Do you ever feel that the pressure to be happy is relentless and that it is bringing you down? If so, Ruth Whippman’s America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness Is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks is the book for you.
When Whippman moved from London to Silicon Valley, she was gobsmacked by Americans’ utter obsession with happiness. And at first, she wasn’t so happy herself. She was following her husband as he took a new job in the states; she knew no one.
She made it her project to explore and try to understand the American happiness machine. In successive chapters, she takes readers along as she sits through a lucrative self-help course (lucrative for the sellers), visits a city built on fostering happiness (that has a frighteningly high suicide rate), spends some time with a welcoming Mormon family (because Mormons are, on paper, some of America’s happiest people), and hangs out at a California playground (hardly the only place where parents like to say about their kids, “I don’t care as long as he’s happy”).
She finds, as the subtitle of her book suggests, that Americans are going about their pursuit of happiness in all the wrong ways. They are spending billions of dollars on it, yet all those self-conscious attempts to chase happiness have left the country a few ranks below Rwanda, according to a study of happiness levels around the world.
One of Whippman’s excursions was to a wildly popular self-development program, a successor to est. According to the author, participants pay significant sums of cash to be cooped up all weekend in a windowless hotel ballroom. Those who volunteer to share their heart-wrenching stories of such devastating experiences as poverty, abuse, and life-threatening illnesses are told that it’s how they interpret events that matters — for example, “my parents abandoned me” is just one interpretation of many. Then, according to the author, they are berated for blaming other people and not taking responsibility for their own lives — often by a person with no real mental health credentials or training.
A chapter on social media begins with a story of Whippman running into a friend who had just returned from a totally miserable vacation; she and her husband spent the whole time furiously arguing or icing each other out. Later that afternoon, Whippman logs onto Facebook and finds that the friend has posted the typical “adorable couple” photos from the trip, with nary a hint of the misery. As the author spells out, drawing from research, this is standard Facebook practice. Facebook users see other people’s apparently perfect lives and feel despondent about their own. They also feel pressure to up the ante on their own postings, selectively presenting only those images that make them seem oh-so-ebullient and successful.
Reading America the Anxious made me question some beliefs I never expected to doubt. For example, when I first heard that some nations were creating a National Happiness Index to parallel or replace the Gross National Product, I thought that sounded like a welcome antidote to the usual obsession with economic success as the ultimate measure of a nation’s progress. Whippman showed me the perils of the new metric.
I used to think that the famous smorgasbord of perks and comforts offered to Facebook and Google employees sounded divine. Whippman instead casts it as a creepy bit of social engineering: “Tech giants…ply their staff with free food and beer, video games and meditation gurus in an unwritten social contract that states that if the workplace agrees to meet its workers’ every practical, emotional, social, and spiritual need, they in return need never go home.”
The subtitle of America the Anxious is How Our Pursuit of Happiness Is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks. That makes it sound like Whippman’s main focus is the individual experience of anxiety that so many people experience as a result of the happiness juggernaut. Importantly, her concerns go much deeper. She makes a strong case (though she is not the first to do so) that the whole happiness mentality, with its emphasis on positive thinking, mindfulness, taking personal responsibility, and counting our blessings, encourages us to believe that “the real problems in our lives are never discrimination or poverty, bad relationships or unfair bosses…”
Whippman’s bottom line about “the consumer happiness industry” is this: “With its almost belligerent denial that structural obstacles to happiness exist, it seems to promote a dangerous level of social and political disengagement about tackling the injustices of the wider world…I find it unforgiving and dismissive of others’ often very real problems…it seems to undermine the very idea of a supportive community in which we all take responsibility for one another’s welfare, something that is at the very foundation of happiness.”
I inhaled every page of America the Anxious, but I do have reservations. First, in making her important point about the power of genuine face-to-face human connection and its role in our happiness, Whippman does not seem to appreciate that too much togetherness would drive some of us over the edge. Solitude can be essential to our well-being. Wanting a generous helping of time alone does not make us dangerously individualistic; it makes us creative, thoughtful, fulfilled, relaxed, and restored — and better able to interact meaningfully with others when we are ready.
Second, in several places Whippman repeats the misleading claim that married people are happier than single people, without understanding or explaining what’s wrong with it. Third, some of the players in the positive psychology field are presented as more villainous and conspiratorial than they deserve. Much as I share many of the author’s criticisms, I also think that there are plenty of researchers trying to do good work and apply high standards to the work they review. Some may even be totally oblivious to the role of the conservative Templeton Foundation in funding and shaping happiness research, and may be uninterested in turning their scholarly pursuits into money-making ventures in the happiness industry.
Fourth, Whippman has an intellectual predecessor, Barbara Ehrenreich, who has been making some of the same points for years. Ehrenreich’s voice has been a compelling one. She is a brilliant and witty writer with a whole body of work. She got there long before Whippman did. But the only place you will find Ehrenreich’s name in Whippman’s book is tucked into a footnote.
America the Anxious is a thoughtful, insightful, and often delightful read. Take a look at it. But read Barbara Ehrenreich’s work, too.
America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness Is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks
St. Martin’s Press, October 2016
Hardcover, 247 pages