Book Club: The Pursuit of Happiness by Ruth Whipman

The Pursuit of HappinessI really wanted to like this book. The whole idea of the act of chasing happiness having the adverse affect intrigues me. After all, who doesn’t want to be happy? Aren’t we all on that journey?

But I found the author got in my way. Having spent half my life in the US, her sweeping generalisations about “American” parenting immediately put me on the defensive. The ease with which she labels an American way of doing things as a “problem” is overly simplistic. Additionally, describing it as a uniquely American problem ignores examples of this type of behaviour in the UK and beyond.

Parts of the book drew me in. I was interested in the Mormon view of happiness, and agreed with the idea that we are raising children in an age of indulgence and that protecting them from experiencing negative feeling is just putting off problems that will plague them later on in life.

But each time I found something that I liked about the book and could connect with, I’d run smack into sentences that seemed crafted for Daily Mail headlines rather than serious thought, lines like “Is this Great Search for Happiness creating a nation of nervous wrecks?” and “What is driving this frenetic edge to American parenting?” Could we just take out the word American?

I know plenty of parents in Henley-on-Thames, where I live, and leafy south London that circle over their children like overzealous Secret Service agents, who post “happy” pics of their kids on Facebook. In the UK, people couch these observations in self-deprecating terms but aren’t they simply replicating this “American” phenomenon with a British flair?

I found the chapter about having to pay dearly for any meaningful early childhood education/experiences just not true. Yes, the British government pays for preschool from age 2 (though going as young as 2 is a relatively new thing). But there are plenty of “free” options in the US. There’s a whole network of playgroups (Las Madres, for example) I don’t think the author tapped in to.

Did I like the book? I found parts interesting. Would I recommend it to friends? Yes, for those interested in a different perspective on modern life and who are skeptical about the breathless pursuit of “happiness” as a panacea for the stresses of life. Like me, they may find sections that resonate as well as other other parts they take exception too.

We could talk about it over coffee or cocktails. Come to think of it, that would make me happy.  

Did you like the book or do you have views about the pursuit of happiness? Leave your link or comments below.

Please link up your review below.


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About Susanna Scott

Susanna Scott founded the BritMums social network in 2008 after a career in marketing. She wanted to create a space for parent bloggers to network, and share ideas and opportunities. She is often quoted as a pioneer in the UK Mum Blogging space, and has been named a top female entrepreneur. She has been featured in The Times, The FT, The Independent, The Guardian, The Sun, Technorati, She, Primo Baby and Red magazine, amongst others. She speaks frequently about blogging, social networking and the BritMums community at industry events. Her blog A Modern Mother ranks in the UK’s top 10 Family Tarvel Blogs. Follow her on @amodernmother.

14 Responses to Book Club: The Pursuit of Happiness by Ruth Whipman

  1. Vicky Charles 08 April 2016 at 18:12 #

    I’m struggling to read this one to be honest. I get what you mean about her calling it an American phenomenon, and she seems to take a typically snarky British standpoint on it; she seems to be standing with her arms crossed, poking fun at the people she interviews and standing back in satisfaction when they fail.
    I keep thinking perhaps she’ll lighten up a bit in the next chapter…

    • Kate Davis 19 April 2016 at 13:10 #

      Like you I’m struggling to read this book, I feel I’ve lost my way with what it is trying to achieve. I’m hoping if I continue I’ll find my way back to understanding its aim.

  2. Catherine 08 April 2016 at 21:33 #

    Without saying too much to spoil my review (as soon as the children are back at school, I promise) I loved it. Although that having said I agree about the blaming the ‘American’ or rather ‘Californian’ way of life became rather grating after awhile. All in all I would like to be the author’s friend she came across as smart and funny, someone with whom you could a good chat over a coffee or a margarita.

    Watch the linky for a fuller, happier review

  3. cheryl pasquier 12 April 2016 at 08:13 #

    I agree with you Susanna – I found parts of it fascinating and very well written, but other parts had my hackles rising because of over-generalisation. I’ve just posted my review

  4. Becki - The Mum From Brum 17 April 2016 at 17:43 #

    My review is going out in a few days, but I seem to have had the same struggles as others – the author getting in the way is a great way to put it. I found for a book so focuses on happiness it was swimming in negativity, and pushed the “cynicism” of the Brits in a really heavy handed way. It’s a shame, cause it’s such an awesome subject, and some of it was really interesting.

  5. Iota 17 April 2016 at 22:37 #

    I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I found the subject matter interesting, and the author’s style easy to read.

    I can see why an American (particularly a Californian) might get irritated with the generalisations in the first chapter or two; they diminish as the book progresses, though. The book leaves behind the author’s personal experiences of parenthood, and becomes more of an analysis of various elements of life that are the places where people seek happiness: work, religion, community, self-help. I found Ruth Whippman’s investigations into those more interesting than her initial impressions of being a parent in California.

    I agree with much of what she concludes, and I enjoyed her probing into the different personal or commercial self-interests in each case (usually very well-disguised). The blurb on the back is a bit misleading, saying that the author “stumbles upon a more effective, less self-involved, less anxiety-inducing way to find contentment”. I’m not sure that’s right. Whippman just finds that life is easier in a new place as time passes. She’s made friends, and the family is settled – so nothing very magic there. Perhaps that’s her point – just get on with daily life, build community, and happiness will come. But it annoyed me that the blurb suggests a bigger revelation (whereas the final chapter is only 6.5 pages).

