Out From The Shadows


“Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” … so what exactly does the Declaration of Independence mean by happiness? And why’s it so vital that it’s right up there next to freedom and, well, being?

When Thomas Jefferson gathered those gentlemen together in Philadelphia in 1775 and decided that the United States was to be built on happiness, he was quick to make sure that, when his text was published the following year, “the pursuit” was as important as the endpoint. In short, there isn’t a straightforward “happy goal”, but everyone’s got the right to go and look for their own version of it.

Unfortunately, though, American life has become somewhat obsessed over the centuries with that broad-grinned, teeth-whitened brand of happiness sold via TV commercials and sitcom families.

And because it’s easy to sell a single-brand version of happiness, it becomes easier to feel how you might have fallen short.

Social Anxiety is, in many ways, the reaction to this reinforced misinterpretation of Jefferson’s “pursuit of happiness” because it’s the fear of unattainable goals and the perception that others can see you floundering towards them.

And precisely because social anxiety creates a feeling that you’re missing out on “happiness” rather than allowing you the freedom to undertake your own “pursuit”, it tends to become an insular, introspective disorder. Certainly not one which is discussed at large or part of the general social conversation.

But that’s all starting to change.

More and more, social anxiety is a phrase which is creeping into our media and spreading across our social media. (Perhaps, social media is actually helping things here by showing us the wide variety of “pursuits” which go to make up the many faces of “happiness”.)

In one of her regular columns for The New York Times titled “The Anxious Americans”, Stanford University professor of anthropology Tanya Marie Luhrmann investigates a little of what makes people in the US – where nearly one in five has an anxiety disorder – spend more than $2 billion on anti-anxiety medications a year.

Her major point is that the American mind is a place we think of “as an interior place that demands careful, constant attention” and that “To succeed and be happy, we are taught, we need to know what we feel”.

She points out that in other parts of the world, the attention is more on the physical than the psychological symptoms of illness – examples include research in China in 1980 which showed people meeting a diagnosis for depression sought care because of chronic pain rather than sadness, and her own experience in India of the family of a schizophrenic woman being mostly concerned that she shouted a lot rather than dwelling on the fact she heard voices.

But her most striking example is the new Disney-Pixar movie Inside Out which tells the story of the five emotions (fear, joy, sadness, disgust and anger) inside a young girl’s head and how – once they’ve been characterised into creatures looking like something from Monsters Inc – they control the young girl’s responses to moving to a new home town.


Luhrmann’s point of view is that “there is something deeply cultural about the way this mind is imagined” which comes with consequences. And “our high anxiety … is probably one of the consequences”.

By challenging the traditional approach to emotions – in mainstream media, no less – Luhrmann opens the door to a new appreciation of social anxiety and a greater understanding of its causes.

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