Author Ruth Whippman talks about her book, ‘America the Anxious‘
Worry, anxiety and nervousness are at an all-time high in American society. The economy, terrorism, politics, work, parenting — the list of stressors is endless. But author Ruth Whippman believes there’s another reason why anxiety has become the new normal for Americans, and it has to do with the notion that happiness must be pursued above all else. The concept is even baked into the Declaration of Independence.
Whippman recently joined the Knowledge@Wharton show on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111 to discuss her new book, America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness Is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Knowledge@Wharton: A state of perpetual anxiety does feel like a new norm right now for most Americans.
Ruth Whippman: Absolutely. The World Health Organization says that America is the most anxious country on the planet and by a wide margin. A second-place country is very far down the list from America. We are, in this country, more likely to suffer from clinical symptoms of anxiety than anywhere else on the planet.
Knowledge@Wharton: You’re a British transplant. In doing this book, were you able to gain perspective on what’s going on here that maybe some of us don’t realize?
Whippman: As an outsider, when you come into a place completely new, you perhaps see things in a different way. It was quite the culture shock. We moved here when my husband got a job in Silicon Valley. We moved from fairly gray London to beautiful sun-drenched California. I imagined that my life here was going to be absolutely perfect. Free of anxiety. The beaches. The weather. Everything was going to be wonderful. But I started to notice very quickly that there was this real kind of sense of anxiety here — that far from being in this land of Instagrammed perfection, people were anxious about their lives and not necessarily any happier than the people back in London, who were perhaps a little bit more negative, a bit more cynical.
Knowledge@Wharton: What do you think are the reasons Americans are so anxious right now?
Whippman: There are lots of genuine reasons why life can bring anxiety. Money worries, inequality, the state of the economy, health care — those sorts of big issues. But one of the things that I identified pretty early on was that people seem to be very culturally preoccupied with this idea of happiness, of finding happiness. I was having conversations with people, and the same topic would come up again and again, with people really kind of agonizing about it. Am I happy? Am I as happy as my neighbor? Am I as happy as my friends? Am I as happy as everybody on social media? Could I be happier if I tried harder? There seemed to be this real anxiety about being as happy as you could be.
“Mindfulness starts to feel like a tiny, teeny Band-Aid on a much, much bigger problem.”
I started looking into it, and this is a multibillion-dollar industry in the United States. This industry is devoted to this idea that if we just try a bit harder, if we do another thing, read another book, try another class, then we can become happier. And I think this is one of the big causes of anxiety in American society.
Knowledge@Wharton: Through what avenues is this a multibillion-dollar industry?
Whippman: It’s what you think of as the traditional self-help industry — the books, the apps, the causes. That amounts to about $11 billion. To put it in context, that’s about the same size as Hollywood. Recently, there’s been a new kind of subsidiary industry: for lack of a better term, the quasi-spiritual thing – [including] meditation, mindfulness, yoga. Although these things are supposed to be spiritual practices, they amount to probably the same in terms of the size of the industry.
This is a huge new thing. It’s this idea that if we just buy another app or read another book or try another thing, then this new, improved version of ourselves will be fully self-actualized and fully happy. I think that, itself, is causing anxiety.
Knowledge@Wharton: What is the impact financially, culturally and in other areas?
Whippman: This idea of the American Dream — if you really work hard for something, then you can have it — is just out of reach; we’re trying to get to this kind of happy ever after. Psychologically, that’s pretty tough on people because our emotions don’t work quite like that. Just by trying harder, we can’t actually control our own emotions and make ourselves happier in that way.
It’s having a huge impact culturally. In the book, I start to look at all different areas of life. I look at the workplace, religion, social media, parenting. These ideas about making ourselves as happy as possible have infiltrated all different areas of American life.
Knowledge@Wharton: Focusing on the corporate end, there are people who have a mix of anxiety from both personal life and professional life, which ends up being a toxic formula for them. Think there are people who have anxiety in their personal lives, but work ends up being a catharsis.
Whippman: Work means different things to different people, and that depends on what your job is, how you feel about it, who your employer is. But I think that one trend that’s becoming true across the board, at least for professionals, is that we are working in America longer hours than almost anyone else in the world and than ever before in recent times. There’s a blurring of the lines between personal life and work. We’re never fully switched off. We’re on our cellphones; we’re checking our email every five minutes. There’s a joke about this new mantra that instead of work/life balance, come to me and talk about work/life integration. It’s something that works very well for employers and maybe less well for employees.
I’ve talked in the book about this whole idea of happiness in the workplace. It used to be that work was work and home was where you tried to find happiness and your social life and all the rest of it. There’s been a deliberate blurring of those boundaries. You see it where workplaces are offering dentists and doctors and video games and free food and that sort of thing to keep people working longer hours. [Employers are] even sending their staff to happiness training and mindfulness training.
Knowledge@Wharton: I have a 10-year-old and 7-year-old twins, and their school is doing mindfulness training for kids. I’ve come around a little bit on it because I think it does help kids. Our kids are feeling more pressure at a younger age than they’ve ever felt before.
“Just by trying harder, we can’t actually control our own emotions and make ourselves happier in that way.”
Whippman: I think you’re absolutely right. Mindfulness has come to schools, to the military, to workplaces. It’s in corporations. It is a multibillion-dollar industry. I think mindfulness starts to feel like