Happiness Anxiety: How the Pursuit of Happiness Can Bring Us Down

Anxiety comes in many shades:

  • General Anxiety Disorder
  • Social Phobia
  • Agoraphobia
  • Specific Phobias
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
  • Panic Disorder.

Between these hues are even more subtle tones.

I’d like to explore two of the tones between General Anxiety Disorder and Social Phobia. One is called “status anxiety,” a form of anxiety experts are starting to recognize, and the other is a term I call “happiness anxiety.”

What is Status Anxiety?

Status anxiety is the fear of how our social status is perceived by our community. Author Alain de Botton coined the term “status anxiety” in a book and a documentary film of the same name.

Our anxiety over our status is why we project success, confidence, and happiness when we don’t feel it. We believe people will treat us with more respect if we exude these traits. We may not feel successful, but we know the best way to get there is to fake it until we make it. It’s why we collect status symbols to show off our value.

In and of itself the Apple Watch is a glorified fitness tracker, but as a material merit badge that slick LCD watch face tells the world we’ve got money to spare.

De Botton claims status symbols, like the Apple Watch, extend beyond our fashion sense into the items that adorn our homes, the degrees we’ve earned, our career titles, our social network notoriety, the relationships we’re in, and the meaningful milestones we’ve gathered through the years.

De Botton believes our endless quest for treasures and trophies is actually a hunt for love and approval and our anxiety over status will persist long after our animal needs are met. 

The Status Climber’s Myth

De Botton believes that status anxiety is the result of the American myth of a meritocracy. A meritocracy is the notion that anyone from any background can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and become what they want so long as they put in the effort.

Dismissing luck, a meritocracy believes that the best actors get the best roles, the best rock stars play the biggest venues, and the best authors get the bestseller spots. It’s the notion that the cream always rises to the top and that the people on the top deserve their spot more than those on the bottom.

The concept of a meritocracy mostly applies to wealth. It contributes to the idea that the wealthiest are the worthiest and that the penniless are pinheads.

It lets pundits be unsympathetic to the impoverished, claiming high crime in low income communities has nothing to do with opportunity and everything to do with a culture of criminality, and that if anyone wants out of these environments they just have to roll up their sleeves and start up their own small business.

This is a pyramid schemer’s logic. “It’s not the vitamin supplement’s fault your car got repossessed. You should’ve pushed it harder on strangers at the gym. You should’ve recruited your siblings to sell beneath you. Don’t go blaming our direct selling strategy.”

Here we’re blaming the cogs in the machine, when really, the system is broken. A meritocracy, where we’re all judged by the fruit of our labor, is a great ideal to strive for, but we’re not there yet.

Not All Bootstraps Are Equal Length

We can’t all pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps because our bootstraps aren’t all the same length.

We’re not all born into designer onesies, complimentary tuitions, and million dollar loans. Still we’re sold on the notion that if we strive for the same goals we can catch up. This is why we deify billionaires like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates who came from seemingly modest backgrounds.

In the book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell challenges the myth of the self made person, by acknowledging how big of a factor their circumstances play into success. “It’s not enough to ask what successful people are like. […] It is only by asking where they are from that we can unravel the logic behind who succeeds and who doesn’t.”

There’s no denying that Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were cunning businessmen, they’re credited with the personal computer boom, but what if in addition to their gifts they happened to be born at a time when the PC industry was ready to blossom, with or without them? The two seem a little less like futurist folk heroes and more like victors of circumstance.

The concept of a meritocracy doesn’t work if you factor in wealth, circumstances, and luck.

Happiness Anxiety

In the same sense that we’re not all born into coin pools, we’re not all born with the same levels of serotonin, nor are we all born into nurturing environments or with the same access to professional help. Just as some of us are born with economical advantages others are born with emotional advantages (admittedly there’s some overlap between the two).

I’d like to introduce the phrase Happiness Anxiety to the list of anxieties. What is Happiness Anxiety? It sounds like an oxymoron, but I assure you it’s a real thing.

