Anxiety, like the tide, is forever receding and returning, receding and returning.
Like many people who have been given a diagnosis of an anxiety disorder (and many who have not), we always braced for the next recurrence. Anxiety, like the tide, is forever receding and returning, receding and returning. Most people with this disorder have been experiencing this pattern for nearly 20 years now, so that one’s anxiety has come to seem, at times, inevitable and unassailable — a fait accompli. For a lot of folks anxiety, experts have concluded, is what they are. There is no escape.
But that doesn’t mean — and here is the good news — that there is nothing we can do about anxiety. Indeed, there is plenty a person can do. The promising thing about a habit is that it is not the same thing as a fate. An alcoholic, we are told, is always an alcoholic — but not every alcoholic drinks. Similarly, an anxious person will always be at risk of anxiety, but he needn’t be troubled by it on a daily basis. He can avoid his own tendencies. He can elude his own habit.
To accomplish this, however, he has to work and work hard. He has to fight — every day of his life, if he’s got it bad — to build new patterns of thought so that his mind doesn’t fall into the old set of grooves. He has to dig new tracks and keep digging.
Happiness in America has become the overachiever’s ultimate trophy. A vicious trump card, it outranks professional achievement and social success, family, friendship and even love. Its invocation can deftly minimize others’ achievements. This obsessive, driven, relentless pursuit is a characteristically American struggle — the exhausting daily application of the Declaration of Independence.
Despite being the richest nation on earth, the United States is, according to the World Health Organization, by a wide margin, also the most anxious, with nearly a third of Americans likely to suffer from an anxiety problem in their lifetime. America’s precocious levels of anxiety are not just happening in spite of the great national happiness rat race, but also perhaps, because of it.
Thomas Jefferson knew what he was doing when he wrote that “pursuit of happiness” line, a perfectly delivered slap in the face to his joy-shunning oppressors across the pond. I am sure you either seen or experienced this phenomenon — Cynicism is the British shtick. When happiness does come our way, it is entirely without effort, as unmeritocratic as a hereditary peerage.
By contrast, in America, happiness is work. Intense, nail-biting work, slogged out in motivational seminars and therapy sessions, meditation retreats and airport bookstores. For the left there’s yoga, for the right, there’s Jesus. For no one is their respite.
How true is this to any legal or illegal immigrant: “Since moving to the States just shy of a year ago, I have had more conversations about my own happiness than in the whole rest of my life.” Heck, I live here and I am so much more like the first person I wrote about.
The most likely customer of a self-help book is a person who has bought another self-help book in the last 18 months. The General Social Survey, a prominent data-based barometer of American society, shows little change in happiness levels since 1972 ———when such records began. Every year, with remarkable consistency, around 33 percent of Americans report that they are “very happy.”
For all the effort Americans are putting into happiness, they are not getting any happier. It is not surprising, then, that the search itself has become a source of anxiety.