Through her research, British journalist Ruth Whippman discovered that America is the third most anxious country in the world. And it’s her belief that our almost sacrosanct search for happiness is leading us astray.
In her aptly named novel, “America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness Is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks,” Whippman provides an outsider’s perspective into America’s unique obsession with positivity, self-care and self-actualization. Americans, she says, are convinced that we’re responsible for finding happiness on our own. And after traveling across the U.S., Whippman is here to tell you that we’ve got it all wrong.
This April, we’ll be featuring “America the Anxious” as the LS Healthy Reads Book Club book of the month. Join us on Goodreads.com to discuss your favorite moments from Whippman’s book and get the latest updates on author chats!
We caught up with Whippman to learn more about her novel, her experiences and her theory as to why we’re all so damn anxious.
America’s Obsession With Happiness
LIVESTRONG.COM: At what point did you see the American obsession with striving to be happier as almost a problem?
Ruth Whippman: My husband and I moved out to California about five years ago. We had a 1-year-old child at the time, and we really didn’t know anybody here at all. I’d gone from having this really busy job in London to becoming essentially a stay-at-home mom in California, so I had some long days to fill.
I was really trying to put myself out there and trying to have as many conversations with people as I could. And I noticed that the same topic just kept coming up over and over again: Everybody seemed to be talking about this theme of happiness.
And the way people talked about finding happiness was almost like the way people talk about going on a diet. There’s not much pleasure involved in it, but it’s going to make me a better person. It almost seemed as if happiness had sort of become a source of stress rather than a source of joy.
LS: So you think the exertion in finding happiness was making people unhappy?
RW: Yeah. People were setting the bar so high for how happy they should be or could be, and there was always going to be this gap between where they were and how happy they’ve been led to believe they could be.
I started looking into it. Given how much time and money and effort people are putting into becoming happier, are people here the happiest people in the world? But when you look at the data, people in the United States are actually some of the least happy people in the developed world.
As well as falling down on the happiness studies, the World Health Organization places the U.S. as the most anxious country in the developed world.
How America’s “Happiness” Is Linked to Its Anxiety Problem
LS: So striving to be happier is giving us anxiety? How?
RW: Is the search for happiness part of the problem? I would say yes. That’s something that I found time and time and time again in my research. The more that people strive for happiness, the more that people set it as a goal in and of itself, the more stressed out they become — and the more anxious.
LS: What’s wrong with having a little anxiety?
RW: Well, nothing. Anxiety is a useful emotion, up to a point. You don’t want to have so much anxiety that it’s taking over your life. But anxiety is usually a kind of warning signal to show that something’s not quite right. And you should listen to that.
There’s this pressure to be happy and perfect, to obliterate our negative emotions and just focus on the positive all the time. That pressure denies our very natural and real negative emotions and encourages us not to listen to those. And I think that negative emotions — whether that’s anxiety or fear or sadness or whatever — are very, very important for life.
Is There a Right Way to Seek Happiness?
LS: Is happiness something that needs to be found? Or, to put it another way, is it something that we need to be looking for?
RW: I guess the way in which we’re looking for it is the problem. If you go after happiness as a very defined goal, then that’s where the anxiety’s coming in. It should probably be a byproduct of living your life.
There was one thing that I found consistently in my research of the book — that there was one really significant factor that contributes to our happiness way more than anything else. This is the secret to happiness if anyone can ever say that there is one. And that is our social relationships; our relationships with other people and our connections with other people.
I think part of the problem with the American search for happiness at the moment is that we’ve started to focus on happiness as something that we should find on our own. But actually that’s almost the opposite of what we should be doing if we want to be happy.
America’s Social Crisis
RW: American social life is going through a bit of a crisis at the moment. There’s this government thing called the American Time Use Survey where they measure how people spend their time every day, and there’s a category for socializing and communicating.
And it’s not just the good communicating. It’s everything. It’s arguing, it’s bitching, it’s nagging your husband to put the milk back in the fridge. Do you want to take a guess at how much time the average American spends on that every day?
LS: About 25 percent of the day?
RW: It’s actually 35 minutes out of the entire day.
RW: Communicating with other people is the most important thing for our happiness. And yet we’re spending 23-and-a-half hours of the day not doing that.
Is Social Media to Blame?
LS: What role does social media play in our happiness?
RW: I think there’s a couple of issues with it. Yes, there is value in the fact that social media makes it easy for us to communicate in a certain way and keep in touch with people. But for many of us it’s just such a time suck.
We feel as though we’ve communicated with someone because we’ve kind of seen them on Facebook, but actually we haven’t.
The whole currency on social media is about making yourself look as happy as you possibly can. And we know in our hearts that it’s not true. But when you see everybody else’s Facebook fiction, you can’t help feeling a little insecure, a little anxious and a little bit envious. And I think that is a big piece of this pressure to be happy. I think social media has accelerated this whole pressure.
Self-Care Can (and Should) Mean Caring for Others
LS: What are ways that we can ensure that we’re looking for happiness in the right places?
RW: I can’t stress enough that the single biggest factor affecting our happiness is our relationships with other people. So if you’ve got time to spend on becoming happier, the best thing you can do for yourself is to work on those relationships.
When it comes to self-help culture, the clue is in the word “self.” It’s this idea that it’s all down to me to fix it, and if I don’t it’s my own fault. And it’s almost like a kind of cultural blame: Anyone who’s not happy just hasn’t tried hard enough.
I think it’s important to have a bit of empathy, a little bit of kindness and a little bit of understanding that circumstances are tough for different people, and different things work for different people. Just have that attitude that maybe it’s not because people haven’t tried hard enough. Try to actually understand people. That would go a long way toward a happier society.
*This interview has been edited and condensed.
For More, Join LIVESTRONG.COM’s Book Club
Join LS Healthy Reads for discussion, reading guides and giveaways. Later this month we’ll be hosting a Twitter Chat with Whippman so that you can chime in with questions and topics for discussion. That date will be announced on the book club page.
Each month we’ll be selecting a new book about fitness, health and wellness to read and share. Get a preview of “America the Anxious: How Our Happiness Is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks,” and purchase your own copy on Amazon.