Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner


As a foreign correspondent for NPR, Eric Weiner spent more than 10 years reporting on problems overseas, such as suicide bombings in Iraq and student suicides in Tokyo. A little tired of all the unhappiness he saw around him he became intrigued with finding the places in the world where people are reportedly the happiest — and learning why.

In The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World he plots a map of happiness (for lack of a better description) and then travels to some of the happiest countries in the world to find out why their people are happy.

What I have done here is to summarize what came out of his travels to various places and what Weiner thinks could be factors in making the people of those countries so happy(or unhappy). This is not a review, just notes that I would like to come back and refer to at a later date.

For instance, in Switzerland, there could be several factors - moderation for one. The Swiss neither get euphoric with joy nor do they get debilitatingly depressed over things...where emotions are concerned they seem to know how to strike a happy balance. Also, efficiency could be another measure for happiness...everything in Switzerland runs on time and to perfection. The Swiss vote a lot,heck, they vote on everything with the average Swiss voting atleast 6-7 times a year...so could democracy or having a say in your life be the answer to happiness? And how about the chocolate? The Swiss are known for their chocolate and in turn chocolate is known for its feelgood chemicals, so do the rest of us need more chocolate to be happy? Finally, the Swiss don't believe in flaunting their good fortune. If they have money, you'll never know because it's not like them to buy fancy cars or eat in fancy restaurants like the rich and famous do elsewhere. Perhaps they believe that envy is the enemy of happiness? Switzerland is truly an interesting case because for a country where you cannot flush the latrine after 10:00pm or laugh out loud after midnight, in other words, a country with so many rules, it is a surprisingly happy country.

If a government decides that a country's progress should be measured by its Gross national Happiness rather than its GDP, I would surmise that the government is reasonably assured that its citizens are happy and it would be right because Bhutan, a tiny mountainous country to the north of Nepal was rated as one of the happiest countries in the world. Why? It could be their belief in reincarnation which translates into "having a second shot at living life" or it could be their complete single-minded devotion to their king (is there a lesson for us here, should we be putting more faith in our government?) or is it because there are more monks than military personnel in Bhutan and the few military personnel that exist are in the distillery business! Also, the Bhutanese excel at the art of compromise or knowing their limitations...are we less happy because we believe we can have the sky if we want to? Finally, the Bhutanese don't spend their time reflecting...they don't ask themselves questions like "Am I happy" or "What would it take to make me happy", they just go about their day and are happy. The Americans, on the other hand, spend so much time worrying about what makes them happy that they seem to have missed the Happiness Boat.

Now, for everyone that thinks money buys happiness let's examine the lives of the Qataris from the oil-rich nation of Qatar. Sure, the Qataris appear to have everything that money can buy...fancy cars, posh malls, opulent hotels, the best in education. As if that isn't enough, they don't have to pay taxes, they have free medical benefits and college students get a stipend while they study!!! Can you really have it so good and NOT be happy? Sure you can. Studies have shown that one of the main factors for happiness is your relationships, but, Qataris are awfully isolated, living in their palatial houses behind high walls rarely mixing with anyone outside of their tribe, leave alone someone from a different nationality! In other words, they are bereft of meaningful social relationships. Also, when a country grows as fast as Qatar has, putting up 100's of new buildings every year while bulldozing its past, is it possible for its citizens to feel rootless and can being rootless or less grounded put a damper on being happy? Sure it can! Finally, and probably most important, the Qataris have no goals to achieve, because no matter how successful or rich they become in life, they remain only as small or as big as their place in their tribe.

And then, there's Iceland where darkness reigns supreme for 6 months of the year and yet its people are supposed to be some of the happiest in the world. Weiner visited the country in winter and concluded that any or all of the following contribute to the Icelanders being so happy: A)Creativity : Everyone's a poet in Iceland, everyone's a dreamer and if you believe that dreams are the laboratories of reality then the Icelanders must have the ability to dream (thus creating) happy things for themselves. B) Great sense of community: The Icelandic people truly enjoy helping each other to do well or to be successful. All knowledge is shared and there is no envy, just a collective joy in seeing other Icelanders doing well. C) Failure is not looked down upon. As a result you will find a lot more people trying their hand at something because they don't fear failure. D) Icelanders wear many hats. In other words, unlike in North America, they do not restrict themselves to specializing in just one particular field. This means they are able to switch career paths as often as they desire. E) Icelanders are fiercely patriotic (they do not indulge in jingoism however) about their country and extremely proud of their language . How does being proud of one's language make you happy, I hear you ask...well, if you love your language you'll use it to express yourself and all your moods...and expression is an outlet of both joy and sorrow...

