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How Do You Get to “Happily Ever After” in Real Life?

Less yoga, more day drinking, and friends

woman with blindfold over her eyes

Here’s the thing, guys: Americans are stressed out. Between employers that want us on all the time, children that require our (undivided) attention, spouses that need our feels, and an ever-growing industrial complex surrounding fitness and mindfulness… there’s honestly not a lot of time to breathe. A simple Google search on “Americans and stress” reveals startling article titles and stats. Try “Stress Is Killing You,” for one. Or check out the American Psychological Association’s 2015 report, “Stress Snapshot”:

  • Extreme stress is associated with this slight increase in overall stress. Adults are more likely than last year to report experiencing extreme stress (a rating of 8,9 or 10 on a 10-point scale). Twenty-four percent of adults report these levels, compared to 18 percent in 2014. This represents the highest percentage reporting extreme stress since 2010.
  • More than one-third of adults (34 percent) report that their stress increased over the past year. Only 16 percent report decreased stress in the past year.
  • Along with greater stress, many adults are coping with health and lifestyle challenges. The majority of adults report having at least one chronic illness. In addition, many adults lack exercise and remain sedentary for much of the day. More than 10 percent of adults also report having a mental health-related diagnosis.

How do we try to cope with this stress? By finding ways to make ourselves happy.

This past weekend I opened up Ruth Whippman’s latest offering,  America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness Is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks while on a plane. This wonder of a read clocks in at 223 pages of wit coupled with that fantastic brand of sarcastic humor that the Brits pull off so well. It’s truly a marvelous deep dive of journalistic research on anxiety in America, and it was also perfect for the trip, because it turns out the exact number of pages I can read while juggling two flights and a sleepy child is 223. As I read Ruth’s sharp critiques on whether or not religion, meditation, our careers, and (oh boy!) parenthood are really doing much to make us happy, I also couldn’t stop asking myself a crucial question: if these things aren’t making us happy, what will?

(Hint: The answer has to do with spending time with actual humans. Your partner, sure—but not just your partner.)

publicity photo from mad men

why can’t we just get day drunk instead?

I was a goner for America the Anxious immediately, because the first part of the book is about our nation’s current obsession with yoga, meditation, and mindfulness, and how we try to use the three to make ourselves happy. Before you hate me (and Ruth), just know that I practice yoga regularly and I love it. I don’t go to classes (I prefer to get my yoga on at home with Adriene, btw), and I don’t necessarily do yoga for the chill, blissful benefits—I am just really flexible and want to stay that way. Everyone in our house is a fan of using meditation as a way to calm ourselves down, and we have encouraged our son to find a quiet spot of his choosing and meditate when he’s feeling rage-y, to great success. And being fully present in the moment? I’m all over it, at least in theory.

I actually really like mindfulness—you know, the kind that’s taught for free at meditation centers, not sold in the form of Zen clocks or for retreats that will set you back $3K (or, you know, ad services that automatically link the word “meditation” to a website that presumably sells you a happy, peaceful life). And I definitely don’t think commercial mindfulness as it’s sold in the US has anything to do with lightening one’s load or making anyone happy. I like my neighborhood YMCA as much as the next person, but when I’m there I don’t get hit with the overwhelming scent of happiness and glee—it’s more like anxiety and sweat.

I mean, this:

It occurs to me that all these happiness pursuits often don’t seem to be making people particularly happy. When a new American friend persuades me to try out a yoga class, you can almost smell the tension and misery in the room. Although it’s a little hard to determine the cause and effect, as anyone who was already feeling happy would be unlikely to waste the sensation in a fetid room at the YMCA, contorting their body into uncomfortable positions. The happy person would be more likely to be off doing something fun, like sitting in the park, drinking.

Are you there, Ruth? It’s me, Stephanie, your new BFF.

woman typing on a computer

if your boss talks about work-life integration, get a new boss

Of course, the book isn’t all about anxiety and the degree of mindfulness we have in our lives—it’s also about our work lives, and how they’re essentially wrecking us and turning Americans into a tired, hungry, anxiety-ridden mass. A lot of them are also ever-increasingly doing this by implementing a new practice that legitimately sends shivers down my spine: work-life integration.

