When journalist Ruth Whippman relocated to Los Angeles from the United Kingdom, she was excited about the weather, the beaches, Hollywood and all the rest. However, not long after arriving, the rosy picture of America she’d brought with her to its shores faded into something much gloomier. Whippman noticed that the citizens of her new country were almost singularly obsessed with one thing—the pursuit of happiness—and that this fixation perversely appeared to be making them miserable.
In her book, America the Anxious, Whippman cites some alarming statistics: According to the World Health Organization, America is the most anxious nation in the world. It also ranks an unimpressive 25th in terms of happiness. She believes, after much research, that our collective prioritization of happiness as the ultimate life goal—achievement of which trumps all other achievements—is responsible in large part for these figures.
According to the World Health Organization, America is the most anxious nation in the world.
“There seemed to be this glittering happily-ever-after that we should all be aiming for, where people feel extremely positive emotions all the time,” says Whippman. “The pursuit of that is what made me take pause and say, ‘This is driving people crazy.'”
In the process of investigating her hypothesis, Whippman tried many things foreign to her, some of which we accept as being a normal part of regular self-care. She attended a guided mediation, tried a yoga class, and was introduced to the concept of a gratitude journal. She also experimented with more extreme versions of self-help, such as The Landmark Forum, a cult-beloved program that describes itself as “a global educational enterprise committed to the fundamental principle that people have the possibility of success, fulfillment and greatness.” Her reactions to it all ranged from “meh” to strong aversion. But more importantly to note: None of her endeavors made her feel happier.
Ultimately, what puzzled her most about this socially-prescribed happiness quest was its solo nature. “The search for happiness is defined as this individual journey,” says Whippman. “But actually, what all the research says about happiness is that the single biggest factor is our relationships with other people.”
According to Whippman, all of this focus on the self could, then, be pushing people in the opposite direction of happiness. “The research is so striking that you would think that anyone in the happiness business would be like ‘Put down your yoga mat and go call a friend,'” she says.
“The research is so striking that you would think that anyone in the happiness business would be like ‘Put down your yoga mat and go call a friend.'”
Whippman doesn’t think America’s happiness obsession is simply misguided—she believes it’s actually potentially toxic, a form of gaslighting wherein people are made to feel as though the things that upset them are not really upsetting, they are instead simply a failure of imagination.
One example she uses to back up this theory: She met a single mother who works minimum wage at a fast food restaurant and receives regular gratitude training through her workplace. Rather than strive for better wages, she explains, the worker and her colleagues are told to be grateful for what they can get. “This is a country where there’s not a lot of government help, and so self-help has become a sort of substitute for that,” she says. “There’s some victim blaming in there—’You’re just not trying hard enough.'”
Lest she come off as a curmudgeon, it’s worth noting that Whippman doesn’t condemn self-care or positive attitudes outright. She’s simply observed that unrealistically high expectations with respect to personal happiness cause an immense pressure, which manifests itself in anxiety and depression. To illustrate her point, she cites the Downtown Project, a startup city in Nevada founded on the idea that happiness can be controlled via factors such as population density and how often you see your neighbors. “The people I spoke to there said that there is this constant feeling that everybody is watching you and that you need to be upbeat all the time,” says Whippman. “And that place actually had a tragic spate of suicides.”
Unrealistically high expectations with respect to personal happiness cause an immense pressure, which manifests itself in anxiety and depression.
Of course, it could be argued that those who seek out life in a happiness-focused community are potentially more at risk for depression to begin with. Just as it could be argued that, for many of us, self-care and even self-help absolutely do make us feel happier.
Still, Whippman says it’s ultimately all about balance and suggests two strategies for ensuring you don’t overcommit to an unrealistic ideal of happily ever after. “Invest your time and energy in nurturing social relationships,” she says, reiterating that happiness research is unanimous in the conclusion that friends, family, and others are responsible for the bulk of our emotional well-being. “And don’t fixate on happiness too much, because the more you fixate on it, the more elusive it becomes.”
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