Ruth Whippman hails from the U.K. — and she was not prepared for all the happiness talk she hit when she moved to California.
Happiness this and yoga that and mindfulness there.
"I noticed that I was having the same conversation over and over again, where people were talking about happiness and all the different things they were doing to become happier — all the methods they were trying," Whippman told MPR News host Kerri Miller.
What was it with America and the constant pursuit of happiness? Was it even working?
Whippman's new book, "America the Anxious," argues that the incessant chase and unrealistic expectations around happiness are in fact "creating a nation of nervous wrecks."
"It seems as though happiness in America has become the overachiever's ultimate trophy — a modern trump card. It outranks professional achievement, social success, family, friendship, even love," Whippman writes.
There is something uniquely American about the happiness obsession, she found, though it is spreading to other countries.
"I think different cultures view happiness in different way. I think in America, our expectations of what happiness should look like are very, very high — some might even say unrealistic," she said. "In this country, we tend to set the bar incredibly high for what happiness should be: It's blissful, it's kind of like this ashram crossed with a Barbie Dream House crossed with Disneyland — something really amazing that perhaps we're never quite going to achieve."
"But I don't think anyone has quite defined what happiness actually looks like — and I think we're quite bad predictors of the things that will make us happy," Whippman said.
In fact, the constant pressure to be happy can have the opposite effect, she found in her research.
"When I was in a culture or situations where people were under a great deal of pressure to be happy, it made them very anxious," Whippman said. All the rampant advice to simply "live in the moment" isn't helping either: "I think heaping on all this pressure — I've got to be in the present moment, I've got to be in the present moment — can sometimes feel like another chore."
"America the Anxious" digs into all the ways the happiness obsession manifest itself in popular culture, in everything from parenting techniques to what we post on social media.
"All of us, we put forward this blissfully happy image on Facebook and Instagram, and it's like an arms race. We're all raising the stakes all the time about how happy we look," Whippman said. Even she does it, she admitted. She posted a picture of her family at an apple orchard this month — a trip that had been filled with whining, unbearable heat and rotten apples.
"My Facebook picture from that day was the one millisecond where both kids were smiling and no one needed to go the bathroom and nobody was complaining. And probably everybody looking at that would think I had this blissful time."
This 24-7 happiness isn't achievable or realistic, Whippman explained.
"In order to live a psychologically healthy and meaningful life, we need to acknowledge that there is a spectrum of human emotion. We cannot be happy all the time, and we wouldn't want to be. To live a meaningful life, we need to acknowledge that both positive and negative emotions have a value — and they tell us things."
For the full interview on "America the Anxious" with Ruth Whippman, use the audio player above.