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]