Americans are among the most anxious people on the planet. We're consumed with work, productivity and overflowing email inboxes, just to name a few. According to a study from the National Institute of Mental Health, one in five Americans have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.
It's no surprise, then, that our culture has become so obsessed with finding ways to improve our happiness. It is this obsession with happiness that prompted journalist Ruth Whippman to write her just-released book, America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness Is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks. In the book, she explores the happiness paradox in America. Even though the United States invests more time and money pursuing happiness than any other country in the word, research shows our country is one of the most anxious and least happy in the developed world.
If you don't have time to read the book -- because, ya know, you're too busy pursuing happiness -- contributing Vice writer Peter Moskowitz interviewed Whippman to glean a few insights. And if you don't have time to read the whole interview -- because, ya know, you're too busy feeling sorry for yourself as you scroll through happy friends' Instagram feeds -- here are a few key takeaways about why we continue to strive for happiness, yet never seem to reach it.
Happiness is an immeasurable goal
Many goals are quantitative, such as earning a certain income or position at work. Happiness is a tricky goal because it's so subjective -- even if we are trying to achieve it for ourselves. There's not really a point when we say to ourselves, "There, I've done it. I've achieved peak happiness. I can stop striving towards it now." We think there's a next level of happiness we just haven't reached yet.
Here's what Whippman told Vice on the topic:
Happiness has become the perfect consumer product because we can never have enough of it, we always keep buying more, it's an industry that's amazingly resilient, even during the recession when every industry is crashing and burning, we're still buying self help books and mindfulness products, and yoga mats, and all the rest of it.
Our compass for measuring happiness deviates from true North
Of course we know the photos, memories and pleasantries people share on social media are mere slivers of how their day-to-day lives really unfold. People rarely post snapshots their kids' tantrums or the devoured-in-one-sitting-because-today-really-sucked Ben & Jerry's containers.
Even so, seeing happy people sharing only happy moments on Instagram has its effects. It leads us to believe we're not doing enough to be just as happy as our peers. "I think it's so easy to feel an anxiety when you see everybody else's edited life and feel maybe insecure or anxious about your own," says Whippman.
Happiness has become a product you can buy
If you committed to pursuing one activity that would improve your happiness, what would it be? You might chose yoga, meditation, writing in a gratitude journal or another solitary activity like reading.
Most of these activities help us focus inward to "work on ourselves." They also involve something we can physically buy, like a yoga 10-pack, a subscription to a mediation app, or that gratitude journal on Amazon. "I think happiness has become almost something that you can buy, instead of finding through other people," points out Whippman.
For more from Ruth Whippman about the anxiety-inducing pursuit of happiness, read the full interview on Vice.