Is America’s Happiness Industrial Complex Working?
Americans are spending more money than ever trying to be happy, but all signs say that we're still pretty miserable
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Today, there are happiness consultants, happiness coaches, happiness summits, and happiness workplace seminars, which in some cases may be mandatory for employees. There are more than 70 TED Talks tagged with “happiness” or related themes, with tens of millions of views. Amazon’s pages contain more than 100,000 hits for happiness literature as the self-help shelves continue to brimmeth over. Some companies have even enlisted in-house happiness experts, most notably Google’s Jolly Good Fellow, hired for the purpose of making sure employees report that they’re not just doing their jobs, but are doing them with delight.
Globally, wellness is a $3.7 trillion industry, according to trade group Global Wellness Institute, which estimates that the staggering sum includes everything from beauty and anti-aging ($999 billion) to wellness tourism ($563 billion) to nutrition ($648 billion). Yet despite the trillions of dollars, the branding, and the brassy platitudes, Americans remain among the most miserable people on earth.
Happiness in this country—if you were to even try to measure it—has plunged. In 2007, the United Nations ranked the United States as the third happiest nation in the world, but in 2017, it dropped us to 19th place. As New York recently noted, “for 80 years, young Americans have been getting more anxious and depressed, and no one is quite sure why.” Among the dreary subsets of analysis is that of Angus Deaton, a Nobel laureate in economics, who found that since 1990, middle-aged white Americans have been living sicker and dying earlier even as mortality rates elsewhere in the world are increasing.
The question is: Where are we going wrong?
Human beings have kicked around the concept of what individual happiness means for centuries, from the Bible to the ancient Greeks to the 1859 bestseller Self-Help. Part of the issue, both then and now, is that the conversation around happiness itself is a luxury, says Jennifer Hecht, philosopher and author of The Happiness Myth. Having money affords us the opportunity to discuss whether or not we are happy, rather than having to focus on fulfilling primary needs. Despite being told otherwise, once you’re able to provide for your family, there can be diminishing returns on money’s capacity to cultivate it. That’s why the industry really only exists for those with money, Hecht says. They’re the ones who keep trying to find happiness by experimenting with newfangled (and expensive) methods, trusting that spending power is the fast track to their end goal.
Happiness in America has plunged, according to the United Nations, which ranked the United States as the third happiest country in the world in 2007, but in 2017 put the nation in 19th place.
As upper-middle-class dwellers continue to throw dollars at their happiness problem, the gap between their efforts and their results grows wider. And thus begins the downward spiral.
But Amy Childs, a self-proclaimed skeptical happiness consultant since 2002, believes that “happiness” isn’t meant only for those with the resources to financially invest in it. “I hate being lumped in with people who say, ‘You just need to manifest it. Do your passion and you’ll make money and be fine,’” Childs says. “It makes my skin crawl. It’s such an upper-middle-class attitude.”
Childs offers tiered pricing based on income and age and does many pro bono one-on-one sessions and events, partially to combat the notion that happiness consulting is available only to the wealthy. In recent years, she has redoubled her efforts to offer her services to communities that may have not been able to access them before, often largely due to cost or location.
Her point is that spending large sums of money on various methods to achieve happiness likely won’t get you there, even if you have the disposable income to do so. “The truth is if you can pay $3,000 to go to a happiness workshop, you’d probably be happier giving that money away to something you care about,” Child says.
Another factor hurting our happiness is probably open in one of your tabs right now: social media. While it can connect us in powerful ways, it’s no substitute for real human connection, and it also can foster near-constant comparison and insecurity. Those counterproductive digital distractions may also keep us from spending time confidently alone, whether that’s dining in a restaurant or spending time meditating. The happiest people have a balance of healthy alone and community time, Hecht says.
“The truth is if you can pay $3,000 to go to a workshop, you’d probably be happier giving that money away to something you care about,” Child says.
In fact, a desire to connect in real life despite steady “connection” through our digital feeds may be part of what has helped fuel the self-help movement and the happiness industry at large. People pay to visit packed convention centers to see author and entrepreneur Tony Robbins dart around a stage and reveal advice. They spend thousands of dollars for a long weekend with the Landmark Forum, a “personal and professional growth” company that touts its ability to “have the possibility not only of success, but also of fulfillment and greatness.” Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret has seen explosive sales and gathered an impassioned following, even as researchers have debunked many of its core premises. And there is seemingly no end to the silent retreats, digital detox destinations, vegan cruises, and more that promise to make us happier.
But that’s precisely part of the magic, Hecht says. These events bring people together in a like-minded setting and, in turn, often help participants leave far happier simply by having spent time with others away from their screens. “They’re all together and there’s somebody on stage saying, ‘We can do it!’” Hecht says.
Others are rebelling against the commodification of happiness at the expense of experiencing real-life ups and downs. The value in not being constantly upbeat reveals itself in both practical and abstract iterations. In her book Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America, Barbara Ehrenreich makes the case for why it’s virtuous for workplaces to have some pessimists on hand. Fact-checkers help journalists and editors avoid errors and provide accuracy to readers. Acknowledging pain and discomfort motivates someone to get that lump checked out by a doctor. Recognizing chronic sadness may encourage someone to reach out to a friend, family member, or counselor rather than concealing the distress.
Positive thinking, Ehrenreich says, is part of the fabric of American ideology. “The consumer culture encourages individuals to want more—cars, larger homes, television sets, cellphones, gadgets of all kinds,” she says. “And positive thinking is ready at hand to tell them they deserve more and can have it if they really want it and are willing to make the effort to get it.” It may serve economics, but it doesn’t serve the individual on a deeper level, particularly when it comes to bracing for struggle or adversity.
Maybe the current obsession with happiness is less about our (constitutionally sanctioned) pursuit of it and more about our discomfort with sadness.
That’s not to say that being optimistic or hopeful isn’t important. But to experience those feelings, you may have to accept that you’re in a situation that needs improvement. Our current understanding of happiness as an end product of positive thinking doesn’t necessarily allow for that.
If workplaces that enlist happiness consultants really care about worker satisfaction, why not offer better maternity and paternity policies? Daycare options? They could advise managers to stop calling workers to come in on weekends or expect them to answer emails late on weeknights. Many happiness workplace endeavors fall flat simply because they reek of authenticity, a buffoonish effort more befitting of a plotline for Michael Scott on The Office than a true effort to improve work life.
Maybe the current obsession with happiness is less about Americans’ constitutionally sanctioned pursuit of it and more about discomfort with sadness. Suffering, in any fashion, is not romantic. In a culture obsessed with happiness, Americans may not be allowing for acceptance that it’s OK to sometimes not be perky. But should we choose to have a more balanced approached toward our emotions and stop constantly trying to “do” in order to find happiness, we may actually better our chances of achieving it, both collectively as a nation and individually as unique members of society.
Illustration by Molly Mendoza