“The search for happiness is one of the chief sources of unhappiness.” — Eric Hoffer
“As soon as an American baby is born, its parents enter into an implicit contractual obligation to answer any question about their hopes for their tiny offspring’s future with the words: “I don’t care, as long as he’s happy” (the mental suffix “at Harvard” must remain unspoken).
Happiness in America has become the overachiever’s ultimate trophy. A vicious trump card, it outranks professional achievement and social success, family, friendship and even love. Its invocation can deftly minimize others’ achievements (“Well, I suppose she has the perfect job and a gorgeous husband, but is she really happy?”) and take the shine off our own.
This obsessive, driven, relentless pursuit is a characteristically American struggle — the exhausting daily application of the Declaration of Independence. But at the same time this elusive MacGuffin is creating a nation of nervous wrecks. Despite being the richest nation on earth, the United States is, according to the World Health Organization, by a wide margin, also the most anxious, with nearly a third of Americans likely to suffer from an anxiety problem in their lifetime. America’s precocious levels of anxiety are not just happening in spite of the great national happiness rat race, but also perhaps, because of it.
As a Brit living in the United States, I am acutely aware of the cultural difference between attitudes to happiness here and at “home.” Thomas Jefferson knew what he was doing when he wrote that “pursuit of happiness” line, a perfectly delivered slap in the face to his joy-shunning oppressors across the pond. The British are generally uncomfortable around the subject, and as a rule, don’t subscribe to the happy-ever-after. It’s not that we don’t want to be happy, it just seems somehow embarrassing to discuss it, and demeaning to chase it, like calling someone moments after a first date to ask them if they like you.
Evidence of this distinction is everywhere.
Blindfold me and read out the Facebook statuses of my friends, without their names, and I will tell you which are American and which are British.
Americans post links to inspirational stories, and parenting blogs packed with life lessons. (British parenting blogs tend to be packed with despair and feces.) My American friends post heartwarming messages of support to one another, and often themselves, while my British cohort’s updates are usually some variation on “This is rubbish.”
Even the recent grand spectacle of the London 2012 Olympic Games told this tale. The opening ceremony, traditionally a sparklefest of perkiness, was, with its suffragist and trade unionists, mainly a celebration of dissent, or put less grandly, complaint. Still, this back door approach to national pride propelled the English into a brief and unprecedented stint of joyous positivity — lasting for the exact duration of the Games. For three weeks I was unable to distinguish my British friends’ Facebook statuses from those of my American ones.
The transformation wasn’t absolute of course. Anyone watching a few minutes of the BBC Olympic coverage would have noticed that the average British person sounds painfully awkward forming the syllables of the phrase “hopes and dreams,” which trips lightly off the American tongue. Our queen, despite the repeated presence of a stadium full of her subjects urging in song that she be both happy and glorious, could barely muster a smile, staring grimly through her eyeglasses and clutching her purse on her lap as if she might be mugged.
Cynicism is the British shtick. When happiness does come our way, it is entirely without effort, as unmeritocratic as a hereditary peerage. By contrast, in America, happiness is work. Intense, nail-biting work, slogged out in motivational seminars and therapy sessions, meditation retreats and airport bookstores. For the left there’s yoga, for the right, there’s Jesus. For no one is there respite.
There is something joyless about the whole shindig. I live in California, where the Great American Search for Happiness has its headquarters. The notice board of the cafe where I write offers a revolving loop of different paths to bliss: Maum Meditation, TransDance, Chod Training and, most oddly, the drinking of wolf colostrum. Customers jot down the phone numbers earnestly, although statistically they’d be better off joining the Republican Party.
The people taking part in “happiness pursuits,” as a rule, don’t seem very happy. At the one and only yoga class I attended, shortly after arriving in the United States, the tension and misery in the room were palpable. Which makes sense, because a person who was already feeling happy would be unlikely to waste the sensation in a sweaty room at the Y.M.C.A., voluntarily contorting into uncomfortable positions. The happy person would be more likely to be off doing something fun, like sitting in the park drinking.
Since moving to the States just shy of a year ago, I have had more conversations about my own happiness than in the whole rest of my life. The subject comes up in the park pushing swings alongside a mother I met moments before, with the man behind the fish counter in the supermarket, with my gym instructor and with our baby sitter, who arrives to put our son to bed armed with pamphlets about a nudist happiness retreat in Northern California. While the British way can be drainingly negative, The American approach to happiness can spur a debilitating anxiety. The initial sense of promise and hope is seductive, but it soon gives way to a nagging slow-burn feeling of inadequacy. Am I happy? Happy enough? As happy as everyone else? Could I be doing more about it? Even basic contentment feels like failure when pitched against capital-H Happiness. The goal is so elusive and hard to define, it’s impossible to pinpoint when it’s even been achieved — a recipe for neurosis.
Happiness should be serendipitous, a by-product of a life well lived, and pursuing it in a vacuum doesn’t really work. This is borne out by a series of slightly depressing statistics. The most likely customer of a self-help book is a person who has bought another self-help book in the last 18 months. The General Social Survey, a prominent data-based barometer of American society, shows little change in happiness levels since 1972, when such records began. Every year, with remarkable consistency, around 33 percent of Americans report that they are “very happy.” It’s a fair chunk, but a figure that remains surprisingly constant, untouched by the uptick in Eastern meditation or evangelical Christianity, by Tony Robbins or Gretchen Rubin or attachment parenting. For all the effort Americans are putting into happiness, they are not getting any happier. It is not surprising, then, that the search itself has become a source of anxiety.
This is true in my own experience. Even adjusting for emotional openness, my American friends are certainly no happier, and in many ways more anxious than my British ones. For those of us who like their rash assertions to be backed up by meaningless numbers, Britain consistently scores higher on international happiness indexes than the States, although the mental gymnastics required to comprehend a meaningful difference between, say, 74th and 114th place in the world happiness hit parade are probably not a great use of anyone’s time.
So here’s a bumper sticker: despite the glorious weather and spectacular landscape, the people of California are probably less happy and more anxious than the people of Grimsby. So they may as well stop trying so hard.”
Ruth Whippman is a writer and documentary filmmaker. Her work has appeared in The Guardian and The Huffington Post, and she is a regular blogger for The Independent. Follow her on Twitter at @ruthwhippman.