  6. Iota 17 April 2016 at 22:38 #

    .
    I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I found the subject matter interesting, and the author’s style easy to read.

    I can see why an American (particularly a Californian) might get irritated with the generalisations in the first chapter or two; they diminish as the book progresses, though. The book leaves behind the author’s personal experiences of parenthood, and becomes more of an analysis of various elements of life that are the places where people seek happiness: work, religion, community, self-help. I found Ruth Whippman’s investigations into those more interesting than her initial impressions of being a parent in California.

    I agree with much of what she concludes, and I enjoyed her probing into the different personal or commercial self-interests in each case (usually very well-disguised). The blurb on the back is a bit misleading, saying that the author “stumbles upon a more effective, less self-involved, less anxiety-inducing way to find contentment”. I’m not sure that’s right. Whippman just finds that life is easier in a new place as time passes. She’s made friends, and the family is settled – so nothing very magic there. Perhaps that’s her point – just get on with daily life, build community, and happiness will come. But it annoyed me that the blurb suggests a bigger revelation (whereas the final chapter is only 6.5 pages).

  7. Expat Mum 18 April 2016 at 15:15 #

    I have read everyone’s reviews on this book but not the book itself. I have to say though Susanna, having the same US/UK life as you do (in reverse) I do think that there is more of a drive for happiness over here (USA). I only have to look at the status posts on my FB feed to know that my American friends on the whole are not only always looking for the rays of light in their lives (which is not necessarily a bad thing) but posting happy things when I know damn well they’re not happy. There is much less acceptance of moaning over here, and although I find the more British “Yes, but….” slightly draining, I also think that it’s healthy to allow yourself to have a crap day once in a while.

  8. Cornelia Bonterre 20 April 2016 at 14:50 #

    I loved the opening scene in this book and looked forward to more humorous and compromising episodes throughout. I also loved how Ruth entwined the humour and honest situations with research evidence. I did find that though I love reading research around similar topics, much of it was too long and there were too many examples illustrating the same point. So much so, that I skipped whole paragraphs to get to the next point.

    The most interesting chapters for me were Workaholics, especially the section on the Downtown Project, God’s Plan of Happiness and The Star Spangled Happy.
    The insight of Mormon life in Provo was interesting, although a Mormon myself, this community is quite different to the many areas I have lived as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. My daughter has spent periods of time there and never described it in this way. I think it is just a difference of as Ruth described the American culture combined with a highly populated church community that has existed for a long time has evolved in this way. In the many many areas I have live including the Caribbean for many years,life in the church is not like this because of the culture it has grown into.
    The hint of Ruth’s own personal feelings and her family chronological life made for some interest and empathy as an isolated new mother and finally the happy ending. The conclusion was inevitable and as such was no revelation, as many of us have learned that keeping busy around others gets us through difficult times which need hope and loving relationships as the main, not to mention less focus on trying to be happy.

    Although my review is largely positive, I’m not sure as others have also mentioned, that I would have finished to book, if I hadn’t of committed myself to do so.

  9. Reah Marshall 24 April 2016 at 20:03 #

    I requested a copy of this book as I, like everyone no doubt, is on an endless pursuit of happiness.

    I joined a yoga class, wrote a happy list (which includes a ‘stop saying yes to things you don’t want to do’ policy) and promised myself I’d read more. So when the chance to look over this book came along I thought – this is just what I need.

    I found myself chuckling at Ruth’s references to ‘mindfulness’ – as this is a discussion I have been having with my friends recently – in that my life/my head space is more ‘mind full’ than ‘mindful’ and I really need to cleanse it.

    Here’s an early extract which really made me laugh;

    ‘…that our foremothers spent their days in a state of total mindful focus on their children is a myth. The desperate need to escape the grinding reality of childcare was surely as strong for our Mothers’ generation; they just used Valium instead of iPhones!’

    Anyway I’m halfway in and I’m rather enjoying it. In fact, I haven’t really put it down, which is always a good sign. Looking forward to the rest of the book!

  10. Pinkoddy 11 May 2016 at 09:20 #

    I really enjoyed this book and the style it is written in. I super appreciate Ruth’s interaction with me on Twitter whenever I wanted to talk about a section of it. It was hard not to like even the bits I didn’t agree with (We have done attachment parenting for example). I think her point was that everyone does happiness differently and we aren’t always happy all of the time, some of just pretend – so stop trying to have someone else’s happy and just enjoy your own (whatever that may be).

  11. Maddy@writingbubble 23 May 2016 at 21:46 #

    I’ve finally posted my review of this book – I found it fascinating! I didn’t necessarily agree with the author on everything but, in the main, I liked her style and found all her discoveries really thought-provoking.

  12. Rebecca Beesley 25 May 2016 at 22:51 #

    how interesting to hear your perspective on the cultural comparisons / differences. I think the author had decided her story from the outset and wrote a book to match the conclusion she wanted to find. Nonetheless I did enjoy it overall.

  13. Nisha 08 June 2016 at 13:15 #

    I had no idea pursuing happiness was such a big industry until I read this book. Some bits annoyed me but on the whole it was a very interesting book. I’ll be posting and linking my review on this book soon.