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America is obsessed with happiness — and it’s making us miserable.

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What the research says: The more people see happiness as a goal, the less happy they are.

After some initial research, I find a couple of somewhat surprising studies by psychologists from the University of California Berkeley. In the first, participants were given a questionnaire and asked to rate how highly they valued happiness as an explicit goal and how happy they were with their lives.

Surprisingly, the higher the respondents rated happiness as a distinct personal ambition, the less happy they were in their lives generally and the more likely they were to experience symptoms of dissatisfaction and even depression.

This in itself doesn’t prove cause and effect — after all, it makes sense that people who are unhappy would be likely to value happiness more highly — so the researchers designed another experiment to determine which way the effect was going.

This time, they gave one group of people an article to read about the importance of happiness, and then afterward showed them a happy film. A second group of participants were shown the same film but without reading the article first. The group that had read the happiness article reported feeling less happiness from watching the happy film than the group that watched without reading first. The authors of these studies concluded that, paradoxically, the more people valued and were encouraged to value happiness as a separate life goal, the less happy they were.

Like an attractive man, it seems the more actively happiness is pursued, the more it refuses to call and starts avoiding you at parties.

For all the effort that Americans are putting into hunting down happiness, they are not actually getting any happier. 

According to the General Social Survey, a large-scale project that has been tracking trends in American life since the early ’70s, there has been almost no change in American happiness levels since 1972, when records began. Every year, with remarkable consistency, around 30 percent of Americans report that they are “very happy.” It’s a fair chunk, but a figure that remains surprisingly constant, untouched by mindfulness or megachurches, by yoga or meditation or Gretchen Rubin or attachment parenting.

According to the World Health Organization, as well as being one of the least happy developed countries in the world, the United States is, by a wide margin, also the most anxious, with nearly a third of Americans likely to suffer from an anxiety disorder in their lifetime. A 2012 report by the American Psychological Association warned that the nation was on the verge of a “stress-induced public health crisis.”

There are many reasons why life in America is likely to produce anxiety compared with other developed nations: long working hours without paid vacation time for many, insecure employment conditions with little legal protection for workers, inequality, and the lack of universal health care coverage, to name a few. 

The happiness-seeking culture is clearly supposed to be part of the solution, but perhaps it is actually part of the problem. Perhaps America’s precocious levels of anxiety are happening not just in spite of the great national happiness rat race, but also in part because of it.

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