America the Anxious: How to Calm Down, Stop Worrying, and Find Happiness

America the Anxious: How to Calm Down, Stop Worrying, and Find Happiness

by Ruth Whippman
America the Anxious: How to Calm Down, Stop Worrying, and Find Happiness

America the Anxious: How to Calm Down, Stop Worrying, and Find Happiness

by Ruth Whippman



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A New York Times Editor's Choice pick

Ruth Whippman is my new favorite cultural critic...a shrewd, hilarious analysis.” —Adam Grant, New York Times bestselling author of Give and Take, Originals, and Option B (coauthored with Sheryl Sandberg)

"I don't think I've enjoyed cultural observations this much since David Foster Wallace's A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. Reading this book is like touring America with a scary-smart friend who can't stop elbowing you in the ribs and saying, "Are you seeing what I'm seeing?!" If you want to understand why our culture incites pure dread and alienation in so many of us (often without always recognizing it), read this book." —Heather Havrilesky, writer behind "Ask Polly" for New York Magazine and nationally bestselling author of How to Be a Person in the World

Are you happy? Right now? Happy enough? As happy as everyone else? Could you be happier if you tried harder?

After she packed up her British worldview (that most things were basically rubbish) and moved to America, journalist and documentary filmmaker Ruth Whippman found herself increasingly perplexed by the American obsession with one topic above all others: happiness. The subject came up everywhere: at the playground swings, at the meat counter in the supermarket, and even—legs in stirrups—at the gynecologist.

The omnipresence of these happiness conversations (trading tips, humble-bragging successes, offering unsolicited advice) wouldn’t let her go, and so Ruth did some digging. What she found was a paradox: despite the fact that Americans spend more time and money in search of happiness than any other nation on earth, research shows that the United States is one of the least contented, most anxious countries in the developed world. Stoked by a multi-billion dollar “happiness industrial complex” intent on selling the promise of bliss, America appeared to be driving itself crazy in pursuit of contentment.

So Ruth set out to get to the bottom of this contradiction, embarking on an uproarious pilgrimage to investigate how this national obsession infiltrates all areas of life, from religion to parenting, the workplace to academia. She attends a controversial self-help course that promises total transformation, where she learns all her problems are all her own fault; visits a “happiness city” in the Nevada desert and explores why it has one of the highest suicide rates in America; delves into the darker truths behind the influential academic “positive psychology movement”; and ventures to Utah to spend time with the Mormons, officially America’s happiest people.

What she finds, ultimately, and presents in America the Anxious, is a rigorously researched yet universal answer, and one that comes absolutely free of charge.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781466882669
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/04/2016
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: eBook
Pages: 256
File size: 779 KB

About the Author

RUTH WHIPPMAN is a British writer, journalist, and documentary maker living in the United States. She is the author of America the Anxious and her essays and comment pieces have appeared in various publications including the New York Times, The Independent, The Guardian and the Huffington Post. She graduated from Cambridge University and now lives in California, where she is the proud mother of two little boys.
RUTH WHIPPMAN is a British writer, journalist, and documentary maker living in the United States. Her essays and comment pieces have appeared in various publications including the New York Times, The Independent, The Guardian and the Huffington Post. She graduated from Cambridge University and now lives in California, where she is the proud mother of two little boys.

Read an Excerpt



I'm at the gynecologist for my Pap smear, feet in stirrups, idly wondering what Emily Post might have suggested as appropriate small talk for those moments when the person you are speaking to will be replying to your vagina. We've been living in America for a few months now, having moved here from London for my husband's job, and in theory, Britishness should be good preparation for these kinds of occasions. After all, our national social specialty is the denial of glaring intimacies, soldiering on with weather pleasantries to avoid acknowledging any form of nudity, either physical or emotional.

Unfortunately, even at the best of times, making casual conversation with a British accent in America feels a bit like being a librarian in a nightclub, or wearing a set of iron tongue calipers. Now we're living here, I'm doomed to lug this paralyzing verbal awkwardness around with me for the next few years until we move back to England and I can stop attempting to sound convincing saying things like "awesome!" and "good job!" and "ass" (this last, genuinely technically impossible to pronounce with a British tongue without sounding utterly ludicrous or as though you're talking about a donkey).

