Ruth Whippman on Why the Pursuit of Happiness is Stressing Us Out

“This idea that if we just work a bit harder, read another book, go to another class, then we’ll become happier, is actually, in and of itself, the wrong way of going about it.”

Ruth Whippman has been called “a whip-sharp British Bill Bryson,” for her humorous essays and criticism, which have appeared in The New York Times, Time Magazine, The Guardian, and more. When Ruth, an author, journalist, and documentary film-maker, moved from London to California, she encountered an intense cultural drive towards happiness. Her exploration of the self-help industry and quest to find happiness in a new country is documented in her acclaimed book, America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks. Recently, she joined Heleo’s Mandy Godwin in a conversation about the politics, pressures, and realities of happiness.

Mandy: The self-help industry is bigger than ever here in the United States, but people don’t seem to be getting any happier. What’s going on?

Ruth: What you would technically think of as the self-help industry is worth about 11 billion dollars. It’s about the same size as Hollywood and it has a similar kind of cultural ethic: “I deserve a happily ever after,” you can get to this bliss. But, in recent years, a wider self-help industry has exploded because academic positive psychology has become almost an academic wing to the self-help industry. They also publish self-help books and happiness guides, and do more scientific research. Then there’s the more quasi-spiritual side of the self-help industry, which has also exploded recently—that’s mindfulness, yoga, meditation, those types of things. That’s in and of itself become a multi-billion dollar industry as well. So the whole thing is absolutely huge.

But Americans are not getting any happier. And compared to other countries where these industries are not so prevalent, America scores pretty low on the happiness scale. One study that came out not long ago put the United States at two places behind Rwanda in terms of happiness. This is a country that has a major psychological trauma and yet still people there are more content than they are in the U.S.

“This idea that if we just work a bit harder, read another book, go to another class, then we’ll become happier, is actually, in and of itself, the wrong way of going about it.”

As to why, I think there’s a few reasons. One of them is that there’s pretty strong research that shows that the harder we try to happy and the more we value happiness and work on it, the less happy we become. Really, that makes the whole premise of the self-help industry falter. This idea that if we just work a bit harder, read another book, go to another class, then we’ll become happier, is actually, in and of itself, the wrong way of going about it.

I think another problem is that the vision of happiness that the self-help industry puts about runs contrary to what we know about happiness and how it works.

Want more conversations with the world's great thinkers? Click the shiny blue button!
The self-help industry generally, and in particular some of these newer, more quasi-spiritual things, are all about happiness being your own personal individual journey, and focusing on yourself, how you can improve yourself and make yourself better with working harder on yourself. When, actually, what we know about happiness is that it’s found through community and social connections and other people. So, focusing on yourself, in a way, is the opposite of what you want to be doing if you want to be happy.

Mandy: You went to a lot of different places throughout the research for your book—you embarked on a parallel self-help journey to explore the self-help industry. How was that? Did you feel at any point as though you were buying into it?

Ruth: Absolutely. In a sense, I set off to research and analyze the self-help industry, but also, from a personal point of view, I had moved to a new country. I felt lonely and isolated and not particularly happy. So there was a big part of me that was trying all these things genuinely to see if I could become happier in the process. It wasn’t a completely dispassionate investigation into the self-help industry. I wanted these things to work.

I tried this controversial self-help thing called Landmark Forum, which runs over three days. It’s very long hours, very emotionally intense. The whole idea is to get people to accept that their problems are their own responsibility. They don’t say the word “fault,” but that’s the way it feels when you’re in the middle of it. I found the whole thing extremely worrying and unpleasant. There’s no room for dissent, critique, or questioning. It’s this way or no way. I found the whole thing extremely psychologically destructive. Lots of people, however, find it extremely transformative and wonderful—I would say the majority of people in my course did feel that. You’re quite vulnerable when you’re in there and it’s very easy to get swept up in the whole intensity of it.

I tried mindfulness. I tried meditation. I tried yoga. I went to Nevada and spent some time in Downtown Las Vegas, which is an area that this tech billionaire, Tony Hsieh, has bought to run as a kind of happiness and innovation community. He’s the guy who started Zappos shoe retailers, one of the corporate cultures which is all about delivering happiness to the staff and the customers. It’s a really unusual working environment and now the CEO has bought up sixty acres of Downtown Las Vegas to run it as this community. That was a peculiar experience, being there. There’s some quite dark stuff that has come out of this so-called happiness community. It’s very intense.

