In a particularly low moment a few years back, after arriving friendless and lonely from Britain to live in the United States, I downloaded a “happiness app” onto my phone. It was surprisingly hard to choose one. There were close to a thousand bliss-promising options in the app store — ones that would teach you to meditate or be grateful, or that would send you photomontages of sunsets and puppies or unfeasibly flattering shots of your loved ones (giving you a moment to temporarily ignore your actual, less attractive loved ones.)
The app I eventually chose messaged me every hour or so with a positive affirmation that I was supposed to repeat to myself over and over. “I am beautiful,” or “I am enough.” The problem was, every time my phone buzzed with an incoming message, I would get a Pavlovian jolt of excitement thinking an actual person was trying to contact me. “I am enough,” I would snarl bitterly upon realizing the truth, unable to shake the feeling that, without friends or community, I really wasn’t.
“Happiness comes from within,” said the inspirational photo-card in my Facebook news feed a few days later, the loopy white meme-font set against a backdrop of a woman contorted into a yoga pose so tortuous it looked as though she might actually be investigating her own innards trying to locate her bliss.
Having spent the last few years researching and writing a book about happiness and anxiety in America, I’ve noticed that this particular strain of happiness advice — the kind that pitches the search for contentment as an internal, personal quest, divorced from other people — has become increasingly common. Variations include “Happiness is determined not by what’s happening around you, but what’s happening inside you”; “Happiness should not depend on other people”; and the perky and socially shareable “Happiness is an inside job.” One email I received from a self-help mailing list even doubled down on the idea with the turbocharged word mash-up “withinwards,” (although when the subject heading “Go Withinwards” landed in my inbox I briefly thought it was an ad for a nose-to-tail offal restaurant.)
In an individualistic culture powered by self-actualization, the idea that happiness should be engineered from the inside out, rather than the outside in, is slowly taking on the status of a default truism. This is happiness framed as journey of self-discovery, rather than the natural byproduct of engaging with the world; a happiness that stresses emotional independence rather than interdependence; one based on the idea that meaningful contentment can be found only by a full exploration of the self, a deep dive into our innermost souls and the intricacies and tripwires of our own personalities. Step 1: Find Yourself. Step 2: Be Yourself.
Read more at The New York Times.