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Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Anxious American: "I'm Going To Be Happy If It Kills Me!"

“The search for happiness
is one of the chief sources of unhappiness.” 
-Eric Hoffer

Ruth Whippman says that as a Brit living in the United States, she is acutely aware of the cultural difference between attitudes to happiness here and at “home.” In this New York Times editorial she explains what she perceives as the American's search for happiness.

"As soon as an American baby is born, its parents enter into an implicit contractual obligation to answer any question about their hopes for their tiny offspring’s future with the words: “I don’t care, as long as he’s happy” (the mental suffix “at Harvard” must remain unspoken).

"Happiness in America has become the overachiever’s ultimate trophy. A vicious trump card, it outranks professional achievement and social success, family, friendship and even love. Its invocation can deftly minimize others’ achievements (“Well, I suppose she has the perfect job and a gorgeous husband, but is she really happy?”) and take the shine off our own.

"This obsessive, driven, relentless pursuit is a characteristically American struggle — the exhausting daily application of the Declaration of Independence. But at the same time this elusive MacGuffin is creating a nation of nervous wrecks. Despite being the richest nation on earth, the United States is, according to the World Health Organization, by a wide margin, also the most anxious, with nearly a third of Americans likely to suffer from an anxiety problem in their lifetime. America’s precocious levels of anxiety are not just happening in spite of the great national happiness rat race, but also perhaps, because of it."

(Ruth Whippman, "America the Anxious, " The Opinion Pages of The New York Times, September 22 2012)

Read Whippman's entire article:

When the great French social critic Alexis de Tocqueville traveled in the United States way back in the 1830s, he, too, was struck by Americans' restlessness, even in the midst of their prosperity at the time. He thought a "cloud" darkened many American faces. This sadness, he believed, was explained by the fact that Americans are constantly thinking about the good things they might be missing.

De Tocqueville wrote:

"A native of the United States clings to this world's goods as if he were certain never to die; he is so hasty in grasping at all within his reach that one would suppose he was constantly afraid of not living long enough to enjoy them. He clutches everything, he holds nothing fast, but soon loosens his grasp to pursue fresh gratifications.... Death at length overtakes him, but it is before he is weary of his bootless chase of that complete felicity which forever escapes him.

"At first sight there is something surprising in this strange unrest of so many happy men, restless in the midst of abundance. The spectacle itself, however, is as old as the world; the novelty is to see a whole people furnish an exemplification of it."

(Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Volume 2, 1840)

In my writing, I return to the theme of searching for happiness quite often. I am, quite frankly, amazed about the way so many people attempt to pursue this state. I, too, think the pursuit is a "rat race" that produces few lasting results.

The simple word, happiness, can have many connotations, and I confess I do struggle with my own understanding of this fortunate state of well being. I believe I am "happy" even though I don't know exactly why. I do know that my happiness does not depend upon how many dollars I have accumulated.  And, I realize my personal attainment of a happy mental or emotional state can be characterized by pleasant emotions ranging from simple contentment to intense joy.

What totally comprises happiness in the mind of one person certainly doesn't apply to anyone else. Reported happiness is very subjective. Yet, today, a general consensus of how everyone might attain it seems to be something most readily agree upon, especially in this material-worshipping culture of "give me it all the time" America.

Despite the emotional happiness money might "buy," I do not equate my happiness with economics. Philosophers and religious thinkers often define happiness in terms of living a "good life," or "flourishing," rather than simply as an emotion prone to change and influence largely by possessions.

Happiness economics is actually a quantitative study of happiness, and it suggests that measures of public happiness should be used to supplement more traditional economic measures when evaluating the success of public policy. It typically treats such happiness-related measures as well-being, quality of life, and life satisfaction, rather than wealth, income or profit, as things to be maximized. (Carol Graham, The Economics of Happiness,  2005)

Of course, happiness economics still depends upon sufficient individual income as a measure of happiness. I would not disagree. Yet, what is "sufficient"? Some researchers have found that even if money does correlates with happiness, the rate diminishes with more money. In 2010, Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton found that higher earners generally reported better life satisfaction, but people's day-to-day emotional well-being only rose with earnings until a threshold annual income of $75,000. (Bob Holmes, "Money Can Buy You Happiness – Up to a Point," New Scientist, September 7 2010)

Other determinants for happiness economics include relationships, children, freedom, control, leisure, and health. Here is a look at some important happiness concerns in different countries:

1. Happiness for Asians with strong oriental influence is strongly linked to home ownership.
2. Dutch sociologist Ruut Veenhoven, contend self-reported happiness is combined with life expectancy.
3. Bhutan’s index has led that country to limit the amount of deforestation it will allow and to require that all tourists to its nation must spend US $200. Allegedly, extensive tourism and deforestation lead to unhappiness. (Andrew Revkin, "A New Measure of Well-Being From a Happy Little Kingdom," The New York Times, October 4 2005)
4. Canada released the Canadian Index of Wellbeing (CIW) in 2011 to track changes in well being. The CIW has adopted the following working definition of well being: The presence of the highest possible quality of life in its full breadth of expression focused on but not necessarily exclusive to: good living standards, robust health, a sustainable environment, vital communities, an educated populace, balanced time use, high levels of democratic participation, and access to and participation in leisure and culture. (The First-ever Canadian Index of Well Being Composite Index, Faculty of Applied Sciences, 2011)

The Anxious American Rat Race

Today, America is a very "anxious country." That cannot be denied. A great number of people simply are not happy, at least in emotional terms. Instead, in terms of their mental health, they live in a state of unhappiness and disorder.