What is work-life integration, you wonder? (Or maybe you don’t. Maybe you already know because you live it.) The premise behind the notion is that if an employer makes work a super great, fun place to be, his or her employees will totally want to be there all the time. If you work in a startup culture, this idea is probably more than familiar to you already. If you don’t, think about the corporate offices of Facebook, Google, and the like. You’ve probably seen or read numerous articles about how the offices look so fun (!!!!) and amazing, and how you should totally hate your workplace because you don’t have foosball tables and candy stations there, right? Let’s dial that back.

Here’s the deal about workplaces that offer cupcakes with the Instagram logo on them, Lego playstations, and on-site doctors and dry cleaners: All that stuff is there because they never want their employees to leave. Work-life integration is on the other end of the spectrum of work-life balance (aka, you go to work and do work and then you leave and do the rest of your life while work stays at work, where it belongs), and it is designed to make you feel like it’s totally normal that you’re working a 9-to-5, coming home for dinner say hi to your spouse for a second, and then signing back on to finish more work from 8 to 11. Or that you’re at work from 8:30 in the morning until 10:30 at night because you took an hour off to build a Lego tower with that guy down the hall who you don’t actually like, but are forced to build Lego towers with because some CEO at the top of the chain thinks it’ll make your life so radically amazing and you’ll want to be at work forever.

Also, it turns out the place where I buy my kid’s shoes (they have extra-wide choices! So great for his AFOs!) is quite possibly the worst of them all:

Happiness is serious business here at Zappos. The company is probably the nation’s leader in a trend that has been dubbed “corporate fungineering,” in which management attempts to turn office life into a dizzying parade of fun (or as many companies now refer to it, FUN!). Although Zappos is at the more extreme end of the spectrum, it is certainly no longer anomalous in the ranks of corporate America, and is often seen as a model for business leaders keen to build a similar funorama culture in their own workplaces. Zappos even offers consultancy services on how best to go about this.

I get that my work experience is outside the norm: I have always worked for myself and/or as an independent contractor for others. But guys, the idea of my boss trying to normalize me giving ten-plus hours to the company in the name of fun makes me want to crawl into a hole… or maybe take up fly fishing to see if I can make a living doing that.

When you think about all of this, it’s no wonder that nearly 16 percent of American workers had a major depressive episode in 2014.

photo of god is love in palm springs

but surely religion is different… right?

I’ll go ahead and lay it out there for you guys: I am completely an atheist. There isn’t a part of me that believes in any kind of religious power at all, and as such, I was especially intrigued by page 127 of Ruth Whippman’s book—aka when a chapter entitled “God’s Plan of Happiness” begins. Even though I don’t believe in any semblance of a god (or God), I have previously attempted to join two religious groups. We first attended services at a Unitarian Universalist church, and then spent two years seriously studying Judaism and contemplating conversion, for personal reasons—one of which centers on the sense of community that seems so well established in religious groups.

But it can be argued that no religion is all about portraying a happy, God-fearing life quite like the Church of Latter-Day Saints, and Ruth agrees:

On almost every measure, Mormons appear to be outpacing the rest of America. Around 90 percent of Mormons rate their communities as excellent or good, compared with just 70 percent of Americans generally. Mormons have some of the lowest rates of unemployment in the country, and according to Gallup polls, Provo, Utah, where close to 90 percent of the population identifies as religious Mormon, is officially the happiest town in America.

To find out just how happy Utah’s Mormons are, Ruth went to the heart of the movement: Salt Lake City. She spent a weekend with a family of six.

Stephen lives in Salt Lake City and has four children, which, as he tells Neil, is a small family by Mormon standards. His wife, Laura, is a stay-at-home mom and since marriage, has never worked outside the home. Married at twenty-one, they are anti-sex before or outside of marriage, anti-gay marriage and anti-abortion, all of which are virtually unheard-of positions among our social circle.

