist for Roll Call. Her work has appeared in the Week, New York Magazine, the Baffler, LA Review of Books, Washington City Paper, BuzzFeed and more. She’s based in Brooklyn.
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