According to the World Database of Happiness, maintained by the godfather of happiness research, Ruut Veenhoven, Moldava is at the very bottom of the happiness scale. No doubt it is a poor country, but if poverty were the only factor to unhappiness then we could Sub-Saharan countries to be much unhappier than Moldova, but that is not the case. Moldovans are very unhappy...in part because they are poor, but also because they are constantly comparing themselves with other successful European countries in the neighborhood, also, Moldovians were once an integral part of a thriving empire (Soviet) but after its independence it is simply a tiny, poor independent country struggling to stay afloat. That just shoots down the theory that political scientists have been spouting for years, people living under democracies are happier than those living under any other form of government. Rather, the truth seems to be this: It's not that democracy makes people happy but rather that happy people are much more likely to establish a democracy. Also,the Moldovans do not have a strong sense of identity. In Russia they are referred to as Romanians and in Romania they are thought of as Russians.

Want a new mantra? Try, "mai pen lai", Thai for "never mind. Not the "never mind" that we in the west often use angrily as in, "Oh, never mind, I'll do it myself" , but a "drop it, it doesn't matter, let's not sweat the small stuff" kind of "never mind". The "mai pen lai" attititude has its drawbacks no doubt - it is the perfect excuse for incompetence or laziness - but it is also a very wise attitude to have when we find ourselves clinging to something that simply hampers our progress. The other great quality the Thais have going for them is that they refuse to overthink anything. Unlike us, the over-examined life does not interest them. They are equally accepting of both joy and sorrow in their lives and never question why they have one or the other. Would we perhaps be more happy if we resisted less and accepted more?

Great Britain has always been known as the nation with the stiff upper lip. As some Brits like to say, they are not in the business of happiness. For the British, happiness is a transatlantic (read American) import...silly, infantile drivel. So just because the British prefer to moan rather than smile or grumble rather than rejoice, does that make them less happy? Au contraire! While the Brits may not rate very high on the happiness scale the author found that they were latently happy and didn't feel under any compulsion to wear their happiness on their sleeves as we are prone to do.

Indians (especially the Hindus) are firm believers that one is a child of destiny. When unhappiness comes their way, they accept it as something that they have no control over. You may call that fatalistic, but it also brings acceptance and thus peace. Statistically, the poorest countries in the world are also the least happy and that is certainly true of India who ranks in the lower end of the Happiness Sprecturm. However, in a survery conducted by happiness researcher Robert Biswas-Diener, the destitute of Calcutta city were far happier than the homeless people in the State of California even though the Californian homeless had access to better food, clothing, shelter etc. Biswas-Diener attributed the surprising result to the Indians having strong social ties. Wiener sums it up this way...No one is really homeless in India. Houseless perhaps, but not homeless. So, can we conclude that strong family and social ties are a precursor to happiness?

So how do the Americans compare with the rest? Well, America's place on the happiness spectrum is not as high as you might think. Despite its superpower status it is the world's 23rd happiest nation behind countries such as Costa Rica, Malta and Malaysia. Perhaps it's safe to say that the United States is not as happy as it is wealthy? Some of the reasons for that unhappiness could be the long commute that many Americans have to endure (commuting has been found to be detrimental to one's happiness), also, American work longer hours than virtually any other people in the world. America is a very restless nation...one way Americans pursue happiness is by physically moving, but that means never having firm roots anywhere..it also means never fully committing which could be a dangerous thing, because, as the author says, we can't love a place or a person, if we always have one foot out the door.

