Book Review: The Pursuit of Happiness (and why it’s making us anxious) – Ruth Whippman

the pursuit of happiness cover

“As your average cynical Brit, when Ruth Whippman moves to California, it seems to her that the American obsession with finding happiness is driving everyone crazy.

But soon she gets sucked in. The meditates and tries ‘mindful dishwashing’. She attends a self-help course that promises total transformation (and learns that all her problems are her own fault). She visits a strange Nevada happiness dystopia (with one of the highest suicide rates in America), delves deeper into the darker truths behind the influential ‘science of happiness’, and even ventures to Utah, where she learns God’s personal secret to eternal bliss…”

 

Oh, this was such an interesting book! I felt this way as I was reading it and, since then, the variety and strength of opinion I’ve seen in other reviews has only confirmed my belief. It seems it’s not really one of those ‘meh – it was alright books': some people have really taken exception to its tone while others have loved it, and even those who have disliked elements have still said it’s fascinating in places. It just is.

Personally, I loved the style, the authors observations and her description of her experiences and discoveries. Her dry, British take on things had me chuckling, often.

At the start of the book, Whippman has recently moved to America with her husband and two-year-old son. I’ve not been through such a huge geographical shift myself, but I could still relate to her struggles to find her feet (and happiness) as a mother amidst the advice and conflicting parenting styles of those around her. Parenting can feel like a strange new world wherever you are. Admittedly, I did find myself thinking “Really? is this truly what it’s like in America?!” at times and according to other reviews, I think she’s possibly describing the extreme. I also found her views on attachment parenting a bit off-putting… but a bit of disagreement isn’t necessarily a bad thing – everyone sees the world through their own lens and being aware of where my views differed from the author’s made me contemplate her experiences more than I otherwise would have done, I think.

And those experiences are well worth the extra contemplation – the book details what is basically her voyage of discovery into what makes us happy (and what doesn’t), with the (chunky) chapters exploring the different areas she looks into.

I found the section on self-help courses quite worrying: there is so much money to be made in this particular industry and the ethics, in places, are massively dubious. There’s one scene in which a sobbing audience member in a seminar has her traumatic childhood experience labelled as ‘NEVER HAPPENED’, on the basis that many of our experiences are altered by our own perception of them. While I agree that some of our history is open to interpretation, and I’m all for taking responsibility where responsibility is due, the idea that horrible life events are all down to how we see things is horrendously victim-blaming. It made my skin crawl.

The chapter on positive psychology lead me down similar paths. I understand the desire to believe that our happiness is something entirely under our own control – that if we just have the right mindset anything can be achieved. A belief like that can be empowering and there’s a lot to be said for positivity. But you can’t overlook the hardships that life throws some people, and the idea that it’s somehow just a matter of how you perceive things seems to dismiss the genuine problems people have, and puts the onus on them to ‘get over it’ rather than on us as a community to support those who need it. How the positive psychology movement (another area where there’s plenty of money to be made… ) backs up its claims also troubles me. Whippman follows the ‘scientific evidence’, does her own research and discovers a pattern of deceit I found genuinely shocking.

the pursuit of happiness

Happiness for me: reading while my son whittles a stick.

But it wasn’t all self-help exposés – the book looks at many different methods of achieving happiness and notes that religious people in the US are generally happier than non religious people, with Mormons topping the (self-attributed) happiness charts. This fact sends the author on a weekend stay with a Mormon family where she learns about their community and beliefs. I found this section enlightening and thought Whippman explored the positives and negatives well, with interviews that were both eye-opening and touching. The important role that a supportive community can play in individual happiness came through clearly in this area and made a lot of sense to me, as did the fact that talking about difficulties rather than suppressing them is vital.

As luck would have it, I was on a blogging break when I read the chapter on social media. If you’ve read my post about my week you’ll be able to understand how the author’s observations about how social media can undermine happiness really resonated with me. As a blogger and (usually… ) avid FaceBook and Twitter user, it definitely gave me cause to reflect.

Overall, I thought the message that came through the book was that – despite the focus on the idea that ‘happiness comes from within’ (which seems to form a fundamental tenet of the happiness industry) – happiness is really found in our interactions with other people. Inner resilience is important too of course, but if we can create and nurture good relationships with family and friends it will go a long way to making us happier people. Similarly, the path to a happier society is through acting as a supportive community. (I’m desperately trying not to put politics into this but goddammit David Cameron, you are getting it so wrong.)

I know this isn’t a brief review but I could have written even more! I just urge you to read the book – whether you agree or disagree with everything Whippman writes, it’ll make you think. Can’t say fairer than that.

*I was sent this book to review as part of the BritMums book club. All opinions are my own.*

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30 thoughts on “Book Review: The Pursuit of Happiness (and why it’s making us anxious) – Ruth Whippman

      1. Dana

        Maddy, such an interesting and thoughtful review, but I’m also so loving the marmite analogy! Especially as a lurking American. I’m gathering it means a love/hate, though it seems Maddy, you are a fan :)
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  1. Kate Davis

    I haven’t finished this book yet and it feels like I’ve been reading it for weeks, it has just not grabbed me. I haven’t decided my view on it yet as I’m keen on her writing style but have found bits of it interesting, so I’ll wait to see what the final part is like.
    Kate Davis recently posted…Finding and deleting duplicate filesMy Profile

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    1. Maddy Post author

      I thought it got more interesting as the book went on and the chapter later on on positive psychology really shocked me. Hope it starts to grab you more, though I’m aware it’s not everyone’s cup of tea (well, what book is? :) ) Thanks for commenting, Kate and let me know if you write a review! x
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  2. Rachael

    Sounds like an interesting book! I’ve almost picked it up a few times I think but not wanting to add to my neverending list of books I’ve not yet read! So it’s on my neverending wishlist instead ;)

    The self-help bit sounds interesting… I agree with the positive psychology stuff (from what you’ve said, not having read the book!) and as life coach I hear a lot of people say they’ve been promised all sorts of things and sometimes feeling bad that they can’t just ‘think positive’ about really stressful situations! As you know, I believe all feelings have their place and glossing over them without addressing them just isn’t helpful… I could go on but perhaps a conversation for when we meet! ;)
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    1. Maddy Post author

      Hi Rachael, it’s interesting to read your perspective as a life coach and I’d love to talk more to you about it! Maybe the book can be moved from wishlist to actual list? I know what you mean though – so many books, so little time! Have just messaged you. xx
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