A cynical Brit moves to America and finds that everyone seems to be obsessed with the pursuit of happiness. She examines what happiness means, how various people are trying to attain it, and whether the pursuit of happiness is making everyone feel worse than they would otherwise.

The Pursuit of Happiness, Ruth Whippman

Each chapter addresses a different way in which people search for happiness, including religion, family, work, and social media. Whippman’s main goal seems to be dismantle the various ways in which Americans choose to pursue happiness. Each chapter seems to follow a rough trajectory of: Whippman suspicious of latest happiness fad, Whippman tests out fad, Whippman finds potentially interesting grain of truth buried deep within fad, Whippman successfully debunks pseudo-science of fad. It’s more an amusing travelogue than a ‘how to’ guide. The book perhaps didn’t uncover the profound truths I was hoping would revolutionise my own search for happiness, but it was still an engaging and interesting read.

My favourite moments included her assessment of social media, where the emphasis is not on how happy you are, but how happy you look: “we live in the era of the curated life” (p.197). I also enjoyed her investigation of the Landmark Forum, a personal development program in which you pay to have your understanding of yourself torn apart in front of an audience. You’re told that essentially, if you’re not happy, it’s all your fault. Whippman notes, “Buried deep within this unpleasant showpiece is an interesting idea. It is true that all of us are constantly constructing interpretations of the events in our lives, and failing to recognise that these are not facts…But I can’t help thinking that the stories we tell ourselves are built up over years, crafted for complex psychological reasons” (pp.50-1). Having a stranger tear apart those stories in front of an audience then, Whippman concludes, is perhaps not the best way to achieve happiness.

I was also morbidly fascinated by her account of Tony Hsieh, a CEO who attempts to eliminate the boundaries between work and play. After selling his company, Zappos, to Google, he turned his hand to city planning. He purchased the 60-acre site of Downtown Las Vegas, aiming to turn it into a start-up city; a manufactured, utopian community where work and life were not considered separate. He pitched the idea as “playing SimCity in real life” (pp.93-4). People were allowed to join the Downtown Project if they were the kind of person Hsieh would like to have a beer with, not if they had a flawless business plan. Key to the plan was the way people interacted. Hsieh developed a system of measuring “collisions” (i.e. interactions between people). The more collisions, Hsieh and his team thought, the happier and more productive the community. They came up with ways of manufacturing more collisions, by making places hard to get to so people would have to bump into each other, including moving around key shops so that people would constantly have to take new routes (this idea, at least, turned out to be too impractical). They even measured the results by tracking people’s mobile phones, mapping their residents’ movements without their knowledge. The project doesn’t seem to have had the impact Hsieh was hoping for – Whippman writes that Dowtown is now mostly deserted.

There’s so much to like, even love, about this book. The pursuit of happiness, in its myriad forms, is a fascinating topic, and Whippman’s approach to it is rigorous, uncompromising, and wryly funny. I did have a few minor quibbles. Whippman’s book occupies that uneasy boundary between the academic and the popular. Her work is clearly well researched and thoughtful, though perhaps a little biased. It’s also very accessible and easy to read. Sometimes, though, I felt it leaned rather unnecessarily towards the accessible end of things. An example of this was the ends of chapters. Each chapter ends on a little cliffhanger, introducing the topic of the next chapter, for example: “But the deeper I get into middle-class Californian parenting articles, the more I start to notice some rather strange behaviour going on.” (p.118). It’s a little, well, dramatic. It felt like a Dan Brown-style hook to keep the reader turning the pages. It had the reverse effect on me.

My other minor quibble was with the final chapter. Having spent the entire book debunking the search for happiness, and the previous chapter obliterating the positive psychology movement, the book ends on an anti-climax. Whippman almost does an about-turn, essentially saying, ‘but I’m settling into America and it’s all good really and yay, happiness’. It’s an uplifting note to end on, sure, but it doesn’t fit with the cynical tone of the rest of the book. It felt a little jarring.

Whippman’s conclusions, though, were optimistic, if not groundbreaking. Happiness, she finds, “depends on other people” (p.32). The importance of community is a thread which is woven through each chapter. One of her most comforting insights emerges as she debunks the aims of the positive psychology movement: “Happiness is so individualised and complex, so dependent on a myriad of factors – circumstances and life events, upbringing, culture, relationships, preferences and personality quirks – that anything averaged out over a group is unlikely to do much to describe the lived experience of any one person.” (p.221). No one, not the positive psychologists, not the Landmark Forum, our Facebook friends, or Tony Hsieh, can tell us what our own individual brand of happiness should look like. So maybe we should stop worrying about it so much.

The Pursuit of Happiness, Ruth Whippman (Hutchinson, 2016)

 

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