This time however, I needn't have worried — the doctor is doing all the talking. Delving deep with her speculum, she delves deeper into matters of the heart. Apparently, she is reading Gretchen Rubin's bestseller, Happier at Home, and finding it very instructive. I've read that book too and am suddenly overcome with crippling self-consciousness. I hope desperately that my gynecologist is not currently reading the part about how in order to achieve true happiness, it is advisable to give total mental focus to how everything around you smells.

Six months ago I would have found it hard to believe that I would be discussing the path to everlasting bliss with the ob-gyn, but after a stint living in California, it feels almost routine. Since arriving here, I feel as though I have had more conversations about my own and other people's happiness than in the whole of the rest of my life put together.

We moved to the States from the UK when my techie husband, Neil, was offered a job with a software start-up in Silicon Valley. A lifelong Americanophile, he had jumped at the chance, and I had quit my frenetic job making television documentaries to be a stay-at-home mom to our toddler son, Solly. Although I got a fair amount of mileage from the clear moral advantage of being the one who "gave up everything for her loved one's dreams," in reality I was ready to ditch my lifelong codependent relationship with surly gray London and embrace the sun-drenched beauty of California.

But a few months in, I'm feeling displaced and lonely. I have gone from being desperate to spend more time with Solly, to having vast unbroken vistas of togetherness that are sending me slightly crazy. He is, of course, the very delight of my soul, but he only knows ten words, and five of those are names for different types of construction vehicles. Desperate for adult conversation, I am sidling up to anyone and everyone — moms pushing swings next to me in the playground, the dry cleaner, the man in front of me in line at the grocery store, and a range of random local contacts scratched together for me by friends back in London. Oddly, the same topic comes up time and time again. Happiness.

The conversations tend to fall into two broad categories: the agonizing kind and the evangelical kind. As a compulsive overthinker myself, the agonizing ones feel more familiar to me. These conversations are all about questions. Am I with the right person? Am I following my passions? Am I doing what I love? What is my purpose in life? Am I as happy as I should be?

As a Brit raised on a diet of armchair cynicism, the evangelical-style conversations are newer territory. In these, people claim to have found the answers. They enthuse about their chosen paths to bliss, convinced, at least temporarily, that they have found the definitive thing that will pin down the happy-ever-after.

Their answers range from the mundane to the mind-boggling. Yoga and meditation. Keeping a "gratitude journal." A weekend seminar on how to Unleash the Power Within. Keeping your baby attached to your body for a minimum of twenty-two hours out of every twenty-four, and, most bafflingly, not least on a practical level, the drinking of wolf colostrum. A friend of a friend that I meet for coffee livens up a rather dull conversation about what time her husband gets home from work with the observation that it really doesn't matter one way or the other, as the most important person in her life is actually Jesus.

It seems as though happiness in America has become the overachiever's ultimate trophy. A modern trump card, it outranks professional achievement and social success, family, friendship, and even love. Its invocation deftly minimizes others' achievements ("Well, I suppose she has the perfect job and a gorgeous husband, but is she really happy?") and takes the shine off our own.

It all feels a long way from the British approach that I was brought up with. 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. Emotionally awkward and primed for skepticism, 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 feels embarrassing to discuss it and demeaning to chase it, like calling someone moments after a first date to ask if they like you.

Self-help books and yoga classes and meditation all exist in the UK, of course — there is no shortage of people willing to take your money in return for the promise of bliss — but they somehow don't have the same magnetic pull, our inbuilt cultural skepticism providing a natural check.

Part of this is that Americans seem to have a deep cultural aversion to negativity. This can be a welcome change, but the pressure to remain positive at all times often results in some complicated mental gymnastics. My son's report card at preschool divided his performance not into strengths and weaknesses but into strengths and emerging strengths. American problems are routinely rebranded as "opportunities," hence the filthy bathroom in our local supermarket displays a sign saying: "If this restroom fails to meet your expectations, please inform us of the opportunity," as if reeking puddles of urine are merely an inspirational occasion for personal growth.

