Why are Americans so anxious?

Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, January 9, 2017

December 31, 2016, midnight – after one glass of very old scotch.

Tis the season to be jolly is gone.  Thank goodness.  The lingering questions that always comes up at this time of year are:  What the hell is happiness? Do I have it? If do have it – and if I don’t, why or why not?  And lastly, do I even want it?  (What else should someone consider as the ball is dropping and 103,000 crazies are in Times Square freezing their “fingers” off?)

And so we turn to a new book, “America the Anxious,” by Ruth Whippman.  Her theme is that we live in a “state of perpetual anxiety,” and that this is the new norm.  (Oy! indeed – this is clearly good news for my shrink).  Whippman quotes the World Health Organization whose data confirms that America is the most anxious country on the planet.  (I will speculate that after the most recent election, we are probably off any chart they have ever used.)

Whippman, who is from England, discovered in her research that America is “culturally preoccupied with this idea of happiness, of finding happiness.”  Like the game “Where’s Waldo” – do we really think we can “find” happiness? Are we on some treasure hunt looking for the big H behind the hedge?

She interviewed hundreds of people and found that we Americans “agonize about am I happy, am I as happy as my neighbor – why is he happier – and finally, could I be happier if I tried harder.”

At midnight, this is almost hilarious.  The idea of trying to be happy strikes me as borderline insane.  If we just take one more class or read one more book, then finally happiness will be ours.

A few years ago, one of my companies hired a woman who had a Ph.D. in happiness. I am being serious.  She came down from Los Angeles (where else would you expect misery to flourish) to give us a three-hour class in happiness.  At the end, we were all jumping up and down, waving our arms, singing and shouting.

A few days later, this woman calls me to tell me she is unhappy and would like some coaching from me on her career.  You cannot make this stuff up.

Whippman tells us that the self-help/looking for Mr. Goodbar/happiness racket is an $11 billion a year business.  (Find me a start-up in this space and I am all-in.)  The business crosses over the spiritual, yoga, meditation, mindfulness and ultimately personal wealth.  I would be happier if I had more money (we know this is not true, but we believe it anyway).

She says that our idea of the American Dream “is just out of reach.”  Dude, that is why they call it a dream.  Do you really think you can mind-meld parenting, religion, social media and your stupid boss?  Never.  On the other hand, now that marijuana is legal, who knows.

We try to balance professional and personal, while every day realizing we are never going to be really happy at both at the same time.  (It is like Brownian movement).  Maybe if we worked longer and harder. There are many studies that show that Americans never switch off, they do not ever really go on a vacation; email haunts you with a beep every 90 seconds.

To counter the 24×7 stress, companies now bring in video games, therapists, massage, food, dentists, doctors – the only thing missing is sex – but that might cause even more anxiety (performance).

Whippman discusses the new cure— “mindfulness,” which is the buzz word for this year.  Be in the moment.  (Sure, as long as I can be unhappy in the moment, I am there for you baby.)  She says “you can’t pay your rent, you don’t have any health insurance, but hey, try a little mindfulness.”  America is on the edge.

Some people like the balloons, the socializing in the workplace, the free snacks and the people parading by your cube asking about your weekend.  But the data shows most of us hate it.  Zappos is the outlier.  The Friday beer bash does not relieve the anxiety.  In fact, it increases it. Did I drink too much, am I liked, did I mix well?  So I sell the lie and post happy pictures on my Facebook page.

Facebook is paying its female workers money so they can freeze their eggs and delay having children – so they can work harder at Facebook – and be happy.  Hah!

Rule No. 493:  Have another glass of scotch.

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