A case against trying too hard to be happy

By Richard Harris

This fascinating and stimulating book was written by British writer and documentary filmmaker Ruth Whippman. Moving from Britain to Berkeley, California, with her husband and son, she noticed Americans seemed to be much more invested than are the British in working hard to be happy.

This obsession takes various forms, from workplace training in mindfulness to yoga classes for toddlers to everyone always putting a happy veneer on one’s Facebook profile and postings. The author argues that this obsession to always be happy is in fact making us unhappy and anxious.

Whippman is a gifted writer who shares both her own in-depth extended interviews with people and her careful reading of research on the topic with good humor and highly readable style.

There is a lot of humor and poking gentle fun at what she sees as ridiculous excesses in the striving to be happy. However, she also keeps a healthy dose of humility and recognition that she may sometimes be wrong.

In the chapter on the workplace, Whippman reports on her experience participating in corporate seminars designed to buck up people’s attitudes to make themselves happy and more productive at work. If you are not happy working 70 or 80 hours a week, you must need an attitude adjustment, not a boss who has reasonable expectations.

She reports extensively on her visit to a Las Vegas corporation with its somewhat ridiculous and shocking attempts to raise happiness to a high corporate goal.

The chapter on parenting is one of the best. Whippman begins by noting her California friends’ obsession with involving their children in numerous organized events to make them happy. If a child throws a temper tantrum, parents should deal with it by trying to talk about why he feels angry.

She cites sobering research to support her views that obsessive parenting is counterproductive. For example, a 2013 study found that more intense mothers experience depression up to three times the rate in the general population.

In 2010 mothers spent an average of four more hours per week with their child than did 1965 mothers, in spite of working far more hours outside the home.

Particularly interesting in her chapter on religion is her extensive visit with Mormon families and individuals in Utah. She tries to reconcile statistics showing that Mormons are the happiest people in America with their large family size and very rigid gender roles that would appear to stifle women.

She interviews some women who appear to “have it all” and are very happy, but she also interviews a Mormon feminist and an ex-Mormon gay man who have struggled with their church’s patriarchal teachings. Whippman, a secular Jew who is not very religious, is clearly challenged by all of these interviews and takes them seriously. She does, however, dig deeper and suggests a possible resolution to the “happy Mormon” finding and the church’s rigid expectations.

In an interesting chapter devoted to Facebook, Whippman argues that, for whatever reason, the social media custom has evolved to
present a very happy spin on one’s Facebook profile. This leads to envy and social comparison with others’ unrealistically happy posts of the best moments of their lives. Not surprisingly, research shows people who spend more time on Facebook are less happy than those who spend less time there.

In a final substantive chapter, Whippman offers cautious scientific arguments against the currently popular “positive psychology” movement, the emphasis on studying happiness and prosocial behavior, initially begun as an antidote to the field’s long focus on the dark side of behavior, such as mental illness, adjustment problems and failures to have a happy life.

Although useful in some ways, Whippman argues that it can go too far in placing the blame for a failure to find happiness on a personal failing.

Her fairly blanket condemnation of this research literature may be the weakest part of the book.

The bottom line of Whippman’s argument is that all of this emphasis on making oneself happy has the end result of implicitly blaming someone who is not happy for their own sorry state.

In placing the entire responsibility for one’s emotional outlook on the individual, structural and institutional factors making it difficult to be happy are downplayed or ignored. This leaves the heavy burden that can sometimes lead to depression or suicide.

She is not arguing that personal attitude is not relevant at all, or that we should return to spanking children who misbehave, but rather pleading for some balance in how we approach attempts to be happy.

Some of her arguments may be a little too rigidly presented, but this is a stimulating book with an important message well worth reading.

Richard Harris is a professor emeritus of psychological sciences at K- State.

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