Ruth Whippman’s debut book, The Pursuit of Happiness: And Why it’s Making Us Anxious, has received considerable attention on both sides of the Atlantic. Newsweek has identified it as one of the nine books that “will change the way you think in 2016,” and The Sunday Times has applauded the book for its “warm wit and chilling logic.” The book is a wickedly funny read but for all the laughs it feels incredibly vital. It might be a very personal investigation, but the breadth of Ruth’s pursuit of the happiness industry in the United States of America presents a series of important questions about an industry that has seeped into mainstream American culture. I was fortunate enough to interview Ruth in the middle of a busy promotional tour for the book.
The British journalist and documentary filmmaker was inspired to investigate the ‘Happiness Industry’ when she moved to California. “When I first moved to California it seemed like this alien world. A world where everyone was incredibly positive all of the time, and everyone was talking about mindfulness.” Such was the extent of the mindfulness culture that people in California were even talking about “mindful dishwashing.”
The book follows Ruth’s investigation into this alien world of mindful dishwashing and cities designed to “explore the work/life balance”. Yet, despite the American focus of The Pursuit of Happiness: And Why It’s Making Us Anxious, the book feels just as relevant to British society. Ruth acknowledges this when she discusses how happiness focused British society has become. “I remember thinking at the time that none of my British friends would be into this incredible positivity and mindfulness. That none of my British friends would think that this was any good. But then over the five years or so that we’ve been away, I feel like it’s absolutely seeped into British culture.”
The release of the book is deliberately designed to coincide with the UN International Day of Happiness on the 20th March. The UN’s website for the day notably includes the tagline, “The Pursuit of Happiness is a fundamental human goal.” Ruth, however, is sceptical. “The International Day of Happiness does put quite a big cultural pressure on people to feel happy, and to kind of aspire to happiness. Which I think research shows is not such a great idea.”
Ruth identifies this as part of a further concern about government involvement. “The fact that there are so many inconsistencies is why we should be very wary about governments getting involved in happiness. Somebody wanting to push a certain agenda could often find studies to back that up.” This is one of the repeated concerns in the book, Ruth’s exploration of the claims made by such studies and whether they stand up to scrutiny.
Yet while Ruth expresses scepticism in this research, the self-help industry is thriving. Ruth even tells me that, “British women spend over half a billion pounds a year on these kind of holistic practices like meditation, yoga and mindfulness.” I ask her why she thinks this is the case if, as she believes, the research is so inconsistent. “I think that there’s been very little critical thought about this industry, and especially the positive psychology movement, which is kind of the academic arm of the self-help industry.”
“The same people doing the research are the same people benefitting from it in terms of selling self-help psychology books. They’re very incentivised to make this research sound very impressive.”
But it isn’t just us who are investing in these practices. Big business is investing too. “I talk about it a bit in the book, where they’re actually sending their staff on happiness training. Some of them are these mystical, spiritual type things. Other ones are the more traditional, sweaty fist-pumping motivational type things.” This begs the question of why businesses would be investing money and time into happiness training. “It’s all based on this positive psychology research, that when people are happier at work they work longer, and more productively, and fewer people can do the work that used to be done by more.”
Worryingly, it isn’t just adults who are affected by this research. There’s one particular chapter in the book that sticks with me after reading it. In it Ruth visits a middle school in the U.S during a ‘Challenge Day.’
“What they do is they get everybody in the school together and then the children are supposed to confess to their deepest secrets. That could be family abuse, addiction in their family, something to do with their sexuality, or bullying, anything like that. They’re supposed to publicly confess in a two-minute allocated slot.”
“And then they move on and it’s never spoken of again. They never get any actual genuine help.”
This event feels like a real turning point for Ruth. It’s at this point in her book that she confesses her uncertainty as to whether or not it is “that simple to opt out” of her investigation into the happiness industry anymore. Ruth continues to ask what such events are actually doing to students and “what the long term consequences” are of children “admitting all this stuff to their peers.”
It’s difficult to imagine such events happening in the UK. So why are they happening in the United States? “I think self-help culture is so ingrained in American life. The pursuit of happiness is written right into the founding documents of the country. It’s hard to overstate what a big part of American cultural life it is.”
But it isn’t just American culture anymore. Ruth has identified a change in British culture too. “I used to say that you could blindfold me and read me out Facebook statuses of my American friends and my British ones, and I would instantly know which ones were which. The American ones were so chirpy, and everyone was blessed and wonderful and positive, and the British ones were all about being late for buses, and standing in the rain, and how rubbish everything was. And now that tone on social media has totally changed. The British are now every bit as happiness focused and positive on social media as the people that I know in America.”
But is there a danger in being so happiness focused? Ruth thinks there might be. “The mindfulness movement is all about a non-judgemental awareness of the present moment. So you’re supposed to be focused in the moment, and you’re not supposed to be analysing it or judging it. You’re just supposed to be experiencing it. I think this can be a useful technique for some people in some situations, but this idea that we should be so mindful that we should switch off our judgement is, I think, quite damaging.”
Ruth’s message isn’t pessimistic though. Her book reiterates repeatedly that she believes in the power of community to make us feel happy. “The thing that stuck out for me, because there’s so many inconsistencies in the research, is that there’s this one so consistent point. Happiness is dependent on our social interactions.”
Ruth Whippman’s book, The Pursuit of Happiness: And Why it’s Making Us Anxious, is out now and can be found at all good bookstores.
For more information on the UN International Day of Happiness visit http://www.dayofhappiness.net