The Great American Search for Happiness

A little collaboration with DZ: The Opinionator‘s Anxiety series continues to impress! Its most recent […]

Ethan Richardson / 9.25.12

A little collaboration with DZ:

The Opinionator‘s Anxiety series continues to impress! Its most recent installment, “America the Anxious” by Ruth Whippman, is a Brit’s perspective on the American fixation on happiness, or at least, happiness-language. As a jumping off point, Whippman talks about the palpable differences between the Facebook feeds of her friends on either side of the Atlantic. While her British friends are often dismissively even-keel about their daily lives, her American friends are perpetually fitting the narrative of their days into the rubric of (capital H) Happiness.

Whippman goes on to frame Happiness as America’s Greatest Commandment, the declarative birthright of citizenship that, if left unpursued, is about as unAmerican as cricket. It is, for us, the only achievement that matters, the one that trumps all others. We will travel the map for experiences that bring “happiness.” We will scoff at neighbors making more money than us, confident that they are not “happy.” And we will post photos and tweets by the minute to prove that we are. It is no secret that the United States is the wealthiest country with the most worries, the richest in opportunities but poorest in satisfaction, predominantly because–as Whippman says in perfect Law-conscious psychology–our pursuit of happiness actually deters it. In the pursuit of “Happiness in a Vacuum,” our end has demolished the means.

This is something we talk about a lot on Mockingbird, how the self-orientation implicit in personal pursuits of happiness precludes its attainment, that well-being cannot be “approached directly,” etc. But this doesn’t mean we are somehow poo-poo-ing happiness (or social media as such). I mean, who doesn’t want to be happy? Happiness a good thing(!), and Lord knows we could all stand to experience a little more of it. And wallowing in misery isn’t good for anyone. The rubber meets the road, as it invariably does, when it comes to the how of happiness. In other words, does the imperative to be happy serve those who are unhappy (i.e. everyone)? Is it a crucial articulation of a noble priority/inalienable right? Or does it actually work against us, making us less happy and more anxious, as Whippman (and St. Paul) suggests? Indeed, the studies show–and the Bible tells us–that we are happier the less we are thinking about ourselves and our relative happiness (or lack thereof). Blessed self-forgetfulness and all that. Of course, to limit this problem to Americans is ultimately a bit silly, as a preoccupation with one’s own well-being seems to be a universal human trait. The volume may be turned up in our little corner of the world–causing a bit more psychic fallout perhaps–but that doesn’t mean we have a monopoly on the issue.

Interestingly enough, Whippman points to the reality of true joy, and that it only ever occurs when expectation and pressure are removed; which means it is often only noticed retrospectively and freely. While the pursuit of happiness is “nail-biting work,” the good fruit of joy (or, as she calls it, “real happiness”) is the by-product of a life bereft of conditionality and comparative “stacking up.” The answer to this kind of stacking up before an immeasurable measure of Happiness? Whippman’s last line says it all: “Might as well stop trying so hard,” ht BG:

I live in California, where the Great American Search for Happiness has its headquarters. The notice board of the cafe where I write offers a revolving loop of different paths to bliss: Maum Meditation, TransDance, Chod Training and, most oddly, the drinking of wolf colostrum. Customers jot down the phone numbers earnestly, although statistically they’d be better off joining the Republican Party.

The people taking part in “happiness pursuits,” as a rule, don’t seem very happy. At the one and only yoga class I attended, shortly after arriving in the United States, the tension and misery in the room were palpable. Which makes sense, because a person who was already feeling happy would be unlikely to waste the sensation in a sweaty room at the Y.M.C.A., voluntarily contorting into uncomfortable positions. The happy person would be more likely to be off doing something fun, like sitting in the park drinking.

Since moving to the States just shy of a year ago, I have had more conversations about my own happiness than in the whole rest of my life. The subject comes up in the park pushing swings alongside a mother I met moments before, with the man behind the fish counter in the supermarket, with my gym instructor and with our baby sitter, who arrives to put our son to bed armed with pamphlets about a nudist happiness retreat in Northern California. While the British way can be drainingly negative, the American approach to happiness can spur a debilitating anxiety. The initial sense of promise and hope is seductive, but it soon gives way to a nagging slow-burn feeling of inadequacy. Am I happy? Happy enough? As happy as everyone else? Could I be doing more about it? Even basic contentment feels like failure 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 achieved — a recipe for neurosis.

Happiness should be serendipitous, a by-product of a life well lived, and pursuing it in a vacuum doesn’t really work. This is borne out by a series of slightly depressing statistics. The most likely customer of a self-help book is a person who has bought another self-help book in the last 18 months. The General Social Survey, a prominent data-based barometer of American society, shows little change in happiness levels since 1972, when such records began. Every year, with remarkable consistency, around 33 percent of Americans report that they are “very happy.” It’s a fair chunk, but a figure that remains surprisingly constant, untouched by the uptick in Eastern meditation or evangelical Christianity, by Tony Robbins or Gretchen Rubin or attachment parenting. For all the effort Americans are putting into happiness, they are not getting any happier. It is not surprising, then, that the search itself has become a source of anxiety.

This is true in my own experience. Even adjusting for emotional openness, my American friends are certainly no happier, and in many ways more anxious than my British ones. For those of us who like their rash assertions to be backed up by meaningless numbers, Britain consistently scores higher on international happiness indexes than the States, although the mental gymnastics required to comprehend a meaningful difference between, say, 74th and 114th place in the world happiness hit parade are probably not a great use of anyone’s time.

So here’s a bumper sticker: despite the glorious weather and spectacular landscape, the people of California are probably less happy and more anxious than the people of Grimsby. So they may as well stop trying so hard.