America the Anxious: How the Pursuit of Happiness is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks by Ruth Whippman (St. Martin’s Press, $25.99, 247 pages)
Happiness is so individualized and complex, so dependent on a myriad of factors – of circumstances and life events, upbringing, culture, relationships, preferences, and personality quirks – that anything averaged over a group is unlikely to do much to describe the lived experience of any one person.
Is it possible for a British writer and documentary filmmaker to capture the underlying cause of what seems to be a pervasive sense of anxiety in the United States of America? Ruth Whippman is transplanted to Berkeley, California when her husband takes a job across the pond. She brings with her the typical negative/sarcastic attitude acquired in her homeland. (“Cynicism is the British shtick, our knee-jerk starting point.”)
This slender gray volume appears to be a survey of what makes American anxious; however, it segues into a memoir of the author’s search for happiness in the Golden State. Ms. Whipmann begins her residency with her husband and one toddler and adds another child along the way. The local experiences she describes vary from playground interactions with other moms and kiddies to encounters with her apartment neighbors.
To her credit, Whippman travels to other regions of this anxious nation to gather a broader view of her topic. The seemingly content and happy Mormons in Utah are the focus of her fieldwork. She also delves into academia, parenting and workplace standards of contentment.
The accolades on the book jacket extolling the author’s wit and hilarious humor are relatively accurate, if exaggerated. Although America the Anxious does have its share of laughs and comic relief, the quote above left this reviewer with a sense of being let down. We may be portrayed as a nation of Nervous Nellies but not everyone is pursuing happiness with a negative result.
This may have made for a fascinating inflight article. As a book, it’s overly padded with one person’s viewpoints, anecdotes, and opinions. Therefore, it is recommended only for those with the preexisting view that the U.S. is a nation of sad, miserable people.
The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living by Meik Wiking (William Morrow, $19.99, 221 pages)
Right off, readers intent on quality of life improvement might recognize a physical similarity between The Little Book of Hygge and The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and Spark Joy by Marie Kondo. All three books measure slightly over 5″ x 7″ and their covers are coated in that smooth durable finish meant for ease in handling without wear and tear. After all, if one is planning to absorb and implement the wisdom within its covers, a book must be portable and sturdy.
The lovely illustrations generously sprinkled among the words of encouragement written by Meik Wiking are immediately recognizable as Scandinavian. Just as Ms. Kondo’s cute and dainty illustrations are very much in keeping with the modern Japanese style of Hello Kitty. While Ms. Kondo’s are neat and tidy primers on folding and storing one’s possessions, Mr. Wiking’s contain ample clues to the elements of Hygge that the Danes enjoy year round. Clothing, candles, yummy recipes, fireplaces and, did I mention candles?
Author Wiking is the CEO of the Happiness Research Institute located in Copenhagen, Denmark. Readers may not be aware of the fact that Denmark is considered one of the happiest nations in the world. (More than Disneyland? – Ed.) Ample graphs and charts comparing Denmark to other nations establish this fact along with a more than sufficient amount of text explaining this phenomenon.
What secrets are lurking in this volume? Well, maybe not exactly secrets so much as a comprehensive examination of the definition of Hygge that is parsed out into human, environmental and psychological elements. These elements, when combined, can provide the comfort and even a sense of well being that each of us truly needs in the current world.
Review copies were provided by the publishers.