Cynicism is the British shtick, our knee-jerk starting point. I think back to a time a few years ago when I was working at the BBC in London, and our managers booked a motivational trainer to come and attempt to galvanize the dispirited employees in my department. The trainer identified the problem. We were all far too negative, and would be much happier and better motivated if we would just stop saying no all the time. He suggested that next time someone put forward an idea, instead of responding with the words "no, but ..." (insert mean-spirited objection to other person's creativity), we should instead force ourselves to respond with a "yes, and ..." (insert positive-spirited, constructive comment building on other person's idea). He made us try it out, kicking things off himself with an initial sample idea, then throwing it over to the next person in line to pick up. "Yes, and ... that's bollocks," said the next person. This pretty much sums up the British attitude.

It feels good to be away from this sometimes life-leeching negativity, but I also find it hard to throw myself full tilt into the American approach to hunting down bliss. Happiness over here has its own vocabulary: mindfulness, empowerment. Whenever I hear the word empowerment, it always makes me feel slightly edgy, as if at any moment I might be asked to take my clothes off. If someone suggests that a given activity is going to be "empowering," I know that is almost certainly going to be undignified, mildly humiliating, or involve heights. As a rule, "empowerment" appears to be the consolation prize for those of us who will never have any actual power, and you can safely assume that no one in any position of genuine authority will be joining in. Creating a Tumblr of photos of your post–C-section wobbling and scarred naked stomach? Empowering! Creating a Tumblr of photos of your post-prostate surgery rectum? Not so much, Senator.

Mindfulness is everywhere, the hugely popular zeitgeist theory that in order to be happy we must live fully in the present moment, with total mental focus on whatever we are doing or experiencing Right This Second. Time magazine publishes an eight-page spread, featured on the front cover entitled "The Mindful Revolution," that opens with the author, an impressive and decorated journalist, bringing the full force of her considerable mental capacity to bear on a raisin. The raisin "glistens." I can't help thinking that, as a rule, food shouldn't glisten.

During my first few months in America, I come across mindful parenting, mindful business dealings, mindful eating, and even mindful dishwashing, complete with a detailed set of instructions on the Huffington Post, in printable format, to pin above the sink. According to the practice's thought leaders, in order to achieve maximum happiness, the mindful dishwasher must refuse to succumb to domestic autopilot and instead fully mentally engage with every piece of congealed scrambled egg and clump of oatmeal on the saucepan.

I find mindfulness a hard theory to embrace. Surely one of the most magnificent things about the human brain is its ability to hold past, present, future, and their imagined alternatives in constant parallel, to offset the tedium of washing dishes in Pinole with the chance to be simultaneously mentally in Bangkok or Don Draper's boxer shorts or finally telling your mother-in-law that despite her belief that "no one born in the seventies died," using a car seat isn't spoiling your child. I struggle to see how greater happiness could be achieved by reining in that magical sense of scope and possibility to stare down some oatmeal.

Although I'm probably just being defensive. As a person who is ridiculously distractible, the whole philosophy of mindfulness comes across almost as a personal attack, an intervention from some well-meaning body to compel me to stop doing the "Which Brunch Entrée Are You?" BuzzFeed quiz and go read Llama Llama I'm a Self-Harmer to my son for the nineteenth time this morning. (Anyhow, I'm convinced that the idea that distraction is a product of the modern age and that our foremothers spent their days in a state of total mindful focus on their children is a myth. The desperate urge to escape the more grinding realities of childcare was surely just as strong for our mothers' generation; they just used Valium instead of iPhones.)

I start to wonder whether the high-octane approach to the pursuit of happiness that I'm seeing here in middle-class California is in any way representative of American culture more widely. California has always been the headquarters of the Great American Search for Happiness, and the people I am meeting, although generally not rich or part of any kind of megaelite, do tend to be college-educated professionals, a similar bracket to me and most of my social network back in the UK. Is all this joy hunting just the ultimate luxury for a privileged bunch of high-income Californians?

A bit of digging suggests not. Although the poverty stricken are unlikely to be wandering into Barnes & Noble for a book about mindfulness, a little research reveals that the explicit and focused quest for happiness as a goal distinct from the rest of life is seeping through virtually all sections of American society. Oprah Winfrey, the reigning queen of the happy-seekers, is widely considered to be one of the most influential people in America, having brought her signature brand of self-improvement and spirituality to hundreds of millions of Americans. Yet around half of Oprah's audience had a household income of less than fifty thousand dollars, the US median, and a similar proportion had no education beyond high school.

