Wednesday 25 May 2016

Book Review: The Pursuit of Happiness: And Why It's Making Us Anxious by Ruth Whippman

As your average cynical Brit, when Ruth Whippman moves to California, it seems to her that the American obsession with finding happiness is driving everyone crazy.

But soon she starts to get sucked in. She meditates and tries 'mindful dishwashing'. She attends a self-help course that promises total transformation (and learns that all her problems are her own fault). She visits a strange Nevada happiness dystopia (with one of the highest suicide rates in America), delves into the darker truths behind the influential 'science of happiness', and even ventures to Utah, where she learns God's personal secret to eternal bliss.

Ultimately she stumbles upon a more effective, less self-involved, less anxiety-inducing way to find contentment.

Fantastically fresh, funny and honest, this is an eye-opening look at what happiness really means.

I read The Pursuit of Happiness as part of my two reading challenges - the Nonfiction Reading Challenge and the Eclectic Reader Challenge, which asked for a 'psychology' book. In The Pursuit of Happiness, Ruth Whippman asks the question - Is the happiness/self-help industry actually creating anxiety? This idea intrigued me as I've had an interest in self-help for many years now. At certain times of my life, it has brought me a lot of comfort. But I know that a deeper happiness can not come from meditation or positive thinking alone.

Whippman suggests that positive thinking, affirmations and the like can actually make us more unhappy, as we strive to be perfect and happy and not a slave to our emotions. All of this can have an adverse effect - we're trying to find our happiness by putting pressure on ourselves to be happy. Ignoring negative emotions and aiming to be happy all the time ends up creating anxiety as we attempt to be our 'perfect' selves. But all emotions are a necessary part of life. As Whippman says - we need to "develop a discourse of happiness that engages with people's problems rather than dismisses them."

In the book Whippman talks a lot about our internet-obsessed society and the fact that Facebook and other social media platforms are filtered versions of us, showing the positive only. This breeds discontent as we come to compare our lives to those of our friends, who always seem to be sunning themselves on a tropical island etc. Being envious of others leads us further away from our own happiness and makes us question our own 'life satisfaction'.

In researching this book Whippman stayed with a Mormon family to find out if a simple life is just what we need, she visited Google HQ to learn about work-life integration, she questioned hyper-parenting and the pressure we put on our children to provide us with purpose and joy. Whippman studied the positive psychology movement and the billion-dollar self-help industry to see where our society is going wrong. After all, if happiness really is to be found in the seemingly infinite number of self-help options now available to us, surely we'd be a world overflowing with joy. But that is not the case.

Whippman comes to believe that in our search for happiness we seem to have lost our way. We're all spending far too much time alone and staring at our screens. Socialising and interpersonal relationships are good for us, good for the soul and can make us happy. Society believes the myth that happiness is an individual responsibility, that it's our duty to go out and find our happiness, be it through yoga, meditation, religion, work, parenting etc. But giving most of our free time to self-absorbed pursuits can be counter-productive. It's often better to make time for family and friends, to share life and create joy together.

Ultimately, society needs to remember that happiness can be fleeting. But what we all really need is a deeper joy, a sense of 'life satisfaction' that will carry us through tough times. Seeking a picture-perfect happiness, full of endless smiles and positivity, is unrealistic. Sometimes life is hard and negative emotions are bound to pop up from time to time. Embracing the full spectrum of human experience can help us step closer to that deeper joy.