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The Pursuit of Happiness

And Why It's Making Us Anxious

Ruth Whippman

In 2012, Tony Hsieh, the CEO of the online shoe retailer Zappos, bought up 60 acres of urban-blighted land around the company's headquarters.

in downtown Las Vegas and set about transforming the crack houses and vacant lots into a carefully engineered model community. It was to be a kind of Port Sunlight for tech start-ups, a land of soy milk and money where every bookshop served artisanal charcuterie and residents would never be more than six feet from craft beer. Incomers would be screened for 'cultural fit', working, living and socialising together in a 24/7 frenzy of creativity. There was even a City Science Department, dedicated to tracking productivity enhancing 'collisions' (any interaction between two or more people). 'The city is curated. Tony curates the people,' says one resident interviewed by Ruth Whippman during her visit to the area.

Behind the vistas of vintage vinyl and exciting public art, however, something wasn't working; in 2013, there was a troubling spate of suicides. By 2014, 30 members of the administration team had been laid off, and the City Science Department was closed. The Downtown Project wasn't so much 'colliding' as crashing.

It is a pattern that Whippman repeatedly encounters in this funny yet unsettling book about the modern quest for happiness, in all its quasi- spiritual, mindful, innerchild-nourishing forms. The more happiness becomes a stated goal, a discrete, hard- edged priority, the more elusive it becomes.

During a stay with a Mormon family in Utah, investigating how religion affects people's contentment, Whippman notes that the state is not only home to Provo, the poll-topping happiest town in America, but also the country's highest levels of antidepressant use.

She quotes research suggesting that the latest generation of American university students are less happy than their predecessors, despite being beneficiaries of the “good job!” school of parenting, where any negative feelings are immediately reframed more chirpily. (Whippman once heard a toddler being asked 'are you having trouble using your body safely?' as he bashed a child over the head.) meanwhile, foster 'social comparison disorder', the dismal measuring of joy levels against friends who are always 'feeling blessed'. The more we fixate on happiness, argues Whippman, the less happy we become.

Bowing to the happiness industry's fondness for a 'journey', this book is also an account of Whippman's wavering search for fulfilment. After moving to California, a crucible of self-help jargon, with her husband and baby son, the British television producer felt socially isolated, vulnerable, home's not up to her new exacting standards of happiness. She read self-help guru Eckhart Tolle and subscribed to daily happiness e-mails. She paid hundreds of dollars to experience the extreme self-realisation courses offered by The Landmark Forum, watching people weep as they were berated by a woman called Valerie for not taking responsibility for their feelings.

Yet despite her desire for transformation, her very unCalifornian cynicism means she could never fully join in, making her an ideal guide to the cult of happiness around her.

Bryson, Whippman has a Like Bill willingness to play up cultural differences to comic effect, whether commenting on her son's relentlessly positive report card (only categories 'strengths' and 'emergent strengths') or watching Chief Mindfulness Officers exchange business cards at the Wisdom 2.0 conference, a gathering for companies exploring 'the profit potential of the inner journey'.

This is not merely a personal voyage of enlightenment, however, nor an extended eye-roll at wacky Americans. The book's serious underpinning is a warning about how happiness is weaponised by being governments and employers , directed towards their people to make them work harder and longer.

Whippman records the scandal when McDonald's included 'wellness tips' on their staff website, urging employees to 'complain less' and 'eat less' by breaking food into small pieces - advice that might have been less inflammatory if not posted after strikes over low pay. She prises an invitation to the Facebook 'campus' from a dad she knows from the park and finds free food, fun activities and baskets of wrapped toothbrushes in the lavatories as tacit encouragement to work overnight. She also notes that Facebook offers to freeze female employees' eggs, an ostensibly progressive gesture, yet one that blurs boundaries disturbingly with its hints of rostered procreation.

Happiness, Whippman suggests, instantly becomes 'happiness' when filtered through corporate interests, a shiny simulacrum far removed from genuine well-being or the oldschool satisfactions of sometimes leaving the office.

Even more sinister, she argues, is the popularity of Positive Psychology, a movement that insists happiness is nothing to do with personal circumstances and everything to do with individual effort. There are no problems, just 'problematic thinking'. Its appeal to austerity pushing governments is clear: 'If circumstance is of little consequence to happiness, why worry if people are struggling?'

With warm wit and chilling logic, The Pursuit of Happiness shows that the human desire for contentment can be manipulated and distorted until it is barely recognisable, Big Brother as smiley face, a frown turned upside down and back to front. At the Wisdom 2.0 conference, Whippman meets an inventor offering a 'wearable biofeedback belt' that alerts the wearer to rising stress by hugging them around their waist. 'You mean it constricts?' asks Whippman. No, says the inventor, adamant. 'I prefer to see it more as a pattern of hugs.'

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