permission of St. Martins' Press
Source: permission of St. Martins' Press

Review of Ruth Whippman's new book on happiness:

America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2016.)

Ruth Whippman has written a thoughtful, beautifully written, important book—indeed, a necessary book, given the nature of our times. Her basic point, to simplify perhaps too much, is that we—and we Americans in particular—have become too concerned, even obsessed, with being happy. We not only want to be happy, we want to actively feel ourselves being happy—and not just ordinary happiness, but nothing less than the genuine “bliss” that we are told is at our fingertips if we just try hard enough. We are, she notes, surrounded by self-help happiness gurus, some selling the usual blather of watered-down, popularized Eastern philosophy, some peddling a new “science” of positive psychology which promises that anyone can be happy if they want to be. This obsession with happiness in turn tends not so much to actually make us happy, but merely to make us anxious, in that happiness becomes yet one more object to desire, one more thing to add to the list of things that we need to have in order to be get the most out of life. Worse, what these gurus are selling has at best a limited ability to provide the happiness it promise, and at worse drives us away from the true source of happiness, which is in the end nothing more than meaningful connections with other people. On top of everything else, employers are increasingly focusing on the emotional well-being of their employees, which opens the door to manifold problems of privacy, paternalism, and even the breakdown of the border between our work and personal lives.

The happiness agenda, Whippman suggests, is worrisome too because it tends to encourage an ugly solipsism that would have us believe that happiness is (almost) an entirely internal psychological state, something we are responsible for creating for ourselves, as opposed to something that emerges from the objective conditions our lives. Happiness is thus not about the kind of society we live in, or the strength of the genuine bonds with other people we are able to forge, but an internal psychological process we can control.

This is not a scholarly book, and it does not pretend to be. It is promoted as “part humorous travelogue, part journalistic investigation into a pressing cultural phenomenon.” This proves to be a quite accurate description. The result is delightful readable—both amusing, and enlightening. I cannot recommend it too highly.

Some of the themes the book develops are not new, as good themes tend not to be. To take just two examples, Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright Sided offered an equally annoyed (if not quite as smoothly delivered) take on our pathological cultural obsession with happiness and the people who sell it. William Davies more recent The Happy Industry has catalogued and dissected (in more detail but with less fun) the problems ahead as employers (and the government) begin to concern themselves with our personal emotional states. Whippman’s contribution to these and other themes is valuable in its own right. As much as I admire those books, Whippman’s made me smile more (and think at least as much).

While she does not explicitly use these terms, and is indeed at pains to avoid drifting off into scholarly jargon or abstract theorizing, in the end Whippman’s point—and I cannot myself agree too strongly with this idea—is that our cultural tends to “commodify” happiness. In other words, happiness is danger of becoming just any other commodity that is bought and sold. We see this most vividly in all the books and classes that promise us happiness—take yoga and be happy, learn to mediate and be happy, practice “mindfulness” (which your employer might conveniently require to sit through a seminar on) and be happy, buy the books informed by “science” which give you ways to program your mind to be happier through things like keeping “gratitude journals.” Of course, happiness is not a commodity—you can’t buy it by paying for a yoga lesson or buying meditation mp3s. And when we unconsciously begin to think that happiness is a commodity, something that we can find if we just look or try hard enough (like the perfect house or car), the further we drift away from the real thing.

Whippman usually (and wisely) avoids the trap of attacking the idea that happiness can be studied the way we study other human attributes. Unlike some self-styled philosophers, who look from their Olympic vantage point down to earth to pronounce that happiness is something too elusive to be studied with anything as crude as survey data or lab experiments, she takes the scholarly literature on the subject seriously. Her point is not the banal one that we have nothing to learn from happiness studies. Instead, she argues that (and on balance, I am inclined to agree) that the literature suggests two fundamental conclusions. One is that happiness comes from connections to other people—we are happy to the degree to we are loved and able to love, to the extent we have family and friends, and by how well we are otherwise immersed in supportive social networks (e.g. at work or in voluntary organizations). The other is that happiness depends, in the main, for most people, not on adopting the leisure activities of the privileged—yoga and meditation classes, say—and more generally not in our attempts to finds happiness “as something outside of ordinary life,” but instead in in the kind of society in which we live. Those countries that promote real human well-being--meaning ones that offers good, secure jobs (of the sort that labor unions provide) and which help families face the insecurities of the market economy (through things like generous unemployment insurance, universal access to health care, pensions for the aged or disabled, and other aspects of the so called “welfare state”).

