Outside looking in: America’s obsession with happiness

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Saad Mansoor

When I went back home to Pakistan this past summer, I couldn’t help but notice I had picked up the habit of smiling whenever I looked at a stranger.

I found myself smiling at a rickshaw driver, a shopkeeper and a security guard. However, I never got a smile back.

That day it all clicked — everyone in America is obsessed with being happy. They always try to act positively from the outside no matter what they are feeling. Our pursuit of happiness in hopes of one day achieving the American dream has made us all very anxious.

The World Health Organization says the United States is the third most anxious country in the world.

Why is this?

In British journalist Ruth Whippman’s book “America the Anxious”, she writes that worry, anxiety and nervousness have taken over American society because happiness must be sought after above all else.

Furthermore, significant physiological research shows pursuing happiness is self-defeating, because the more people value happiness, the more likely they are to feel let down when something doesn’t go their way

America’s self-help industry is worth more than $11 billion and the increase in anxiety and mental health disorders indicates this number is only going to increase. In 2016 alone, the U.S. spent $446 billion on medications and over $200 billion just treating mental health conditions. This is almost half of the global spending.

Despite all the wealth, liberal values, material items and idealism, most Americans are unhappy.

The reason why so many people are dissatisfied is they associate happiness with how they want to see themselves in the future.

We live in a happiness-seeking culture.

Our society places expectations on each individual and we let those expectations dictate who we are and how we behave. We feel we have to live up to what is expected of us or we can never achieve satisfaction.

It makes people continuously chase awards to gain recognition. Life becomes a race, and everyone starts competing at a young age — from getting into an Ivy League school to buying a house bigger than your friends’.

One of the reasons Whippman believes society is so anxious is because of the self-help industry itself.

“This industry is devoted to this idea that if we just try a bit harder, if we do another thing, read another book, try another class, then we can become happier,”  Whippman said. “And I think this is one of the big causes of anxiety in American society.”

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, more than 40 million people suffer from an anxiety disorder in America, and around 14.8 million people are suffering from depression. These staggering numbers highlight an essential fact: unhappy people make the private self-help firms a lot of money.

The effect of having an obsession with happiness is visible on college campuses. This obsession has led to an increase in mental health disorders among students across the country. The top three health concerns are anxiety, depression and stress.

According to a 2012 survey report on mental health conducted by National Alliance on Mental Health, 73 percent of students experience some sort of health crisis during college.

I have been living in the U.S. for almost two years, and the majority of my time has been spent at Lehigh. I have noticed everyone tries to compare their life to others’, a lot more than they do in Pakistan. This, at times, undermines their well-being. It makes people more insecure and makes them question each decision they are making based on how society will perceive it.

In the U.S. people deviate toward negative thinking when things are not going in their favor. This seems to be the societal and cultural norm.

Juanito Moralejo, ’20, is an international student at Lehigh, and he believes a lot of people in his home country of Guatemala are happy without material items. He says Guatemalans are satisfied with much less and the level of society-set expectations is much lower than that in the U.S.

Aristotle defined happiness as a life that is lived according to virtue and outlined a philosophy of becoming happy through acting virtuously. For Aristotle, the meaning of happiness is the evaluation of life, rather than a feeling.

Our thought process and approach has created a lot of problems. We crave a feeling rather than the actual life achievement itself.

I believe we should try to live in the moment and never plan happiness in advance, because it only puts extra pressure on ourselves.

When I smiled at strangers back home and didn’t get a smile back, it made me realize those people do not need or care about my approval. They are busy living their lives and do not let societal expectations affect their behavior. We should start living with this mentality in America, too.

Saad Mansoor, ’20, is an assistant lifestyle editor and columnist for The Brown and White. He can be reached at [email protected]

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3 Comments

  1. Yes!!!! I grew up in Africa and was greatly disappointed when I came to the US for college and saw that although things were much more technologically developed, so many people were lost emotionally, relationally and spiritually. It made me come to the conclusion that the main problems people have won’t be solved by just having better technology.

  2. Amy Charles '89 on

    Saad, it’s a pity Whippman didn’t dig deeper. Self-helpery and self-improvement as the road to Happiness goes all the way back in this country. Part and parcel of who we are. Step back 120 years and you’ll see something that looks very like today’s gluten phobia: graham flour as the key to bodily and spiritual health. What’s changed is the definition of happiness from “all is well and pleasing” to “I am bursting with ecstasy at every moment”, a relatively new idea that I expect will fade as the Boomer grip on the culture fades.

    This is still the New World. Try reading some Henry James to get a sense of why that mattered and what it cost. When you leave a place in which invisible social walls hem you in at every turn, and go to a place where your name is meaningless but you are free to make your way, of course the cultural burden of your happiness and success will fall on your shoulders, and — as you are entirely free to invent ways of being happy and successful — of course it will make you crazy. (If you want to see how really crazy, have a look at how we deal, or don’t deal, with death.) And where there is no royal court or church, but there is disdain for intellectualism and arts, the marker of success for those who worry about such things will be money. It’s one of the things you can get in America if the place doesn’t kill you first. All this is why the major betrayal of America, the idea of America, in this country has always been the walling-in of people where they’re born, through structural inequalities, so that they cannot make their way.

    But yes, it’s very cruel. It always has been. For every Edison there are a million broken lives. Arthur Miller is another of our chroniclers on that point: try reading Death of a Salesman. It’s worth considering these things as you go on with your education, too, particularly if you’re planning to stay here. I think few people who come here seeking opportunity recognize how cruel a place it is, or how much they’ll be thrown back on themselves. 60, 70 years is a long time to survive that way.

    You’re also in a part of this country particularly obsessed with having things and getting things. (The smiling custom is a strange one, and long ago marked immigrants’ assimilation as Americans. I don’t know where it came from.) It’s a big country, and it might pay you to see more of it. But it is the majority ethic, that is true. I have to go back to the first part of the 19th century, very early in the republic, for the phrase “getting ahead” to fade, and that may just be because of my ignorance of whatever colonial and postcolonial literature there was. All I’ve got there is Ben Franklin, Mr. Get-Ahead himself.

  3. Jane Tittsworth on

    This is so very true. I was born and raised in America and I’ve always found the pressure to be happy at all times to be too much. You’re not ever allowed to have a bad day without someone telling you to feel happier. My European friends find it very strange. They see it as being normal to have a range of emotions that may vary depending on what’s happening in their life. They see it as normal to be sad over certain things. I do too.

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