The results? They’re fascinating. Utah’s Mormon population has community on lock, for one thing. In the first few hours of Ruth’s visit, several different neighbors stop by Laura and Stephen’s home. One woman is returning a borrowed pie dish (with freshly baked cookies inside), and a group comes by to sing “Happy Birthday” to one of the couple’s children. A dad stops in to ask if Laura will babysit his kids (of course she says yes), and another neighbor brings a birthday gift of chocolate. As someone who can’t tell you the last time someone stopped by my house unexpectedly (besides the kids selling magazine subscriptions for their school), I find this rate of visitors simultaneously really cool and really… exhausting. But maybe I shouldn’t.

In an individualistic culture, in which we are primed to see happiness as the result of a private internal journey, people often see the magic ingredient in the link between religion and happiness as the personal sense of meaning that a religious faith brings. But when researchers have drilled down into the reasons why religious people are happier, it turns out the opposite is true. It isn’t the inner journey of private religious belief that is making religious people so happy, but the community and social connectedness that comes with a religious lifestyle.

In other words, all of those fellow church-going neighbors and friends? They might be the key to happiness. Or, rather, maybe they are if your prescribed religion works for you—but what about when it doesn’t? Ruth also met several women who quite plainly told her that the lack of equality within the faith is more than a burden—it’s painful to live with. As one woman put it:

“I know that many Mormon women feel very valued for what they contribute at home,” she replies carefully, “but equality is not a feeling. It’s something that you can actually quantify. You might feel valued, but you are not equal. When my kids were baptized, my husband blessed them, I did nothing but make the programs and play the piano.” Emily pauses for a moment, then slumps back into the sofa. “It fills me with anguish.”

With all of its good—and when you consider their incredibly effective welfare program, there’s a whole lot of it—the Mormon church still seriously struggles when it comes to gender equality and rights for all. This serious lack of equality for all Mormons also comes into play when you consider another surprise that Whippman uncovered: Mormon Utah has the highest rate of antidepressant use in the United States.

It’s unclear what conclusions we can draw from that—since appropriate anti-depressant use can be part of self and mental health care (and often stigmatized). Are Mormons depressed because of the immense pressure to seem happy? Is community allowing them to overcome the stigma of anti-depressants, and take them as needed? Who knows. But it’s clear that the tight knit community in Utah is what sets it apart from the rest of the US, for good and for ill.

friends eating lunch together

why is happiness defined as something you do alone?

At the core of the book is this question, this pondering, that led Whippman to start writing the book in the first place. Why is happiness such a singular journey in this country? Why are we constantly told we are responsible for our own happiness? That no one can bring us down if we let them? That if we only buy the next product or put our kid in the “right” school or eat the cupcakes or don’t eat the cupcakes or go to the gym or pay $3K for the mindfulness cruise, we’ll suddenly “get it”? Why do we keep segmenting ourselves off, further and further away from one another? Why aren’t we turning to others instead? Why aren’t we turning to our… friends?

The idea that we are significantly happier moment to moment when we are around others than when we are on our own has since been backed up several times by other studies. And surprisingly this effect is not just true for people who consider themselves extroverts but also equally strong for introverts—other research has shown that when introverts are told to behave like extroverts, even when they think that they will hate every second of it, they actually end up feeling happier as a result.

I have lived this truth, and quite recently. We moved to a new city just over a year ago, and for the better part of that year, almost all of my socialization has come via phone calls with long-distance friends, hanging out with my husband at night, catching up on social media, and the APW Slack channel. Seriously. This summer, I finally decided enough was enough and invited a few families over for a movie night (which was amazing). Since then I’ve asked other moms I’ve met through my kid to go out for drinks (equally so much fun), and am making it a point to hang out with someone I don’t live with at least twice a month (which still sounds like way too little time, but also… it’s something?). My husband, who generally uses meditation and mindfulness to bring himself a sense of happiness, recently went out for drinks with classmates and had so much fun that he talked about it for three days after—and guys, there wasn’t even that much to talk about. He just hadn’t actually sat down with a group in a social situation in ages, and he realized he loved it.

The moral of the story, the heart of the book—you’ve already bought it, right?—the big takeaway you need? If you want happiness, convince your friend that you guys should ditch your yoga class and go have coffee or tea together instead. Call your mom and gossip about celebrities that you both like.

Hell. Maybe you should even day drink.

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