A happy world is not going to come about, at the risk of putting words in her mouth, from hoping everyone will somehow find the time and inclination to take yoga classes and actively program their minds (through “positive psychology”) to be happy with whatever fate life as allotted them. Instead, a happier world can come only by what common sense (and the peer reviewed research tell us): by having rewarding connections with other people, and by building (or at least moving toward) the Scandinavian welfare state model.

For all its virtues, the book is not above criticism. I have some quibbles. One is the book’s self-consciously reader-friendly style. To be sure, I find the book on whole rather bemusing and at times even beguiling, but I cannot help but wonder if it has to be quite this breezy. The author is careful never to be too detailed, never to get too deep into any one point (as we in the age of twitter cannot be assumed to have the attention span for it), and above all, to never stray to into any extended abstract or theoretical discussion. There is a point to this, and she makes it work, but one cannot help but think that Whippman had more to say—that if freed from this format she would have written not only a denser and more demanding book, but also a better book. Whippman sometimes gives the impression of an intellectual fighting hard to stay unnaturally middle-brow.

Whippman also makes frequent mention of her “British cynicism,” which she wants to contrast with the ah-shucks, golley-willkers, Hartio Alger optimistic naivety of Americans. Personally, I found this mildly troubling as it relates to both being British and to being cynical (two things I am usually highly sympathetic to). I am inclined to agree about the American obsession with happiness. But it was Great Britain, after all, that (outside of the tiny kingdom of Bhutan) was the first country in the world to explicitly begin treating happiness as an explicit, formalized goal of governmental policy (and national statistical collection).  Indeed, the UK also had the renowned economics scholar Richard Layard as the government “happiness czar.” The British—and other Europeans—are not remotely as indifferent to the lure of the (faux) happiness Whippman sees as a problem on this side of the Atlantic as she suggests. What she documents is a world problem, not an American one.

Being British aside, I also cannot help but wish that Whippman was not always as cynical as she affects to be.  I have already noted that I am with her in the general dismal of yoga, meditation, and gratitude journals as the best methods for promoting the common good—we would certainly be better served by a politics of love and mercy (that is, a Scandinavian welfare state) than hearing paternalistic lectures by cultural icons (and employers) about how we should just make ourselves happy by being more “mindful.” At the same time, there is some real value in the positive psychology movement—at worst, keeping a gratitude journal is free, and counting your blessings never hurt anyone.

Further, while she has a point in dismissing bland, mass-produced self-help programs claiming to draw inspirational lessons from Eastern philosophy in general and Buddhism in particular, I think she is not well served by her cloak of cynicism when considering (as she does) the real versions of those philosophies. This blinds her, ironically, to the fact that she herself is arguing for the very Buddhist perspective she pokes fun at.  Whippman writes, “the more actively people value and pursue happiness, the less happy they become.” I agree—but as I understand it, that is itself the principal conclusion of Buddhism. To her credit, Whippman went as part of her research to a proper Buddhist meditation class, but she seems to have missed (the admittedly difficult and paradoxical) lesson that one does not practice Buddhism, and one certainly does not meditate, to be happy, or to achieve any other egoistical goal. To do so is to miss the point entirely. It would be unfair to dwell on this point, or to scold her for not appreciating it, but perhaps it is fair to say we are all better served by being at least a little cynical about our own cynicism (myself included).

These blemishes aside, this book deserves to make a big splash. It rewards—and educates—on many levels.

A number of other entries to this blog discuss the scientific evidence on public policies of the sort Whippman discusses improving happiness. A number of scholarly articles on this subject (in full text), some shorter popular press articles, and other materials on this subject are available at my website benjaminradcliff.com

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