It’s rare for me to read something that changes my mind about an opinion I’ve argued publicly, but that’s exactly what happened when I read Ruth Whippman’s new book, America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness Is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks.
I tore through the first few chapters while trying to help AJ build a new fence for our chickens, a bit of multitasking that did not end well. Not surprisingly, non-fiction reading and power drills do not go hand-in-hand.
In part, I was rapt by the book because I know its author. Ruth reads this blog, and occasionally we get into spirited debates about the direction that feminism is taking or whether Eckhart Tolle is a ray of sunshine or a total sham.
So naturally, I read the book with a mind to the good-natured disagreement that she and I would get to have about what she’d written.
In the first few chapters, she criticized several ways I’ve pursued greater happiness and self-improvement over the years. On the topic of Landmark Education, in particular, I found myself mentally defending what I’d found helpful about it, even though I usually bash the rabid evangelistic tone of Landmark in other company.
There’s also a highly provocative chapter on parenting that will be sure to crack you up or leave you bristling depending on your views on attachment parenting.
Ruth is British, and that remove gives her a unique and dispassionate view of our American obsession with happiness. Her observations are shrewd, well researched and cut to the quick. As much as I feel the pull to educate Ruth on the finer points of mindfulness and why it’s not just another attempt to bypass reality and head straight for Happiness-ville USA, I want to focus here on the brilliance of her overall argument and how she changed my mind.
It was her chapter on positive psychology that really slayed me. She lays out how the positive psychology movement is funded almost entirely by some rich guy with a right wing agenda. It turns out that certain folks with lots of money think it’s a good political strategy to convince people that their happiness has more to do with their mental attitude than the circumstances of their lives. In other words, if we are good students of positive psychology, then our happiness or lack thereof is our own damn fault, and has little to do with structural causes like access to education or a decent-paying job or healthcare or a safe neighborhood.
After taking all of that in, I was tempted to re-write the piece I had written defending feminism’s version of positive psychology. Instead, I’ll just say this:
Thank you for writing this smart, funny, thought-provoking book, Ruth. I now agree with you that various strategies for self-improvement can distract us from the most significant structural causes of unhappiness. No matter how much I learn to boost my confidence as a woman or think positive, the fact is that I live in a country that has created structures that make it harder for me to be happy. So I’m re-focussing my energy on efforts to topple those damn structures. I’m talking to you, America, and your parental leave policies and lack of affordable childcare that rank us among the worst in the world.
As an American with an inclination towards self-improvement, this is an uncomfortable book to read. But it’s that productive kind of discomfort, like a long, hard look in the mirror. You’ll walk away from this book humbled, sober, and a bit more awake.