I have to say I really quite enjoyed this book. It reads like a travelogue and a social commentary, providing insights along the way that really do shatter your previously held notions of what happiness is. The author's writing style is witty and upbeat, so, yes, I think I can say this book did make me happier, hope it will do the same for you! :) It also makes you think of some of the happiest places you've been in...for me it is a book store or at an airport getting ready to go on a trip...do you want to share your happiest place/s?


26 comments:

Sanjay said...

Thank you Lotus for your wonderful "not a review". Your post crystallized the essence of this book very well. It truly is a handy reference to understanding what makes people in certain nations happier that others.

How much of this book's effort is due to the perhaps American penchant of always looking for something better?

Also out of curiosity, what is the index that Weiner uses to call a country the happiest, more happy or less happy? Is there a measure(s) of this?

I do not know as much about Iceland, but one American trait that is similar to those of ppl from Iceland is their ability to reinvent or start over. I am not sure how it compares to wearing many hats.

While I understand the premise of this book, and undoubtedly the author has done his research, but were you at any time worried that he was painting a entire nation of people with one broad brush? For human nature and emotions are complex and is it easy to have everyone in a country at one range or number that designates happiness?
I do agree with you that strong social and family ties do help with feeling better.
I don't think Americans are unhappy because they are wealthy. Americans currently carry more personal debt than ever before, health care is not a right, and yes they work very hard. Moving does not essentially equate with restlessness perhaps? I say this as if one has to move for better prospects, better job within the country, then it cannot be thought be restlessness right?

I agree that this book is great social commentary and thank you for giving us a synopsis of it and your thoughts on it as well.

To answer your question about ones happiest places. I think for me a happy place is wherever you feel happy, I don't have a predefined idea of a place that makes me happy. In other words it is somewhat in our hands no?

Thank you for an entertaining and educative post, I loved reading it.

Radha said...

very interesting & fascinating hypothesis! I guess we know there is a correlation between happiness & so many other factors like culture, religion, etc. Just never thought about it like that!

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Sanjay!

Thank you for your comment! The "pursuit" of happiness seems to be the goal of all Americans, indeed it is even written into the constitution and a self-help industry has been built around helping us acquire that elusive happiness...but is it helping or hurting? Would we be happier if we stopped trying to find it and just lived life?

I don't believe there can be a measure for happiness. What Weiner did was to consult the World Database of Happiness (yes, it exists!) in the Netherlands. It has, under one roof, the sum of human knowledge about what makes us happy and what does not. It also has a list of countries listed in the order of most happy to least happy. What criterion they used has not been explained but perhaps you can read about it here?

http://worlddatabaseofhappiness.eur.nl/trendnat/framepage.htm




While I understand the premise of this book, and undoubtedly the author has done his research, but were you at any time worried that he was painting a entire nation of people with one broad brush? For human nature and emotions are complex and is it easy to have everyone in a country at one range or number that designates happiness?


Oh, absolutely, but when writing a book like this it is impossible not to do that. We have to bear in mind that for every rule there are exceptions. Not everybody is unhappy in Moldova, so also, not everyone is a writer in Iceland and I am sure there are some Swiss that border on being boisterous...lol


I do agree with you that strong social and family ties do help with feeling better.
I don't think Americans are unhappy because they are wealthy. Americans currently carry more personal debt than ever before, health care is not a right, and yes they work very hard. Moving does not essentially equate with restlessness perhaps? I say this as if one has to move for better prospects, better job within the country, then it cannot be thought be restlessness right?


You make some good points. I guess what the author meant by restlessness is that if something is not going well for an American he doesn't dig in his heels and try to make it work, he moves location hoping that the move will bring him the happiness (better life) he seeks. Perhaps if we just learned to wait the bad times out, instead of running away, things might get better on their own?


To answer your question about ones happiest places. I think for me a happy place is wherever you feel happy, I don't have a predefined idea of a place that makes me happy. In other words it is somewhat in our hands no?

I guess what you are saying is we create our own happiness? So happiness is wherever we choose it to be?

Thank you for an entertaining and educative post, I loved reading it.

Thank you so much for your thoughts Sanjay! Here's wishing you a wonderful start to your week!

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Radha!

Yes, it is kinda sobering to realize that one's geography could shape one's happiness! You know, when he spoke about poverty and happiness, I couldn't help but think of Cambodia. The people there were so poor and yet, they seemed inherently happy...

