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.

 

Olympic Medals and International Self Esteem

Poor Canada. They bombed at the 2012 London Olympics. One gold medal and it wasn’t even in a sport. Good thing Canada has an excellent sense of humor because their gold was in a childhood backyard activity. Trampoline.

Well, normally they have a great sense of humor. Apparently not when it comes to underperforming at athletic events on the global stage. As this Toronto Star headline illustrates, “Canada Ties Uganda, Uzbekistan, and Grenada in Gold Medal Count,” they’re beating themselves up over it.

Why do nations place so much importance on the Olympic medal count? It’s as if all of the world’s countries are fourteen year-olds starting high school with shaky self esteem. What will all the others think of me? China apparently feels better about itself because they kicked ass. Did you see the women’s beach volleyball finals? Or the gold medal basketball games? Maybe the U.S. isn’t in decline after all. In contrast, Australians, also serious underachievers, are mired in a post-Olympics depression.

The irony is Canada is excelling in a much more important “competition”, the overall quality of life of its citizens. According the 2011 United Nations Human Development Index, Canada is ranked 6th in the world in “human development” which is based on several quality of life indicators including life expectancy (81.0) and per capita income ($35,166).

First through fifth? Norway (gold), Australia (silver), Netherlands (bronze), United States, and New Zealand.

In what’s turning into a global medal arms race, Canada’s and Australia’s Olympic Committees will spend way more money than normal to turn things around in Rio. Less developed countries too.

Go ahead if it makes you feel better about yourselves, but don’t let it substitute for continuous investment and improvement in the quality of life of all your citizens. Otherwise, you run the risk of winning the battle of short-term national Olympic glory at the long-term expense of improved quality of life.

Oh, and Canada, don’t despair too much. Only eighteen months until the Winter Olympics begin in Sochi, Russia.

Ethiopia’s Epic Underachievement

I was cycling indoors at home recently while watching a tape of the just completed LA Marathon. Like the movie Groundhog Day, Ethiopians moved to the front of the both the men’s and women’s races. Ethiopia’s Bizunesh Deba, looking freakishly fresh, sat on American rookie Amy Hastings for the first 18+ miles at which point she slowly put 150-200 meters into her for victory in 2:26:34. Deba, 23, has won seven of the nine marathons she’s entered. Someone is mismanaging her, but I digress.

In the men’s race 26 year-old Ethiopian marathon rookie Markos Geneti ran a 1:02+ half and blew away the field coasting home in a course record 2:06:35. He’s a preeminent short and middle distance runner, but the marathon is where the money is in track and field these days. From now on, he’ll get six figures to show up at races.

The LA Times reported that Geneti plans to invest his $125,000 in earnings in a school in Addis Adaba (correct spelling, “Ababa”).

I was intrigued by Amy Hastings grittiness and guts. When she fell off Deba she crawled back into touch, fell off again, and got back in touch, before fading right before the finish. It was an incredible debut. Afterwards, I read an interview with her from before the race that included this question: One of the appeals of elite-level running is that the people, by and large, are smart, nice, insightful, introspective, all those good things. In addition to the fact that you obviously love the sensation of running, I would think that the kind of people that you meet in running, the kind of people you’ve been teammates with, the kind of people you’re rivals with, have been a big part of the appeal, isn’t it?

This got me thinking about what else we may be able to generalize about elite marathoners. To the interviewers list I’ll add: self confidence, intense competitiveness, extraordinary self-discipline, resilience, optimism, and off the charts toughness.

If I were to write about every elite Ethiopian runner, you’d have to set aside the next hour. It’s Kenya, Ethiopia, then all the other countries of the world combined. I like Geneti and Deba in London (assuming Deba starts spreading out her races better).

And when I taught at a private international school in Addis Ababa, my best students were Ethiopian public school students who won scholarships to our school and went to Harvard and other elite universities after graduating. These athletes and these students accomplishments beg the question, how does a country with Geneti and Deba and Nebiyeleul Tilahoun type of human resources continue to struggle to meet people’s basic needs?

The short answer is poor governance. No doubt Meles Zenawi celebrates “his” runners accomplishments and uses them to bolster his own image among his people. Here’s his story.

I hope Ethiopia’s runners, young students, and other citizens find inspiration from the Middle Eastern protestors to help close the Great Rift Valley that exists between their impressive human potential and bitter day-to-day realities. And I hope upon hope that Meles Zenawi is living in exile when Geneti and Deba walk into the opening ceremonies in London in the summer of 2012. Assuming, that is, they make the team.