Skip to main content
search
0

Cart

When Ruth Whippman, author of the New York Times Editor’s Choice book “America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks,” was asked why embracing negative emotions is actually a good thing, she said that being able to be emotionally honest is really at the heart of human connection. For MenLiving, this question of how learning to be vulnerable and emotionally honest with oneself – even when it means not burying feelings that may be hard to grapple with – is at the core of our mission. Whippman, who is working on a new book set to be published next year titled, “Raising the Patriarchy: A Feminist Mom Raising Boys in the Age of #metoo and Male Rage,”spoke with MenLiving’s Patrick McKenna about her inspiration behind writing “America the Anxious,” why victim blaming is not the answer to understanding someone’s difficulty in finding happiness, and what being a mother of three boys is like in 2022.

 

Patrick:
My first question is about your book “America the Anxious.” When you began writing it, what were some of your biggest motivators for writing the book?

Ruth Whippman:
It’s interesting looking back. My family had just moved from the UK. We were living in California, and everything felt very alien and strange. One of the things that kept coming up that I saw was this almost obsession with finding happiness. It was this idea that if we just apply enough elbow grease and if we work hard enough, then we can make ourselves happy. To me, it seemed like a back-to-front approach to finding happiness. There was also such a big self-help industry and big emphasis on self-improvement and making ourselves better.

I was fascinated by the whole idea of it. It seemed like people were putting so much effort into finding happiness, but it also felt like a lot of people really didn’t seem that happy. There seemed to be this disconnect. I began to do some basic research, and I found that in these different international happiness studies, Americans rank quite low down the list of countries when it comes to happiness. It’s like people are putting so much emphasis on finding happiness, yet something’s not working. So that was a starting point. My exploration was like, “What’s going wrong? Why are we looking for happiness in the wrong ways? What are the right ways? What actually does lead to a happy life?”

Patrick:

In your TEDx talk that you did a few years back, I know you talked about connection being one of the only consistent contributors to happiness in research. What to you is the difference in someone trying to find connection versus trying to find happiness?

Ruth:
Well, funny enough, I think they’re actually very linked. We have this model in America – and probably in the West more generally – for finding happiness which is all about the self. It’s an individualistic approach, and it’s this quest that we do on our own and is all about things like self-improvement, self-knowledge, self-care, self-everything. But when you look at the research on what brings human beings happiness and wellbeing – and this was the really striking thing that I found when I was researching for the book – it’s all about connection. There are so many studies done with so many different methodologies and in so many ways, yet the only thing that they’re consistent on is that human connection and human relationships are the absolute foundation of happiness and wellbeing.

 

Patrick:
That’s really fascinating. America the Anxious came out in 2016, which seems far longer ago than it actually was. Since then and with everything that’s happened culturally, from your perspective, what has changed in this relentless quest for happiness and what has stayed the same to you?

Ruth Whippman:

2016 was such a cataclysmic time for the country in terms of politics and the division happening because of the Trump presidency. I think we moved into this era which was so divisive and even menacing in the way that we are talking to each other nowadays. As a society, I think we are losing some very basic connections and some very basic facets of wellbeing. A lot of the trends are still there with this very individualistic approach. But I also think we’re seeing some backlash to that too. One of the things that I wrote about in America the Anxious was this idea on looking at the quest for happiness in how that applied to social justice context. There was a lot of this narrative about how happiness is in your control. If you just work harder at being happy, then you will be happy.  This tended to ignore the systemic issues of injustice, racism, sexism, poverty, economic disparity… all of that and their influence on happiness. Since I wrote that book, I feel there’s been more of an acknowledgement of the systemic piece more generally, which is a good thing.

Patrick:
Definitely. Things and issues you can’t will your way out of if you are in that marginalized group.

Ruth Whippman:
Right. There was almost this victim blaming thing in the happiness movement. It’s like “If you’re not happy, it’s your own fault.”  I’d like to mention as well that since 2016, I’ve noticed a trend that people are more willing to talk about mental health and to de-stigmatize mental suffering. I think we are starting to lose our grip on this kind of concept that, “You can will your way out of this.”

