How the Pursuit of Happiness Has Made Us Nervous Wrecks

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Author Ruth Whippman talks about her book, 'America the Anxious'

america-the-anxiousWorry, anxiety and nervousness are at an all-time high in American society. The economy, terrorism, politics, work, parenting — the list of stressors is endless. But author Ruth Whippman believes there’s another reason why anxiety has become the new normal for Americans, and it has to do with the notion that happiness must be pursued above all else. The concept is even baked into the Declaration of Independence.

Whippman recently joined the Knowledge@Wharton show on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111 to discuss her new book, America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness Is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge@Wharton: A state of perpetual anxiety does feel like a new norm right now for most Americans.

Ruth Whippman: Absolutely. The World Health Organization says that America is the most anxious country on the planet and by a wide margin. A second-place country is very far down the list from America. We are, in this country, more likely to suffer from clinical symptoms of anxiety than anywhere else on the planet.

Knowledge@Wharton: You’re a British transplant. In doing this book, were you able to gain perspective on what’s going on here that maybe some of us don’t realize?

Whippman: As an outsider, when you come into a place completely new, you perhaps see things in a different way. It was quite the culture shock. We moved here when my husband got a job in Silicon Valley. We moved from fairly gray London to beautiful sun-drenched California. I imagined that my life here was going to be absolutely perfect. Free of anxiety. The beaches. The weather. Everything was going to be wonderful. But I started to notice very quickly that there was this real kind of sense of anxiety here — that far from being in this land of Instagrammed perfection, people were anxious about their lives and not necessarily any happier than the people back in London, who were perhaps a little bit more negative, a bit more cynical.

Knowledge@Wharton: What do you think are the reasons Americans are so anxious right now?

Whippman: There are lots of genuine reasons why life can bring anxiety. Money worries, inequality, the state of the economy, health care — those sorts of big issues. But one of the things that I identified pretty early on was that people seem to be very culturally preoccupied with this idea of happiness, of finding happiness. I was having conversations with people, and the same topic would come up again and again, with people really kind of agonizing about it. Am I happy? Am I as happy as my neighbor? Am I as happy as my friends? Am I as happy as everybody on social media? Could I be happier if I tried harder? There seemed to be this real anxiety about being as happy as you could be.

“Mindfulness starts to feel like a tiny, teeny Band-Aid on a much, much bigger problem.”

I started looking into it, and this is a multibillion-dollar industry in the United States. This industry is devoted to this idea that if we just try a bit harder, if we do another thing, read another book, try another class, then we can become happier. And I think this is one of the big causes of anxiety in American society.

Knowledge@Wharton: Through what avenues is this a multibillion-dollar industry?

Whippman: It’s what you think of as the traditional self-help industry — the books, the apps, the causes. That amounts to about $11 billion. To put it in context, that’s about the same size as Hollywood. Recently, there’s been a new kind of subsidiary industry: for lack of a better term, the quasi-spiritual thing – [including] meditation, mindfulness, yoga. Although these things are supposed to be spiritual practices, they amount to probably the same in terms of the size of the industry.

This is a huge new thing. It’s this idea that if we just buy another app or read another book or try another thing, then this new, improved version of ourselves will be fully self-actualized and fully happy. I think that, itself, is causing anxiety.

Knowledge@Wharton: What is the impact financially, culturally and in other areas?

Whippman: This idea of the American Dream — if you really work hard for something, then you can have it — is just out of reach; we’re trying to get to this kind of happy ever after. Psychologically, that’s pretty tough on people because our emotions don’t work quite like that. Just by trying harder, we can’t actually control our own emotions and make ourselves happier in that way.

It’s having a huge impact culturally. In the book, I start to look at all different areas of life. I look at the workplace, religion, social media, parenting. These ideas about making ourselves as happy as possible have infiltrated all different areas of American life.

