Status Anxiety About Happiness Is a Dumb American Habit

By
Photo: Debrocke/ClassicStock/Getty Images

In her new book America the Anxious, Ruth Whippman contends that the mindfulness craze adds to country’s anxiety. She reports of a fixation she found after moving from London to California. Early on, she tells the Knowledge@Wharton, she saw that Americans seemed to be “very culturally preoccupied with this idea of happiness, of finding happiness,” as though it were inscribed in the Declaration of Independence.

The same questions would come up repeatedly in conversation, she recalls: “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?” Her subjects were “really kind of agonizing about it”; there was a “real anxiety about being as happy as you could be.” This looks like a sunny, Californian equivalent of what economists call the “local ladder effect” in earnings: i.e., having a higher salary won’t make you happier, but making more money than your friends will. In the America that Whippman sees, to be happy is to be happier than one’s peers.

What Whippman is criticizing is happiness — or perhaps more precisely, wellness — as status symbol, where wheatgrass juice is the new Ciroc. With status symbols comes status anxiety, a thing that Swiss-British philosopher Alain de Botton wrote a very readable book about it. The thrust of his argument is that people need to feel one or both kinds of loving validation: near (from personal relationships) and far (by means of fame, wealth, and the rest). To Botton, the deal made by materialism is that if you accumulate enough fancy things, then you’ll win the affections of the many and finally feel good about yourself — to do this, you have to show that you’re above the others. The weirdo logic of the happiness-materialism that Whippman criticizes is that you can only feel well if you’re smiling more than everybody on your Instagram feed.

The confusion around happiness and its measures speaks to how poorly defined a term happiness is in the popular discourse. (While defining terms feels like the rhetorical equivalent of running errands, it’s necessary, since otherwise you end up talking past each other). In the Western tradition alone, philosophers and theologians and novelists and psychologists have been debating the nature of happiness, and, perhaps more precisely, the well-lived life. My favorite is eudaemonia, which directly translates as having a well-nourished in-dwelling spirit, or “having a good daemon,” which is sweet and weird and Aristotelian and in some metaphorical sense deeply true. Funnily enough, that’s what a close reading reveals Thomas Jefferson to be talking about with the “pursuit of happiness,” too. But this is is well-being in a more psychological, and rightly spiritual, sense, rather than as social signaling. It won’t get you more likes, but it will get you, as one psychiatrist calls it, integration.

Status Anxiety About Happiness Is a Dumb American Habit