It may not come as a surprise to learn that Lesson 39 in Randy Paterson’s wonderful How to Be Miserable: 40 Strategies You Already Use is “Pursue Happiness Relentlessly”. According to Paterson, there’s no more reliable way to ensure your future discontent than by enshrining happiness as the purpose of life.

Actually, there’s one more reliable way to do so, and that’s to make happiness not simply a goal but an expectation. Which is what we do when we (mis)interpret Mr. Jefferson’s classic line about “the pursuit of happiness” as a guarantee rather than a right.

That’s a brief intro to one of the books I’m most excited about this fall. No, not Brian Wilson’s memoir, which is due next week. Or Johnny Marr’s, due in November. Or Robbie Robertson’s (same). Or Bruce Springsteen’s. Or Thomas Dolby’s. (Sheesh -it’s like an all-out assault on the middle-aged white hipster man’s wallet…). I’m referring to Ruth Whippman’s new America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness Is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks. It would appear that Ms Whippman, an English ex-pat who’s spent the past half-decade living in the States and marveling at our near-pathological aversion to negativity, expanded her stellar NY Times column from a few years ago to book length, of which Vox was nice enough to post a chapter.

While the observations themselves may feel a bit over-familiar in places, Whippman makes a charming and astute guide. Plus, sub out the word “happiness” for “personal holiness”, and as per usual, the insights stick (to an alarming extent):

db8a2510-6914-0134-cdae-0aec1efe63a9It seems as though happiness in America has become the overachiever’s ultimate trophy. A modern trump card, it outranks professional achievement and social success, family, friendship, and even love. Its invocation deftly minimizes others’ achievements (“Well, I suppose she has the perfect job and a gorgeous husband, but is she really happy?”) and takes the shine off our own…

…the pressure to remain positive at all times often results in some complicated mental gymnastics. My son’s report card at preschool divided his performance not into strengths and weaknesses but into strengths and emerging strengths…

The more conversations I have about happiness, and the more I absorb the idea that there’s a glittering happy ever after out there for the taking, the more I start to overthink the whole thing, compulsively monitoring how I am feeling and hyper-parenting my emotions. Am I happy? Right at this moment? What about now? And now? Am I happy enough? As happy as everyone else? What about Meghan? Is she happier than me? She looks happier. What is she doing that I’m not doing? Maybe I should take up yoga.

The whole process starts to become painfully, comically neurotic. Workaday contentment starts to give way to a low-grade sense of inadequacy when pitched against capital-H Happiness. The goal is so elusive and hard to define, it’s impossible to pinpoint when it’s even been reached — a recipe for anxiety…

She then references a recent poll in which “the higher the respondents rated happiness as a distinct personal ambition, the less happy they were in their lives generally and the more likely they were to experience symptoms of dissatisfaction and even depression.”. Oy vey:

Somehow, this great nation that included the pursuit of happiness so prominently in its founding principles has been shown by various international comparison studies to be one of the less happy places in the developed world… an international comparison study of the moment-to-moment happiness of people living in different nations, ranked America at an underwhelming 25th in the world, two places behind Rwanda…

The happiness-seeking culture is clearly supposed to be part of the solution, but perhaps it is actually part of the problem. Perhaps America’s precocious levels of anxiety are happening not just in spite of the great national happiness rat race, but also in part because of it.