Knowledge@Wharton: Focusing on the corporate end, there are people who have a mix of anxiety from both personal life and professional life, which ends up being a toxic formula for them. Think there are people who have anxiety in their personal lives, but work ends up being a catharsis.

Whippman: Work means different things to different people, and that depends on what your job is, how you feel about it, who your employer is. But I think that one trend that’s becoming true across the board, at least for professionals, is that we are working in America longer hours than almost anyone else in the world and than ever before in recent times. There’s a blurring of the lines between personal life and work. We’re never fully switched off. We’re on our cellphones; we’re checking our email every five minutes. There’s a joke about this new mantra that instead of work/life balance, come to me and talk about work/life integration. It’s something that works very well for employers and maybe less well for employees.

I’ve talked in the book about this whole idea of happiness in the workplace. It used to be that work was work and home was where you tried to find happiness and your social life and all the rest of it. There’s been a deliberate blurring of those boundaries. You see it where workplaces are offering dentists and doctors and video games and free food and that sort of thing to keep people working longer hours. [Employers are] even sending their staff to happiness training and mindfulness training.

Knowledge@Wharton: I have a 10-year-old and 7-year-old twins, and their school is doing mindfulness training for kids. I’ve come around a little bit on it because I think it does help kids. Our kids are feeling more pressure at a younger age than they’ve ever felt before.

“Just by trying harder, we can’t actually control our own emotions and make ourselves happier in that way.”

Whippman: I think you’re absolutely right. Mindfulness has come to schools, to the military, to workplaces. It’s in corporations. It is a multibillion-dollar industry. I think mindfulness starts to feel like a tiny, teeny Band-Aid on a much, much bigger problem. You say your kids are under so much pressure, and I think that’s true of my kids and kids across the board and adults in the workplace. It’s this idea that we work these incredibly long hours, we’re very stressed and there’s pressure on us to be more productive than ever before. “Oh, and here’s your hour of mindfulness training every week.” It feels like you’re not really addressing the actual problem. You can’t pay your rent, you don’t have any health insurance, but oh, try a bit of mindfulness. You’re in a burning building and here’s a tiny little fire extinguisher. Try and sort it out.

The other thing about mindfulness is that there are great, grand claims for it. I am not saying that mindfulness is not helpful to certain people. It is. But the evidence for it is much weaker than is commonly claimed. There was a big meta-analysis [conducted] a year or two ago that showed there was no real difference in benefit between doing mindfulness and doing any kind of relaxation technique. Whatever that is for you, whether it’s getting a pedicure or just talking to a friend or listening to some music, mindfulness is of no benefit beyond that.

Knowledge@Wharton: Were there companies that you talked to that really showed that there was a level of happiness there? Or does pretty much every company have a level of angst in it?

Whippman: Some companies are better places to work than others, no doubt about it. I went to visit Zappos, which is very much pushing this happiness agenda. The CEO of the company, Tony Hsieh, is very interested in positive psychology. His company’s message is delivering happiness. You go to that company and there are balloon animals and parades and fireworks and they have out-of-hours socializing and free snacks. It’s very strongly encouraged that you socialize with your colleagues out of the workplace. I think this is a kind of corporate culture that is becoming more common. As I said before, this is blurring the lines between what is your boss’ business and your boss’ concern and what isn’t. For some people, that works great. Some people want to go to work and have a parade come past their desk and do a little disco and that kind of thing. For me, as a kind of awkward British person, I think it would be absolutely horrendous.

Knowledge@Wharton: Some companies make a Friday happy hour at the office the norm. A friend who worked for a big retail company told me they would have a once-a-month beer bash at the office. They were playing drinking games.

Whippman: That is particularly common around Silicon Valley and that kind of California culture. It’s this idea that your work mates should be your friends. They call it “cultural fit.” It’s the company culture, and you should take part in that. But I think it’s problematic for a lot of reasons. For me, I’m a mom, I work, I have young kids. I don’t want to be getting drunk in the office with my work mates. I want to be home. This pressure that the office has to be my social life, that I have to not just do my job and collect my paycheck, but I also have to emotionally perform and be a part of this whole big thing — I don’t want that. I think this socializing culture is particularly tough on women with families.