Patrick:
I agree. It’s gotten far better with my generation, and I think the generation before is getting better too. Talking about these kinds of feelings and struggles is a big thing for us at MenLiving when trying to create a space for vulnerability. To feel comfortable talking about your mental health candidly is a huge positive step.

Ruth Whippman:
It sounds like great work that you’re doing, and it’s so important. Another piece of this is the conversation around mental health involves the psychological honesty and embrace of all emotions that is necessary for people. When writing America the Anxious – and I think this is still very true – I found there’s this pressure on everybody to be positive all the time and to think positive and this narrative around thinking positive constantly. This can absolutely be a good thing, but I also think it must come with some real emotional honesty around the fact that sometimes things are hard, and that you must embrace negative emotions as well as positive ones. Without a level of honesty and openness about it, we can’t be psychologically healthy.

Patrick:

What are some of the positives that comes from that embracing of negative emotions rather than ignoring?

 

Ruth:

I think it’s almost impossible to be psychologically healthy without doing it. You can’t really experience positive emotions without experiencing negative emotions. You become blind to everything if you don’t. I think there’s something about keeping negative emotions inside which is just utterly toxic. That isn’t to say everybody should be sharing everything all the time in all contexts, but you talked about vulnerability earlier. That ability being able to be emotionally honest is really at the heart of human connection. Human connection, as we know, is so fundamental to happiness and wellbeing, physically and mentally.

 

Patrick:
I couldn’t agree more.  I know you’ve written a lot about parenthood and are a parent as well. What are some truths that you’ve learned that you stick by with parenting?

Ruth Whippman:
I think there are general principles for every parent which apply to every child obviously. I’m certainly not a parenting expert. I’m still very much learning on the fly as I make a million mistakes and get it wrong. But I think there’s a very specific piece about raising boys in the moment that we’re living through, just in the way that they’re socialized generally by our culture. There is this real push to cut them off from their emotions and to stop them from being emotionally honest. I think there’s very little relational and emotional learning for boys in ways that are for girls. As a parent of boys, you really have to correct for that.

 

There’s already been a generation of parents of girls who’ve corrected some of the problems with raising girls where before girls didn’t get exposed to math and science, that they were seen as weak or that they didn’t participate in sports. Girls have been limited in other ways, and I think the generation of parents have really been correcting for that, but I think we’ve seen boy socialization as this default normal in a way.

Patrick:
You’re right. That “show no emotions” type socialization isn’t just harmful to them, but it’s then, in turn, harmful to everyone else in the world.

Ruth Whippman:

Absolutely. You’re right, it’s very harmful to them and I think when those things go unacknowledged, they can at their most extreme curdle into all these kinds of issues like substance abuse, violence. You see school shootings, and the profile of a school shooter is somebody who’s hurting inside, who has mental health problems, who can’t talk about his emotions, who feels rejected, who feels like nobody’s empathizing with him. That turns into something extremely ugly and violent. Rather than having a harsh, punitive approach to boys and how we are pathologizing them, I think that we need to listen to them and hear and empathize with them.

 

This has been a tricky part for me to navigate, both as a parent and in writing this new book I’m working on about boys, because I think there are some really tough things going on for boys and men at the moment. But I think if you focus too much on that, you can get easily sort of stray into this narrative of like, “Men are the real victims here, we are the ones who are oppressed” and this narrative from the right, which I think is also very toxic. There’s got to be a way that we can have this conversation where we can empathize with the problems that patriarchy and masculinity bring to men, while still acknowledging that men have a lot of privilege in our society. Men have caused harm, and they need to be held accountable and acknowledged. So, it’s holding both truths.

Patrick:
Totally. It’s on everyone to help end this socialization of boys that is leading to toxic behavior in men, who then are the ones that are also socializing boys and girls on these constructs that are super harmful to everyone, particularly to young people still learning about life. It’s like this snake eating itself.

Ruth Whippman:
I think that’s a great metaphor for it. The more punitive and the angrier we get, the more we don’t listen to their actual real concerns. Boys can’t become empathetic if people aren’t empathetic to them. That’s how you learn empathy.

