A new book by journalist Ruth Whippman investigates the American "happiness industrial complex" and our growing obsession with contentment.
America is an insanely anxious country. Forty million Americans — nearly one in five of us — has been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. One World Health Organization study found the United States to be more anxious than any other studied country, so it makes sense that there would be an entire industry dedicated to alleviating Americans' anxieties. The only problem, according to journalist Ruth Whippman, is that the search for happiness is the thing causing our anxieties in the first place.
In her new book, America the Anxious, Whippman explores the multibillion dollar happiness industry, and the question of why Americans always seem to be searching for contentment and never finding it. She began researching the book when she moved from always-cynical Britain to always-sunny California, and found that her new friends seemed constantly stressed but were obsessed with talking about happiness.
The book chronicles her journey through the American "happiness industrial complex", from yoga and meditation classes, to self-help books, to parent circles where children's' happiness is a constant focus. She spoke to me about the process of writing and her discovery that the solution to our anxiety crisis lies not in specially designed products or treaments, but in each other.
VICE: So you came up with this book when you first arrived in the states, and noticed a huge cultural difference between California and the U.K., where you're from. How did that inspire this book?
Ruth Whippman: We had a baby son at the time, and we moved over here in 2011, and it was pretty apparent right from the beginning that there was this really strong cultural focus, maybe almost obsession with the whole topic of happiness. I was trying to meet new people, and I was having lots of random conversations with different people at the playground with my son, and in the supermarket, and everywhere. I found this same topic just coming up again and again: Happiness. Either people are agonizing about it, "Am I happy, am I with the right person, am I doing what I love, am I as happy as I really could be." Or kind of evangelizing about it, or doing things to try to make themselves happier, whether that was some form of positive thinking, or keeping a gratitude journal, or yoga, or mindfulness—that was a huge one.
I'd never even heard the word mindfulness before we moved here. But in the U.S., it was something my gynecologist was talking about while I literally had my feet in the stirrups. I was hearing it everywhere. It seemed that there was this real anxiety about the whole idea of happiness. It didn't seem to be that much fun. It was almost like a kind of a chore. It's like, "If I just work a bit harder, if I just do this, then I can become happier." I'm a journalist and I became curious about it. I just wondered, is this effort really paying off? If it is, Americans should be the happiest people on the planet, given how much time, and money, and effort they're putting into becoming happier. But when I started looking at the stats, Americans are some of the least happy people in the developed world, compared to other developed countries. They are the World Health Organization says that people in the United States are more anxious than anywhere else in the entire planet. That was kind of a paradox that really prompted me to write the book.
Can you describe a little bit more the difference between the types of attitudes you saw in the states and what you were used to back in England?
In the UK people are just a little bit more skeptical, maybe a little bit more cynical, there's certainly not a big emphasis on positivity at all. People are maybe a little more jaded. In California, it feels like there's no such thing as a bad restaurant. Anything from kind of average to terrible food, and people are going, "It's great." I think people feel here [in the US] that they kind of have to maintain this upbeat, positive impression or else people won't like them.
It's kind of a chicken or an egg thing: are people unhappy so they keep searching for happiness, or is it the search for happiness itself that's making people unhappy and anxious?
I think it's a bit of both. I think that there's good research that shows that the more strongly that you value happiness, and the more you pursue it, and the more you share it as a goal, the less happy you become. But then there are the things that are kind of objectively difficult about living in the United States that maybe in other developed countries aren't such a big problem, like a lack of healthcare, long working hours, isolation. I think maybe people are looking for happiness in the wrong way.
Why did you want to write this book?
It was partly journalistic curiosity. It seems like such a huge cultural phenomenon and I really wanted to investigate it and look more deeply as to what was going on. But it was partly personal, because I had arrived in a new country, I was lonely, I felt kind of isolated, I was a new mother and I wasn't that happy myself. I think there was a sneaky part of me that was hoping while I was writing it and researching it, I would somehow find my own secret to happiness. It was a strange place to be in, because on one hand I was being quite cynical about all of these things I was trying out. I tried various self help workshops, some programs and things. I'd always go in where part of me would be like, "I'm just doing this as an interesting phenomenon." Another part of me would be like, "Maybe this is the secret and maybe I'll find out what can make me happy." It's a topic that's almost impossible to detach from, personally, because it affects everybody.
You point out in the book that all of the happiness solutions that people generally pursue are individualistic ones – about focusing inward, not about engaging with the world around you.
Absolutely. If there was one thing that's consistent in happiness research it's that the main source of our happiness is our relationships with other people in our communities. It kind of cuts across class, race, gender, age, and everything. But the focus in America is very much on happiness as kind of a personal, individual journey. Looking deep inside yourself, about mindfulness, about your own thinking. All of that being inside your own head, and remaking your own thoughts from the inside.
At the same time it seems like we're kind of afraid to blame the things around us for making us unhappy, whether it's a job, or our kids. We want to pretend we're happy at the same time we're constantly searching for happiness.
I think that social media plays a huge part in that. We're the first generation that's grown up with a constant scroll and feed of everybody else's complete happiness. Everybody edits their life so much on social media. Happiness is the real poetry of social media. Your Facebook, your Instagram is all about making yourself look as happy as possible to everybody else. I think it's so easy to feel an anxiety when you see everybody else's edited life and feel maybe insecure or anxious about your own.
What about the more capitalistic aspects of it? Is happiness or the search for it just a way to sell people new things?
It's a huge industry. The self help industry is worth about $11 billion, which is about the same size as Hollywood. Then there's this kind of new, kind of craze of spirituality, which is an industry itself. Happiness has become the perfect consumer product because we can never have enough of it, we always keep buying more, it's an industry that's amazingly resilient, even during the recession when every industry is crashing and burning, we're still buying self help books and mindfulness products, and yoga mats, and all the rest of it. Partly it's because we're living in a culture where our communities are fragmented and we're living further from our friends and family and socializing less with our neighbors. I think happiness has become almost something that you can buy, instead of finding through other people.
What's the solution? Is it to become more cynical like the British or is there something else?
I think the British cynical thing is a tricky one, because in some ways American positivity is great and it does achieve great things. I think there's a fair case to be made that things that happen in America probably couldn't happen anywhere else—good things—because of this mentality. People go onto greatness. But I think for your average person, being a bit more skeptical, not necessarily cynical, but skeptical, might not be such a bad thing for people.
America the Anxious is available on October 4th, 2016 from St Martin's Press.
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