America is obsessed with happiness — and it’s making us miserable. So says Ruth Whippman in her October 14th article for Vox. Whippman is a Brit so presumably she looks at us Americans with a clearer perspective than we can see ourselves. I, of course, fit her description and am obsessed with happiness. Not so much with my own happiness, but I am obsessed with what makes other people all over the world happy.
Whippman discusses with disdain what Time magazine called the “Mindful Revolution” where we must be fully present in each and every moment, no matter how awful, in order to be happy. She observes that yoga studios are fetid rooms where people are contorting their bodies into uncomfortable positions. She notes if they were truly happy they would be in the park drinking.
One of her quotes jumped off the page at me and got me thinking. She said,”My instinct is that [the Mindfulness Revolution is not making Americans happy] because happiness should be serendipitous, the byproduct of a life well lived, and chasing it in a vacuum just doesn’t really work.”
Her words made me think of the Costa Ricans I met who are presumably the happiest people on Earth according to the Happy Planet Index. I am visiting Costa Rica again in a few weeks for some more observation, and of course lounging on the beach reading book after book, body surfing and eating freshly caught fish. They did not appear to be chasing anything except waves, sunsets, time with their families and friends, and food. Yes, there are yoga retreats in Costa Rica, but they are for the tourists, not the Ticos. During my entire five weeks in Costa Rica last year, I never saw a single Costa Rican meditating or doing yoga. But I saw plenty of North Americans doing yoga and meditating. And I cannot say that Costa Ricans were mindfully washing the dishes or cooking food; rather, they were watching large flat screen TV’s that blared Spanish-speaking soap operas.
According to Whippman, “Americans as a whole invest more time and money and emotional energy into the explicit pursuit of happiness than any other nation on Earth…” So you would think we would be pretty high on the happy scale. Not so. Apparently, we rank 25th on Gallup’s 2014 Positive Experience Index, two places behind Rwanda.
In fact, U.S. citizens have not gotten any happier in nearly 45 years, despite mindfulness, yoga, and meditation. This is according to the General Social Survey, a large-scale project that has been tracking trends in American life since the early ’70s. Every year, with remarkable consistency, around 30 percent of Americans report that they are “very happy.”
So back to Whippman’s quote that happiness is serendipitous and the byproduct of a life well-lived. Well we know happiness is not related to the amount of material possessions you have, since the Costa Ricans do not have many. And we know it is not related to the amount of money you make, since Costa Ricans do not make much. So we look at her idea of serendipity. Serendipity is not something we can create but it is certainly something we can be on the lookout for. Opportunities for joy occur all the time but we are too busy looking down at our cell phones to notice them. Real connections, funny ones, occur with our kids in the car after we pick them up from school or on the way to basketball practice but we must let the phone go to voicemail. My son is 12 and I can tell you I have busted a gut laughing at some of the things he has told me happened at school on the drive home from school. By dinner time, the moment is over and he has forgotten all about school.
A life well-lived? I am not sure what that means. Does that mean you try your best to follow your moral compass? You obey the golden rule? You face your fears and try something you always wanted to do, even if it means you make less money? It is probably all of those things. Happiness seems to be much more about experiences than material things. One thing is clear. Chasing happiness does not bring you happiness.