Patrick:
That’s a very good point. There was a piece that you did in the New York Times where you talked about the ways media socializes boys and how boys are not taught emotional competency in the books or shows catered to them. In your opinion, what does that do to their brain and emotional development?

Ruth Whippman:
I have three boys, and I remember when I was in the bookstore and I was buying books for them, and I saw this magazine. This magazine was so well coded to being for girls. It had this pink, sparkly cover, and all these like tutorials on friendship bracelets and all this stuff clearly catered to girls. It felt like it would be hard for my boys to engage with. It was really like “Boys, stay away.” This very, very gendered message. But then I read inside this magazine and there was this story, and it was a story about this girl who’d been invited to these two birthday parties at the same time. She didn’t want to let down either friend, so she would run between one birthday party to the other one and pretend that she was going to both of them. It was filled with portrayals of feelings of guilt and a message of, “Am I going to let somebody down?”

 

It was clearly about what we call emotional labor. Every woman I know relates to that feeling of like, “Oh, I’m responsible for everybody else’s feelings. What’s everybody going to think?” I realized that my boys will probably never read a story like that. The kinds of stories that they’re exposed to in their TV and their books are basically battle narratives. There’s a winner, there’s a loser, there’s a hero, there’s a villain, somebody gets killed and somebody triumphs. That’s the story that they learn. I think girls of their same age are hearing these stories which are all about friendships and relationships and people with complex emotional needs. And it’s not that one is better than the other, but if you are fed entirely on a diet of good and evil where one hero triumphs over everybody or vehicles and bulldozers – which is the other sort of thing that boys get naturally – I think you’re just not learning all this social and emotional and relational stuff that’s so important.

 

Patrick:

That’s so real. Sometimes it feels like all books that seem to be intended for younger boys are exclusively friends that are cranes and dump trucks without anything more complex than an argument about sharing.

 

Ruth:

 

Right? By the time these girls get to their teenage years, there’s all these studies that show that girls feel more that they’re responsible for everybody else’s emotions, which isn’t fair on girls at all. And it’s not fair on women. As a woman in this world, I’m so familiar with this dynamic that it’s my responsibility to write the thank you notes, remember everybody’s birthday, and notice how everybody’s feeling. But I also think boys and men suffer from this too because those things are really at the heart of human connection. Understanding emotions and being aware of other people’s emotions and prioritizing them is hugely important.  If that has never been a part of your emotional landscape, you just don’t learn those skills. Then I think often their friendships are just not as deep. They’re not as intimate, and that is something that men really lose out.

Patrick:
With all this stuff you’ve learned from this research and your life as a parent, what are some ways you think people as parents can do better for their boys?

Ruth Whippman:
I think its so important to be exposing boys to these different kinds of stories and narratives and not be thinking stories of friendship are for girls and competition is for boys. Being mindful about how in the same way that we need to make a big effort to expose girls to stories where the woman is strong in the adventure, I wish there were more stories where the boy was nurturing and emotional and had good friendships. There were very few of those. I think it’s also about listening to their emotions and making space for them. One of the things that research shows a lot is when boys have strong emotions, they tend to come out in this what they call “externalizing behavior.” Its what we think of as bad behavior, whereas girls tend to kind of internalize it and take it upon themselves. So boys often get into this cycle where they have these strong emotions, it comes out in this externalizing bad behavior and then they get punished. Then they feel more isolated and a lack of connection, so they act out even more and it just becomes this complete cycle.

 

This is tricky for me with my kids because it might come out as anger rather than as tears or whatever. But to see the emotion below it and try to connect as much as possible and not push the kid away with sort of harsh punishment and discipline is important. This has been a learning curve for me. I grew up in England; discipline in general was very strict and there was not so much room for making space for difficult emotions. It’s something I’ve had to learn on the job, but I think that’s critical. Making space for emotions, lack of harsh punishment, connection and prioritizing relationships with your children are all huge ones.

 

You can learn more about Ruth Whippman and read more of her work here.

One Comment

  • Mike Rosen says:

    Great interview Patrick! Seems like her work and her experiences in parenting align closely..makes me want to pick up her book..

Leave a Reply

Close Menu
X
X