The Great National Happiness Rat Race

Just one of many money phrases, sentences, and paragraphs from a recent NYTimes blog post by Ruth Whippman, a Brit living in California. Whippman beautifully articulates what I’ve long thought. She leads with an Eric Hoffer quote, “The search for happiness is one of the chief sources of unhappiness.”

Notable nuggets:

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.

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. . . . 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. . . . 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.

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. . . . 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.

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.


2011 Resolution

Resist manic materialism.

I have no one really to blame because I chose to watch MSNBC while preparing for the 2011 cycling season one morning last week.  It was the morning after 20 inches of snow fell throughout the Northeastern U.S. Business analysts worried “How will the conditions affect retailers since post Christmas shoppers will stay home?”

Does everything always have to be interpreted through the lens of economics?

I should have switched to the Zen Cable Network, a mythical creation of mine where a slow, beautiful, non-narrated slideshow with acoustic guitar accompaniment was looping. Slow moving shots of young people up and down the seaboard sledding and having snowball fights while parents sipped coffee and talked against the backdrop of translucent, oddly beautiful cities.

Manic materialism is the increasingly common practice of defining as many life activities and events as possible in economic terms. How does this—a winter snow storm, schooling, an art form, food, healthcare—make people more or less wealthy? It’s the result of our collective idolatry, and as a result, it’s our unofficial national religion. No activity is immune from its influence. Every life activity and event is reduced to whether it generates wealth.

And make no mistake about it, wealth is defined one way—materially. How much money do you have, how big is your house, how nice is it on the inside, how luxurious is your car, where do you vacation?

Schooling provides a poignant example. Why are U.S. opinion and business leaders over involved in reform efforts today? For one reason—our international economic competitiveness is slipping. As a result, our relative wealth is declining. That’s why math and science content is routinely privileged at the expense of humanities and social studies education. The business leaders at the education reform table are in essence asking, “How in the hell is an affinity for literature or history going to translate into more money for more people?”

Maybe I errored in using the phrase “our collective idolatry” a few paragraphs ago. Maybe all of us are exceptions, a fringe minority that believes we’re more social, emotional, dare I even say spiritual beings, than economic ones.

In prioritizing close interpersonal relationships, maintaining work-life balance, and consciously living below our means, we provide a viable alternative to manic materialism and threaten the status quo.

What else can and should we do in 2011 to provide a social-emotional-spiritual alternative to manic materialism?