Mandy: It seems like intensity is a common factor in all of these happiness projects.

Ruth: Yes, I spent some time with Mormons in Utah, and while that’s very different from Tony Hsieh’s happiness city in Las Vegas, at the same time, in that community, happiness is very highly prized and wrapped up in this idea of being godly and virtuous. For Mormon women especially, it’s an incredibly high-pressure thing. It’s about feeling happy, looking happy, presenting a happy front. Mormons statistically rate as the happiest people in America, but people in Utah, where there are many Mormons, have the highest rate of antidepressant use. Academics have attributed this, in part, to this cultural pressure to be perfect, be happy, to not admit to negative emotions.

Mandy: Seeing that, it raises the question of, “Are there more important things to life than being happy?”

Ruth: On the one hand, absolutely, as human beings we need to embrace the full range of our emotions and our emotional experiences. It’s impossible to only have positive emotions. Nobody experiences life like that. One of the woman that I interviewed summed it up really well: “If we blunt negative emotions, we also blunt positive emotions.” You can’t have it both ways.

On the other hand, there’s sometimes this backlash, “Happiness isn’t important” or “happiness is not even good or desirable,” and those things never quite ring true for me. I can’t quite buy into the idea that happiness isn’t important at all. At a very profound human level, almost all of us will feel, “Well, of course it’s important to be happy.” It’s just more of question of how we go about it. What sort of happiness, how we go about finding it, and whether we make it a goal, in and of itself, or whether it’s something that comes as a byproduct of living a fulfilling, meaningful, connected life.

Mandy: You found that the research supports that it’s really community-based happiness that helps us?

“You can find a study or piece of research that backs up pretty much any agenda or theory that you have.”

Ruth: Yes. Happiness itself is a strange beast because it’s very inconsistent. You can find a study or piece of research that backs up pretty much any agenda or theory that you have. If you want to prove that men are happier than women, or that women are happier than men, or Republicans are happier than Democrats, or Democrats are happier—you can find a study to back it up, which is why happiness is not necessarily a great measure for public policy. But there is one point on which pretty much every piece of research that has ever been conducted is consistent, which is that social relationships and community are the single most important thing for our happiness—and that applies to introverts just as much as it does to extroverts.

When I say happiness is about social connection and community, people think what I’m saying is, “Oh you have to be constantly out with people at parties and socializing”. That’s not what I mean. I’m talking about the depths of the relationships that people have, whether people feel supported in their communities. That means different things to different people. It might mean going to lots of parties and being a social butterfly. For somebody else, it might mean having very close relationships with family members or one or two close friends. For everybody, the effect of strong social support is the biggest thing.

Mandy: It’s interesting that the pursuit of happiness takes away from that time. Instead of going to the happiness forum, you might have been happier if you had spent time with your family.

Ruth: Yes, the irony of it was there I was in a three day happiness workshop in a room with no windows on the most peaceful day of the year while my family was at home without me.

In America, the research shows that pursuing happiness makes us less happy, that’s pretty clear. But in other cultures where they define happiness in a slightly different way, in a more collective, communal kind of way, then pursuing happiness makes people happier.

In America, we tend to define happiness as a very individualistic quest. Then, the more you pursue it, the unhappier you become. Whereas in East Asia, Russia, and other places, the research shows that when people define happiness as a more collective endeavor and they pursue it by spending time with their friends and family, the happier they get.

Mandy: That’s really interesting—especially because happiness is such a vague term, we can talk about it in fourteen different ways.

Ruth: It means different things to different people. That’s another reason why, when I see all these things saying, “They should replace Gross Domestic Product with Gross National Happiness,” I think, sounds nice in theory, but it’s not really a great measure for public policy because happiness is idiosyncratic and different for every person. It’s not a very objective measure.

Mandy: Tying it into the GDP and public policy—it seems as though there’s political angle to the pursuit of happiness.

Ruth: This idea that happiness should be a political thing and that governments should get involved in happiness is quite popular with the center-right governments like David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, who is very into this whole idea that we should be measuring happiness on a national scale and forming policies on the basis of happiness measures. Also, it’s taken hold in places where the human rights record is not so great. The latest is the United Arab Emirates, they have a huge push to bring happiness into government. It’s all slightly sinister. I just saw that UC Berkeley is going to be training up a whole delegation of people from UAE to go back and bring happiness and positivity into their government practices.

