For her new book, America The Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks, Berkeley resident Ruth Whippman embarked on what is described on her website as “an uproarious pilgrimage to explore the American happiness machine, tackling both the ridiculous and the sublime.” We caught up with Whippman — ahead of her conversation with Lauren Schiller at Berkeleleyside’s Uncharted: Festival of Ideas on Oct. 15 (tickets here) — to ask her more about what her research uncovered.
What prompted you to write ‘America the Anxious’?
We moved to Berkeley from the UK in 2011. I was immediately struck by the fact that there seemed to be a real cultural focus on happiness here, almost an obsession— something that was very different from my experience back in the UK. In my first few months in the States I probably had more conversations about happiness than in the rest of my life put together, whether that was people worrying that they weren’t quite as happy as they could be, or evangelizing about the different methods they were trying out to become happier, such as mindfulness or positive thinking or various self-help techniques.
There seemed to be a real anxiety around the topic, with this constant feeling from people that there was this perfect ‘happy-ever-after’ out there for the taking that they weren’t quite managing to achieve. As a journalist, I was curious as to what was behind all this, so I started looking into it and found that there is a multi-billion dollar industry devoted to selling happiness in America and that it is growing all the time. Americans spend more time and money looking for happiness than any other nation on earth. But, despite all this effort, they rate as some of the least happy and most anxious people in the developed world. The book was my journey to understand why, and what was going wrong.
While researching the book, you traveled to various locations around the country. What were some of the places and people you visited?
I spent some time with the Mormons in Utah, who rate as officially ‘America’s happiest people’ which was a real eye-opener for me. I also found out that, as well as being the happiest people in the US, they also have the highest rate of anti-depressant use, so I tried hard to get to the bottom of that contradiction. I traveled to Las Vegas to spend some time in a strange ‘happiness city’ in the Nevada desert, run by a tech billionaire who has bought up 60 acres of land and is running it as a kind of utopian community based around the principles of happiness and innovation. I tried out a controversial but hugely popular self- help program that nearly broke me psychologically. I looked at parenting trends and social media and the workplace and found how this ‘happiness agenda’ is seeping into virtually all areas of American life.
What surprised you most in your research?
Perhaps just how contradictory and weak the science is on the topic. I had heard grand claims of scientific studies supporting techniques like mindfulness, gratitude and positive thinking. But when I started digging around, it became clear that the science is often much weaker than claimed, or even non-existent, and much of it is funded by a right wing organization devoted to the idea of individualism and the free market, and therefore pushing the idea that it is individual effort rather than societal factors or social justice that contribute to wellbeing. The whole topic is highly political.
Why do you think the ‘billion dollar happiness industry’ is so successful?
Wanting to be happy is a universal human desire. Demographic trends mean that our communities are fragmenting — we tend to live further from family and socialize less with our neighbors and also to work very long hours. In a way, the commercial happiness industry is stepping in to fill a role that might once have been filled by our families and friends. Now, instead of talking to a neighbor or asking advice from our extended families, many people are looking to self-help books or courses for life advice. Happiness has become the ultimate consumer product.
This all sounds pretty heavy for a book about happiness.
It’s actually a pretty lighthearted, humorous book, with lots of my own personal experience in there — getting to grips with a new culture, trying to make friends all over again in my late 30s, having another baby and working out what was important to my own happiness too.
Is there anything you found in your research that really does make us happy and that we should all be doing more of?
Yes! Although happiness is very individualized and complex, there is one thing that consistently rates as the most important factor that cuts across class, race, age and gender. You’ll just have to read the book to find out what that is!
America the Anxious, How Our Pursuit of Happiness is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks, is published by St Martin’s Press. Ruth Whippman is speaking at Berkeleleyside’s Uncharted: Festival of Ideas on Oct.15 (tickets available) and at Books Inc, Berkeley on Oct 18.