America the Anxious
October 4, 2016
Are you happy? Right now? Happy enough? As happy as everyone else? Could you be happier if you tried harder? After she packed up her British worldview (that most things were basically rubbish) and moved to America, journalist and documentary filmmaker Ruth Whippman found herself increasingly perplexed by the American obsession with one topic above all others: happiness. The subject came up everywhere: at the playground swings, at the meat counter in the supermarket, and even—legs in stirrups—at the gynecologist. The omnipresence of these happiness conversations (trading tips, humble-bragging successes, offering unsolicited advice) wouldn’t let her go, and so Ruth did some digging. What she found was a paradox: despite the fact that Americans spend more time and money in search of happiness than any other nation on earth, research shows that the United States is one of the least contented, most anxious countries in the developed world. Stoked by a multi-billion dollar “happiness industrial complex” intent on selling the promise of bliss, America appeared to be driving itself crazy in pursuit of contentment. So Ruth set out on to get to the bottom of this contradiction, embarking on an uproarious pilgrimage to investigate how this national obsession infiltrates all areas of life, from religion to parenting, the workplace to academia. She attends a controversial self-help course that promises total transformation, where she learns all her problems are all her own fault; visits a “happiness city” in the Nevada desert and explores why it has one of the highest suicide rates in America; delves into the darker truths behind the influential academic “positive psychology movement”; and ventures to Utah to spend time with the Mormons, officially America’s happiest people. What she finds, ultimately, and presents in America the Anxious, is a rigorously researched yet universal answer, and one that comes absolutely free of charge.
I liked this book and found it interesting, provocative and disturbing. I would have said that I enjoyed reading it except that I found it worrisome and ominous. As a psychologist I was aware of some of this but must confess that it made me think and look up information on more than one occasion which only verified the book and made me despair about what is happening.
I initially doubted that this was a major problem but changed my mind when I learned that the World Health Organization says that the USA is one of the least happy developed nations in the world and is one of the most anxious. Even worse, the American Psychological Association warns that the USA is on the verge of a stress induced public health crisis.
As bad as this may be it is dreadful and worrisome to find that people are flocking to useless happiness courses and that current parenting practices are damaging children and making them unable to cope with everyday life.
I was delighted to see the author take on the happiness industry and expose them for the charlatans they are. She did a masterful and amazing amount of research into the topic and the book is filled with authoritative statistics about this multi-billion dollar industry and the wild, irresponsible claims that are made about its effectiveness. She carefully and clearly discloses the lies and misconceptions and reveals truth.
I was further delighted by the author’s style and sense of humour and often found myself grinning or laughing aloud at her comments. This is an easily read important book and one that should be on the bookshelf of every parent, politician and educator.