I think we’d be better off focusing on more objective things like human rights, social justice, equality. Those can be measured and tracked in a much more effective way than happiness. Happiness research is just way too inconsistent to draw any firm conclusions.

Mandy: Right. If you’re measuring happiness before you tackle basic human rights issues, it almost feels as though what you’re measuring is complacency.

Ruth: That’s an excellent point. It can become a PR job more than anything else. It sounds great—”Dubai wants everybody to be happy”—but still, there are issues of political resistance and worker’s rights. You’re not tackling the basics of why people are happy. The other thing is that happiness is very easily corrupted for any agenda that anyone wants to pursue. David Cameron, who’s very into happiness, at the same time stripped back the entire welfare state and all the mental health services. All the programs that actually contribute to well-being, he cut funding for, because he was very committed to this idea that happiness should be an individual responsibility and something that the individual should pursue on their own.

Mandy: This persistent myth that after you hit a certain threshold of making money, happiness evens out and money doesn’t buy happiness—where does that come from?

Ruth: The positive psychology movement is very invested in this idea that money doesn’t make much difference to happiness. Also, that circumstances generally don’t make much difference to happiness. The positive psychology movement takes a lot of money from this group called the Templeton Foundation, which was started by a right-wing billionaire philanthropist who donates a lot of money to anti-government causes and anti-gay marriage initiatives. The discipline of positive psychology is very devoted to this idea that happiness is about individual responsibility, trying harder, doing gratitude exercises, thinking positive, being optimistic—changing yourself rather than changing your world. They promote a lot of research which says that our circumstances account for a very small part of our happiness, almost negligible. They acknowledge that genes play a role, but they say that the most important thing is individual effort.

So they are very keen on this idea that money is not important to happiness. We all have an equal shot and when you’re out of poverty, then money can’t buy you much extra happiness. But the research doesn’t really say that. The research shows that there’s a very strong link between money and happiness, unfortunately. On the most important measure of happiness, overall life satisfaction, the more money you have, the happier you are. Obviously that’s not true for every individual and every person, but denying that money makes a difference to happiness is political, because it’s this neoliberal agenda that every person has the same chance to thrive and it’s all about effort rather than what you’re born with.

“This idea that you need to spend $500 and go on a course and become a different person and think different thoughts—that’s like saying a better, improved version of me can be happy but this one right here can’t.”

When you read positive psychology books you see the same theme come up again and again: just try harder to be happy. Forget the fact that your boss may have fired you, or your husband might be cheating on you, you’re in a toxic relationship, or that you can’t afford to pay your bills. Just try harder at being happy. It’s very dismissive of people’s circumstances and the real, harsh realities of life. It’s also based on completely flawed research.

Mandy: So what would be your advice to people who are looking to strengthen their own happiness?

Ruth: To reach out. It’s about investing in the relationships that you already have and giving them the time and focus and energy that they deserve, and also reaching out to new people.

This whole idea that happiness is about trying harder, making more effort, and improving yourself, in a way, is this idea that we’re not good enough to be happy the way that we are. We have to make ourselves better in order to be happy. This is something that women are especially vulnerable to. Women buy 80% of all self-help books and self-help products. I think that’s because he have this appetite for self flagellation. To believe that it’s all our fault. That we have to be better. You see these books called things like, “Women Who Love Too Much”, “Women Who Think Too Much”, “Women Who Do Too Much”, and you think, there will never be a self-help book that is called, “Men Who Love Too Little” or “Men Who Do Too Little” or “Men Who Think Too Little.” Because women like to blame ourselves, and we buy into this narrative that we need to change ourselves in order to be happy, and I don’t think that’s particularly healthy.

Mandy: It reminds me so much of one of my favorite writers, Heather Havrilesky—her whole mantra is that you deserve to be happy how you are right now.

Ruth: Yes. Absolutely. This idea that you need to spend $500 and go on a course and become a different person and think different thoughts—that’s like saying a better, improved version of me can be happy but this one right here can’t.

Mandy: It’s important to let you be happy, not some far off idea of you.

Ruth: Yes, you, not some theoretical version of yourself.