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States. They include panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and phobias (social phobia, agoraphobia, and specific phobia). Anxiety disorders develop from a complex set of risk factors, including genetics, brain chemistry, personality, and life events.

Anxiety disorders are highly treatable, yet only about one-third of those suffering receive treatment. Even though the majority remain untreated, the costs for help are high. Anxiety disorders cost the U.S. more than $42 billion a year, almost one-third of the country's $148 billion total mental health bill, according to "The Economic Burden of Anxiety Disorders," a study commissioned by ADAA. (The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 60:7, July 1999).

More than $22.84 billion of those costs are associated with the repeated use of health care services; people with anxiety disorders seek relief for symptoms that mimic physical illnesses.

People with an anxiety disorder are three to five times more likely to go to the doctor and six times more likely to be hospitalized for psychiatric disorders than those who do not suffer from anxiety disorders.

Here are some other facts we do know about anxiety disorders in America according research from the National Institute of Mental Health.
  • Approximately 40 million American adults ages 18 and older, or about 18.1 percent of people in this age group in a given year, have an anxiety disorder.
  • Anxiety disorders frequently co-occur with depressive disorders or substance abuse.
  • Most people with one anxiety disorder also have another anxiety disorder. Nearly three-quarters of those with an anxiety disorder will have their first episode by age 21.5.

So, What Would Make More Americans Less Anxious?

Could it be that Ruth Whippman is saying "forget about it"? In other words, why should people put undue pressures upon themselves about being consistently happy?  Psychologists like Scott Lilienfeld believe happiness is mostly determined by external circumstances.

So, many people believe if they can change those circumstances, they can make themselves much happier. But, Lilienfeld says this is one of the biggest myths in popular psychology, not the least because in the past decade many people have become obsessed by the subject of happiness.

Thomas Jefferson used the words "pursuit of happiness" to mean good government but today happiness is strictly personal and many Americans feel deprived if they're not in a state of permanent exhilaration. (Scott Lilienfeld, Steven Jay Lynn, John Ruscio and Barry Beyerstein; 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology; 2010)

According to Lilienfeld and others, each person is born with a genetically determined "set point" of happiness, a baseline from which he or she bounces up and down in response to short-term life events - even major ones such as winning the lottery or becoming a paraplegic. But usually people usually return to that baseline in a surprisingly short period.

Lilienfeld uses this proof:

"One of the main pieces of research into happiness was conducted by behavioural geneticist David Lykken and colleagues, who established the importance of genetics by looking at the happiness of a large number of identical twins. They found that 'the reported well being of one's identical twin, either now or 10 years earlier, is a far better predictor of one's self-rated happiness than one's own educational achievement, income, or status.' In other words, if twins are separated and end up in very different circumstances, their happiness levels will probably be much closer than the levels of unrelated people in similar circumstances.
"So it appears that most happy people are that way because they're born like that, which, of course, is terribly unfair - another reason many of us would rather believe happiness can be acquired through effort. Lykken's brutal conclusion after looking at twins was that 'trying to be happier is like trying to be taller.'"  
(Michael Duffy, "Life’s Journey Is a Myth-Busting Affair," National Times, March 15 2010)

Is there anything that contributes to happiness? Lilienfeld says, “Life experiences can do that. Enjoying quality time with friends and loved ones, memorable trips with people we care deeply about, special nights out with romantic partners.” These things involve pretty typical engagement with other people and often occur extemporaneously.

Then, why should people be obsessed with getting more happiness? Perhaps, in truth, they shouldn't. Instead, they should accept that being unhappy some of the time can be OK and is just part of being a human being.

Dan Gilbert discusses This Emotional Life, a PBS program he hosted. Gilbert offers an answer to the question “What causes happiness?” He points out that there is a set point for happiness, despite good or bad experiences. Humans are good at adjusting to their circumstances, and no matter what they experience they are likely to have a general level of happiness, independent of their experiences.

Gilbert suggests that people should be more skeptical when considering what causes happiness. Much of what they think they know about happiness is wrong. In This Emotional Life, Dan Gilbert says there are three key findings on the science of happiness:
  1. We can’t be happy alone.
  2. We can’t be happy all the time.
  3. We can be happier than we are currently
Humans are social animals that need to socialize. Gilbert says the biggest predictor of happiness is the extent of people's social relationships. A primary reason that our brains have evolved in the manner they have is so we can be social.

Gilbert claims “friendless people are not happy.” It is not realistic, nor is it desirable to be happy all the time. Negative emotions are natural. When considering negative emotions, what is important is learning to appropriately regulate those potentially damaging thoughts. Being happy all the time implies epistemic irrationality (holding beliefs that are not commensurate with available evidence).

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