Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Book review : The Pursuit of Happiness (And Why It's Making Us Anxious) - Ruth Whippman

Yesterday I took the Madhouse kids to see Zootopia at the cinema. Near the beginning of the film, the worried bunny parents tell their daughter that the way to find happiness is to give up on your dreams, or at least accept that they probably aren't ever going to come true. Needless to say, the sassy heroine of the film doesn't listen to their advice and heads off to the bustling city to become the first ever rabbit cop (not robocop, that's another film !). As she finds herself in a dreary bedsit with dodgy neighbours and her hopes of an exciting career crashing down around her long floppy ears, it seems that her parents may have been right. But, of course, this is a kidflick so she turns things around and gets her happy ending.

The fact that I sat pondering these life lessons in the midst of a Disney film shows that Ruth Whippman's book The Pursuit of Happiness (And Why It's Making Us Anxious) has given me some serious food for thought. When I saw it come up as the latest title for discussion on the BritMums book club, I almost decided to skip this one, because it sounded like a cheesy self-help manual - not my cup of tea at all. When I read the description though, I realised that it is almost the precise opposite - the author actually sets out to debunk the myths and explore the whole "how to be happy" industry with a hefty dose of British cynicism.

As a Brit living Stateside, it was unsurprising that she started off by examining the very American (even if they exist in the UK too) empowerment conferences, where people are forced to face their demons and take control of their lives and emotions in a very full-on way, with the speakers as keen to get you to take the blame for everything bad that has ever happened in your life as they are to convince you to sign up for the next costly instalment. It was easy to sneer at, or at least feel slightly worried by, this concept, and the even more sinister high school version, as things that would never really take off in the UK. Other aspects that she explores, such as the sense of envy and unworthiness that can be brought on by seeing your friends' and relatives' seemingly perfect, happy lifestyle of endless parties, quality family time and beach holidays on your Facebook feed, are more universal and easy to relate to.

I felt slightly uncomfortable when reading certain sections, such as the ones dealing with the Mormon lifestyle, because it all felt a bit condescending and stereotypical, and I skimmed over other parts when they started getting too bogged down in psychobabble, but overall, I agreed with her basic premise that spending time with your friends in real life rather than online and getting involved with your community are the best ways to find routes into happiness. The tone of the book frequently reminded me of Bill Bryson or Clive James, in the days when he would comment on clips from the totally bizarre Japanese gameshows in a benign but bemused and occasionally caustic manner. It therefore made me smile to see the tagline on the book from Newsweek, saying that it is ideal for fans of Bill Bryson.

I think this will be a book that you will either love or hate. I could see certain groups of people, such as those suffering from depression, attachment mums, Democrats or Mormons, feeling slightly hard done by, but I found it an enjoyable and interesting read.

star rating : 4/5

RRP : £14.99

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Hutchinson (10 Mar. 2016)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0091959152
  • ISBN-13: 978-0091959159

Disclosure : I received a copy of the book for free, in order to write an honest review and take part in the discussion on BritMums Bookclub.


  1. The Pursuit of Happiness really got me thinking about happiness, love the way that the BritMums book club brings books to my attention that I would have otherwise missed.

  2. I too found it thought-provoking and became more accutely aware of happiness themes in films, online video clips and new articles whilst I was reading the book. You've done a really thorough review... I especially loved the chapter on facebook. x