Like Status Anxiety, Happiness Anxiety has to do with how we’re perceived by others.  In the same way we know projecting an heir of success will get people to treat us with more respect, we know that projecting happiness will get people to treat us with good cheer.

We are social animals. We blend into our environment. A 1996 study by J. A. Bargh, M. Chen, & L. Burrows found that we unconsciously mirror our peers and let their behavior influence ours. They smile, we smile. They frown, we frown. They called this “the chameleon effect.”

Empathy allows us to match the emotional pigment of our peers and for our friends, colleges, and loved ones to match our own. If we’re a bright ray of sunshine, the people around us will glow too. When we get a deep case of the blues, the people around us turn blue too. We can see in everyone’s expression just what we’re broadcasting, and we know if we draw out empathy too often we risk exhausting that connection.

Experience has taught us that sharing too many of our burdens will weigh other people down. So we economize our emotions. We dole out our disappointment, segment our sadness, and ration our rage. We’re frugal with our feelings in order to save face.

The problem is this desire to be treated with kindness, all the time, prevents those of us suffering from depression or mental illness from asking for assistance. We find ourselves in constant contrast with our environment and we internalize the difference. Operating under the presumption that everyone around us is as happy as they appear we find ourselves feeling worse than if we were alone.

Emotions Out of Sync with Our Environment

In 1954 Psychologist Leon Festinger preposed the Social Comparison Theory that people evaluate their opinions, abilities, and self worth by comparing themselves to their environment. We can’t help but grade our own happiness on a curve with our circle of friends. It’s part of the reason sad support groups can raise our spirits and pep rallies can bring us down.

Where social comparison goes wrong is when we take everyone else’s expressions at face value.

Somehow it always seems like everyone else has their shit together while we’re on the verge of a nervous breakdown, maybe we’re not but we feel like we might be when comparing our happiness to what everyone around us projects. Could everyone else actually be that happy?

There’s a stereotype where I’m from called “Minnesota Nice.” The idea is that Minnesotans are less likely to rock the boat, even when there are stowaways onboard. We smile as we cast judgement. We’re passive aggressive, concealing our cruelty under kindness. We’re “nice” for the sake of appearances.

It’s hard to compare ourselves to the people in our environment when everyone is putting up a front (for an extreme example of this watch Black Mirror season 3 episode 1: Nose Dive, currently on Netflix).


Getting Up in Our Faces with Social Graces

A customer ambled up to a sales counter I was working not too long ago. He wore wrap around shades, skintight running pants, a sleeveless shirt, and a watch the size of a silver dollar. He hopped from leg to leg while waiting in line, like he was running through tires in a football drill, in place.

The customer kept bobbing from foot to foot as he tossed his item across the counter. “How are you doing?”

I nodded. “I’m doing alright.”

The customer raised his chin. “Just alright? Come on man. You should be doing great, awesome, super fantastic.” He slapped the counter for emphasis.

I shook my head, holding my ground. “Nah. Alright is my baseline while I’m at work. It’s a cool mellow. I save fantastic for moments that are truly worthy of it.”

The customer smirked, giving me a long look. “Well I choose to feel fantastic all the time.”

“Even now?”

“Of course man, it’s an outlook thing.”

“Do you feel this same level of enthusiasm in the bedroom?

“No, but that’s–”

“Well you just spent fantastic in the middle of a retail transaction. So where do you go from there?”

The customer gave me a quizzical look all the way out of the store. I think he usually bullied everyone he met into giving him a “Great, awesome, super fantastic!” I bet he thought he was doing all those clerks a favor, and that their nervous smiles were signs of happiness drawn out by him, that he was spreading positive energy and not enforcing extreme social graces, but I held my ground because “alright” is a reasonable answer (for those who like scary stories my short The Smilers gave this scenario a Twilight Zone spin).

The whole situation with that customer reminded me of a Louis C.K. standup routine. “We go right to the top shelf with our words now, we don’t think about their meaning […] Dude, it was amazing! Really? You were amazed by a basket of chicken wings? […] What if Jesus comes down from the sky, makes love to you all night long, leaves the new living lord in your belly? What are you going to call that when you used amazing on a basket of chicken wings?”

