On Monday afternoon, after finishing a book that morning, I went to the library at lunchtime to browse the shelves and find my next book to read. I had a huge stack of “To Be Read” books at home, but a seeking instinct encouraged me to find something else. I headed toward the Christian section and noticed a book on the shelf across the aisle. The title America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks caught my eye. I mean, how could it not?
The author, Ruth Whippman, is a British journalist that moved to California with her husband and baby son when she was in her late thirties. She explains that cynicism is deeply ingrained in the British psyche and she was surprised to discover that Americans seek and discuss happiness constantly. As she was feeling displaced and homesick, she became curious about the American concept of “the pursuit of happiness” and started to investigate. What she discovered is that Americans, despite all the effort they put into pursuing happiness are actually not very happy.
Specifically, she notes that most of the positive psychology and happiness advice focuses on an internal experience that must be pursued independently: “Increasingly, Americans are chasing happiness by looking inward into their own souls, rather than outward toward their friends and communities.” Most of the slogans about happiness support this concept, such as “Happiness comes from within” or “Happiness should not depend on other people” or “Happiness is an inside job”. These ideas are meant to be empowering, but they do not jive with actual experience. Most studies show that the happiest people have deep social connections and spend a lot of time with people in their communities.
Whippman spends several chapters unpacking aspects of American culture that are embracing the concept of positive psychology such as the workplace, social media, and parenting. The message that all of these pursuits send is that we should be able to achieve happiness through grit and effort. However, constantly seeking to be happy internally often keeps us from experiencing the rich, full life around us.
While a lot of the commentary was a bummer to read, I felt affirmed in reading this book because it echoed a lesson I learned years ago through Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: we cannot control our feelings. Seeking to only experience positive emotions or happiness is actually a trap. We spend a lot of mental energy and focus trying to keep negative or painful thoughts and feelings away, which keeps us from the meaningful life we want to lead.
Happiness comes from the same root as “happen” or “happenstance” which means that it is something temporary and often fleeting. Seeking to hold on to these positive feelings (and avoid painful ones) isn’t a fruitful way to spend our time. Living a life aligned with our values will bring about a sense of gratitude and satisfaction, but also will comprise the full spectrum of human emotions.
At the conclusion of America the Anxious, Whippman write something that sounds like it came straight from The Happiness Trap:
Beyond that, I’ve realized over the last year or so of obsessing over this topic, that if we want to be happy, what we really need to do is to stop thinking about happiness… And really, that’s a liberating thought. For the slackers of this world, the idea that the harder we strive for happiness, the less likely we are to achieve it is good news. Now we can relax in the knowledge that if we concentrate on the life and liberty bits, if we focus on living a connected, fulfilling, and meaningful life, then if we’re lucky, happiness might just hitch a ride.America the Anxious, pg. 219.
Given my recent bout of anxiety, I’ve been returning to practices of defusion and accepting my painful thoughts an feelings. Reading this book helped me recognize how unhealthy ideas about happiness permeate our society. The belief that we should be happy and maintain positive feelings all the time runs rampant. In order to achieve these feelings, many people turn to distraction, substances, or activities to keep themselves from feeling genuine emotionally ups and downs.
So, if you’re not feeling very happy just now, please know that you’re completely healthy and normal! Our emotions change all the time, like the weather. When we focus our attention on doing things that align with our life values, rather than trying to suppress or change our thoughts and feelings, our life will be much more rich and meaningful. And likely we’ll encounter happiness along the way.