Knowledge@Wharton: This is something driven in part by millennials. Do you see it continuing for a long time, or will the next generation look at it differently?

Whippman: It’s hard to say because there could well be a backlash. People could say, “Just give me some space, I just want to go home. I don’t want to be doing my dry cleaning at work.” There [was an item] in the news recently that Facebook was actually paying for their female employees to have their eggs frozen so that they could delay child bearing. I feel like it’s getting to the point where it’s an intrusion on your personal liberty, your personal space and your private life. They’re not forcing anyone to do this, but it’s little by little.

Knowledge@Wharton: Some of these companies believe that these perks, like dry cleaning, are the way to go because you’re building culture within the corporation. There are people for whom that works perfectly.

“I think people are paradoxically likely to experience more happiness if they stop trying quite so hard.”

Whippman: The key element here should be choice. When you’re talking about making your company a good place to work that attracts good employees, there is nothing wrong with that. But I think cultural fit can quite often be a smoke screen for, “We only want a certain type of person to work at this company.” That can be problematic for diversity and for all kinds of reasons. Cultural fit means that you are kind of a big funster, that you drink with the boys every night. It could work very well for a 24-year-old software engineer who doesn’t have anywhere else to be, but it might not work so well for someone with a family or from a different kind of culture. It’s easy to say it has no bearing on your ability to do the job well.

Knowledge@Wharton: With all of this pursuit for happiness, a little less happiness ends up being a good thing from time to time?

Whippman: Well, not a little less happiness. But I think people are paradoxically likely to experience more happiness if they stop trying quite so hard. One of the things I noticed when we first moved here is that people talked about happiness almost like people talk about going on a diet. There’s no pleasure involved in it, but if I just try a bit harder, it would make me a good person or a better, more improved person to do this. I think to just take a step back, stop worrying about it, stop really pursuing it so relentlessly and just kind of hope that it comes along the way will actually lead to more happiness. There is quite a lot of research that backs that up, too.

Knowledge@Wharton: Are we setting ourselves up for another generation to follow in that path?

Whippman: This is a really big trend in parenting at the moment — that we are so invested in our kids’ happiness. When I was a kid, my mom [would say], “Off you go, go and play on your own, do your own thing,” and she wasn’t micromanaging my happiness. She wasn’t micromanaging every moment of my day, optimizing my experience.

With the coming of these helicopter parents who hover over our kids a lot, kids of college age now show more anxiety than any previous generation. There was one study recently that showed that an average high school or college student now has the same levels of anxiety as a psychiatric patient in the 1950s of a similar age. That’s grading it on the same test. So, I think we are creating a generation of anxious kids.

I think also for that generation, which has grown up with social media, happiness is really kind of the currency of social media. It’s all about putting your best foot forward and putting your blissful photos on Facebook where everybody is having a great time and everyone is at a great party and you’re Instagramming and it’s perfect. Everyone is talking about being authentic all the time, so obviously, it’s as authentic as nothing. I think that puts a great pressure on people now.

Social media is not one thing. There’s lots of different ways that people interact with social media. But one of the big things is making our lives seem as blissfully wonderful as they possibly can be. And it’s very easy; you just compare yourselves to others. I do it myself. We went apple picking in an orchard recently with my kids. Frankly, it was kind of a miserable day. It was really hot and our kids were whining the whole time. There was no water, there were no restrooms. But I still posted the one picture on my Facebook account of my kids smiling and holding up the apples and looking so happy. Everybody looking at that would think, what a perfect day they’ve had. And I do the same. I look at my neighbors or my friends and I say, “God, why is my life not like that?” It’s never been easier to compare ourselves unfavorably to other people.

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