Mindfulness is seeping into the public education system throughout the nation. In Ohio, Congressman Tim Ryan recently received a sizable federal grant to bring mindfulness classes into the state's elementary schools (although at least one school discontinued the program after parents complained that they were "taking valuable time out of education to put students in a room of darkness to lay on their backs"). Americans buy a billion dollars' worth of self-help books and audiobooks each year. Meanwhile the Internet bursts with links to motivational happiness seminars all across the country aimed at the unemployed, rebranding destitution as "an exciting opportunity for personal development."

As the perfect blend of the pioneer spirit and the perky one, the Great American Search for Happiness is a characteristically American struggle, a "wagons west" of the soul. This is the emotional face of the American dream and the faith in meritocracy that underpins it. The belief that if you put in enough emotional elbow grease, if you slog out the hours in yoga classes and mindfulness seminars, parachute jumps and self-help books and megachurches and therapy sessions, then eternal happiness will be yours. It's an inspiring promise, but for something that's supposed to be pleasurable, it can also feel like an awful lot of hard work.

It occurs to me that all these happiness pursuits often don't seem to be making people particularly happy. When a new American friend persuades me to try out a yoga class, you can almost smell the tension and misery in the room. Although it's a little hard to determine cause and effect, as anyone who was already feeling happy would be unlikely to waste the sensation in a fetid room at the YMCA, contorting their body into uncomfortable positions. The happy person would be more likely to be off doing something fun, like sitting in the park, drinking.

Before moving to America, I didn't really give a whole lot of dedicated thought to whether or not I was happy. Like most people, in any given day I will experience emotions and sensations including (but not limited to) hilarity, joy, irritation, ambivalence, excitement, embarrassment, paralyzing self-doubt, boredom, anxiety, guilt, heart-stopping love, resentment, pride, exhaustion, and the shrill, insistent buzz of uneaten chocolate somewhere in the house. It's hard to pin one definitive label on all this clattering emotional noise, but I'm confident that if you add them all up and then divide by the number of emotions (or whatever other formula they use to calculate the statistics in all the research studies on happiness that I start to notice in the press), then you reach an average falling squarely into the box marked contentment.

But the more conversations I have about happiness, and the more I absorb the idea that there's a glittering happy-ever-after out there for the taking, the more I start to overthink the whole thing, compulsively monitoring how I am feeling and hyper-parenting my emotions. Am I happy? Right at this moment? What about now? And now? Am I happy enough? As happy as everyone else? What about Meghan? Is she happier than me? She looks happier. What is she doing that I'm not doing? Maybe I should take up yoga. The whole process starts to become painfully, comically neurotic. Workaday contentment starts to give way to a low-grade sense of inadequacy 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 reached, a recipe for anxiety.

To an outsider, it can sometimes feel as though the entire population has a nationwide standardized happiness exam to take, and everyone is frantically cramming the night before to get a good grade. Like a stony-faced "that's hilarious" after a joke in place of laughter — another mildly unnerving staple of conversation in this country — it appears that somewhere along the line, the joy has been sucked out of American happiness.

Oddly, even adjusting for emotional openness, my new happiness-seeking American acquaintances seem no happier, and often more anxious, than my cynical joy-slacking British ones. My instinct is that this is because happiness should be serendipitous, the by-product of a life well lived, and chasing it in a vacuum just doesn't really work. I want to dig a little deeper and find out whether or not this hunch stands up to scrutiny.


Excerpted from "America the Anxious"
by .
Copyright © 2016 Ruth Whippman.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1. Coming to America: Obsessed with Happiness, but Nobody's Happy,
2. Personal Journey? It's Not All About You,
3. Happiness for Sale: Self-Help America,
4. Workaholics,
5. "I Don't Care as Long as He's Happy": Dispatches from the Parenting Happiness Rat Race,
6. God's Plan of Happiness,
7. I'm Not a Happy Person, I Just Play One on Facebook,
8. Positive Psychology (or If You're Not Happy, It's Your Own Fault, You Lazy Schmuck),
9. Star-Spangled Happy,

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