Happiness is other people

From Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan, 3:10 pm on 6 November 2017

Find yourself. Mediate. This is often the advice from the "happiness" industry, always ready to sell you something you have to do alone to find contentment. The self-help industry focuses too much on self, says journalist and author Ruth Whippman. She says the answer to feeling less anxious is not following an app or doing solitary meditation but instead connecting with others.

Ruth Whippmnn spoke to Jesse Mulligan about her recent article for the New York Times called Happiness is other people and why reaching for happiness might actually be making us sadder.

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Photo: Pixabay

"It's right there in the American constitution: the pursuit of happiness. Happiness and guns it seems" says Whippman a Brit who now lives in the US.

Living in California, she says, is a bit of a culture shock, "people are really obsessed (with happiness) in this country. The more I researched it the more I realised it's filtering through all of the country. It's very easy to get sucked in, it really made me start questioning myself 'am I happy enough? Am I as happy as everyone else?"

Whippman says there's a "sort of joylessness about the search for happiness in California" and a pervading idea that happiness is your own personal choice, regardless of circumstance, if you work on yourself enough you'll find happiness.

"Actually this message is completely false. It's almost a kind of gas lighting and denying of people's reality. Saying it's not your sky-high rent or that the economy is in ruins. It's saying it's your own fault, it's an anti-social justice method," she says.

The culture of blaming people for their own problems is what is problematic, she says.

She's critical of the modern self-help industry.

"It's about 'the quest within' whether it's mindfulness or meditation. It's all about looking at yourself and trying to explore yourself, but what's really ironic about that is that all the research about happiness points to the fact our happiness depends on other people and community."

She says that even though we seem more connected, things like Facebook and Instagram are, in fact, a big part of the problem.

She says they function as a sort of "personal PR system" broadcasting the best bits of our lives as if to say constantly "Look how happy I am, everything is perfect!" when the reality can be quite different.

It leads to a quest for happiness complex in some people and Whippman says there's good research to show that people who obsess over happiness tend to show greater signs of depression and loneliness.

So what's the solution? Luckily, this is exactly the research she has been doing. Despite saying that all the data looking into happiness is incredibly dull to look at, certain trends have emerged.

"There is one factor that dwarfs all the others and cuts across race, age, class and gender and that is our social connections, our relationships with other people. That is the single biggest thing you can do for your happiness is to work on those. It really does apply to everyone, having strong close connections is the single most important factor,"

That and accepting that no one is perfect, Whippman says she's found a balance and that's the 'secret'.

"I've made peace with the fact that nobody is ever going to be happy all the time, we all have our ups and downs, we all have sadness and fear and anxiety and that's OK."