The Fear Over Good Cheer

It’s these extremes in our language and expectations for happiness that fuel our social phobias. Those of us with neutral emotional baselines are made to feel depressed by people claiming to feel energized all the time.

I used to work in an environment that prided itself on its cheerful culture. Where “fine” was not an acceptable answer for “How’s it going?” I often felt like the only human being in a field full of hyper positive pod people.

I won’t tell you the company I worked for, but their name rhymed with the word “grapple.”

Every morning management went around the room asking employees what they were most excited to learn today. The question was a catch-22. I did tech support by appointment. My whole day was scheduled by the time I got in. I’d never have time to actually develop a new skill, so the question put me in a position to bullshit.

My answer came out, “I’m exited to learn how to align with my customers’ needs, to find out how to offer great solutions, and to inspire joy in the brand.”

I always threw up in my mouth a little bit.

This was a job where high fives were mandatory. Yes, if you were out on the sales floor and a manager raised his hand you were expected to hit it, and hit hard, or else you were taken in back and lectured on why an enthusiastic workforce excites customers.

One particularly peppy employee slapped skin so hard customers spun around to see if a fight was going down. I ran into him not long after I’d quit. He cocked his hand back for one of his overdrive high fives.

I shook my head. “I don’t that anymore.”

I never felt more depressed than I did working that job. Even when I thought I was happy my coworkers made me feel like I wasn’t happy enough. I’d be having a five star day, while they were somehow having six star days. I’d be on cloud nine, and they’d looking down from cloud ten. I’d be smiling wide, but they’d be showing both rows of teeth at once and with dimples.

Yes, the pace was frantic, the workload was exhausting, and the customers were trying, but that mandatory merriment made the place a painful environment.

Listening to someone vent for hours on end can be an emotionally exhausting experience, but I would argue trying to match someone’s emotional exuberance can be equally exhausting. Just as too much negative energy has the power to drain us too much positive energy has the power to blow our fuses.

Keep A Stiff Upper Lip and a Loose Grip (On Sanity)

There are other reasons people smile when they feel like frowning, especially when its seen as a sign of strength. For the longest time men have been expected to conduct themselves like Vulcans repressing their emotions, never leading on when they feel down.

According to Statistics found on FamilyFirstAid.org women are twice as likely to experience major depression than men, yet men are four times more likely to kill themselves.

How does that math add up?

U.S. studies have found that women are 13-21% more likely than men to receive a psychiatric diagnosis. While 72-89% of women who kill themselves sought help at some point, only 41-58% of men even bothered.

The squeaky wheel gets the grease, but men are trained not to make a peep. It’s hard to cry for help when stoicism is so culturally engrained.

If only suicidal men were less inclined to compare themselves to the men around them they might just find help in time.

Closing Thoughts

There are a lot of self help books marketing themselves as one stop solutions for the downtrodden. Many promote using positive self talk to build self esteem. Phrases like:

“I am a talented artist.”

“I am a loving spouse.”

“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.”

Positive affirmations like these are just one part of a nutritious breakfast. We the downtrodden still need to explore lifestyle changes, talk therapy, and yes even medication.

Some of the solutions Alain de Botton offered people with status anxiety were to place less value on status symbols, find comfort within their current station, and manage their expectations for success.

I’d say those solutions could work for people suffering from happiness anxiety. We should place less value on how happy our peers look on social media and realize we’re seeing them through a limited scope. We should find comfort in our natural emotional baseline and surround ourselves with people who accept it, and we should manage our expectations of happiness to include being “just alright.”

The level of good cheer we bring to the party is going to be different than the other guests and that’s okay.

In the same sense that status anxiety is born from the myth of a meritocracy, I believe that happiness anxiety is born from the myth that everyone is capable of attaining ultimate happiness. Not everyone is destined for fame and fortune, and not everyone is destined to live in a constant state of elation.

That’s why when some tells us we should be feeling “Great, awesome, super fantastic!” we should exercise our right to tell them to fuck off.

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