Sometimes, it takes an outsider to provide a truly penetrating look at what’s really going on in a place. Ruth Whippman is an Englishwoman who moved with her husband to the San Francisco Bay Area, and soon found herself having the sorts of conversations she’d never had back in London: “Am I following my passions? Am I doing what I love? What is my purpose in life? Am I as happy as I should be?”
The British, she writes, “are generally uncomfortable around the subject [of happiness]… It’s not that we don’t want to be happy. It just feels embarrassing to discuss it and demeaning to chase it, like calling someone moments after a first date to ask if they like you.”
In America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks, Whippman explores various aspects of the American “happiness industrial complex,” visiting places like Provo, Utah (because the largely Mormon population there is supposedly the happiest in the entire U.S.) and the headquarters of Zappos (the online shoe store whose founder and CEO is obsessed with making his employees thrilled to be coming to work). She tries meditation and takes a Landmark Forum seminar, in which participants are forced to share personal stories while the course leader tries to tell them that everything bad in their lives is their own fault (“A divorcée learns that, contrary to her belief that her husband was callous and emotionally cruel, she should be assuming the entire responsibility for the failure of their marriage.”).
Over and over again, Whippman finds that there are often unpleasant truths lurking behind smiley-faced façades. Those cheerful Mormons, for example? Many of them are secretly miserable and just putting on “a constant happy front”: Utah actually has the highest rate of antidepressant use in the U.S., and the CDC has found that residents of the state “report having more suicidal thoughts than anyone in the entire United States.” (“The Book of Mormon” parodied this attitude in the song “Turn it Off.”) Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s utopian Downtown Project in Las Vegas, an area he developed based on research on “how to maximize innovation and happiness,” becomes the site of a suicide cluster.
Granted, a lot of what Whippman writes about is only really applicable to a certain affluent class; I doubt Americans dealing with poverty have a lot of time to worry about whether or not their kid’s preschool offers toddler yoga (as does the curriculum at Whippman’s son’s school). She does point out, however, that strong safety nets tend to raise happiness levels; in Salt Lake City, for instance, a robust church-sponsored welfare program ensures that the city boasts some of the highest social mobility levels in the world, “on a par with Denmark’s.”
In the end, she declares that her main takeaway from her deep dive into the happiness industry is that “the more time you spend obsessively monitoring your emotional temperature, the less likely you are to be happy. I can confidently say that I am at my happiest when the topic of happiness is farthest from my mind.” America the Anxious is a brisk, enjoyable read that will definitely make me apply my critical-thinking skills the next time I hear about the latest, greatest study or self-help book on the topic of happiness.