The Pixy Princess said...

What an amazing idea for a book! As a consummate traveler, and a pseudo sociologist/anthropologist I'm completely intrigued.

Sanjay said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sanjay said...

Hi Lotus! Thank you so much for taking the time to pen a response.

Yes the pursuit of happiness is written in to the constitution, but it could mean anything. I think it is one of those things that even if not written in the constitution is something every human being desires at some level no?
I think the self-help industry is a much more recent phenomenon and though some might disagree, if it likely helps some people. I suppose different things work for different people.

Thank you for the link to the world database of happiness. Trust academia to come up with a study of something and throw a whole lot of statistical analysis. I did look at some of the data and they do have a lot of stats and formulae. But this sentence on their main page says a lot no? Continuous register of scientific research on subjective appreciation of life. I noticed the word "subjective" in particular.

. I guess what the author meant by restlessness is that if something is not going well for an American he doesn't dig in his heels and try to make it work, he moves location hoping that the move will bring him the happiness (better life) he seeks. Perhaps if we just learned to wait the bad times out, instead of running away, things might get better on their own?

I am not sure I agree sorry. :-) I don't think things will just get better if one waits them out, there also has to be an effort to get out of an unhappy situation. And don't we all try to do that? As immigrants we all moved locations in the quest for a better life, as do Americans within their own nation.

I guess what you are saying is we create our own happiness? So happiness is wherever we choose it to be?

To an extent yes, as the world database on happiness says it is rather subjective no?

I understand why bookstores are the happiest of places for you.
Aren't both book stores and airports also places that are transitory in nature in that people are always passing thru?

Thank you for the best wishes for the week, I hope you are having a good start to your week too.

hellomelissa said...

i think the travel bug just bit me while reading this review!

some people in some places have simply figured out that happiness is what you create, not simply what comes to you as you wait.

Lotus Reads said...

@pixy princess ~ Hello twin :) Travel and culture are two of my favorite interests too...you'll enjoy this book!

Lotus Reads said...

Hey Sanjay!

As usual I welcome your comments, tks!

Yes the pursuit of happiness is written in to the constitution, but it could mean anything. I think it is one of those things that even if not written in the constitution is something every human being desires at some level no?
I think the self-help industry is a much more recent phenomenon and though some might disagree, if it likely helps some people. I suppose different things work for different people.


Sure! Every human being desires happiness, but there are some of us that pursue it more than others...guess what I am trying to say here is that we're so busy investing energy chasing it that maybe we're just too tired to notice it when it arrives? I am not denying that self-help books have probably helped a lot of people, but do we really need a 12-point system to procure happiness?

Thank you for the link to the world database of happiness. Trust academia to come up with a study of something and throw a whole lot of statistical analysis. I did look at some of the data and they do have a lot of stats and formulae. But this sentence on their main page says a lot no? Continuous register of scientific research on subjective appreciation of life. I noticed the word "subjective" in particular.

Yes, true, you are an observant fella! :) I don't think the author took the study real seriously, he just used it as a guide to pick and choose countries he wanted to visit, after all, he had to start somewhere and if your goal is to visit some of the happiest and unhappiest countries what better place to start, right? It was only after interviewing the local people and living in the country for a while that he made his own assumptions on what he thought was their state of happiness.


I am not sure I agree sorry. :-) I don't think things will just get better if one waits them out, there also has to be an effort to get out of an unhappy situation. And don't we all try to do that? As immigrants we all moved locations in the quest for a better life, as do Americans within their own nation.

Again, I think he was simply lamenting the lack of commitment. Some of us find it far too easy to run away rather than to stay back and try to get to the underlying cause of our unhappiness.

I guess what you are saying is we create our own happiness? So happiness is wherever we choose it to be?

To an extent yes, as the world database on happiness says it is rather subjective no?


Agreed. :)

I understand why bookstores are the happiest of places for you.
Aren't both book stores and airports also places that are transitory in nature in that people are always passing thru?


True, airports have transitory populations but the mood is more or less the same. Being an avid people watcher (especially people of different ethnicities) I love noting the wealth of cultures under one roof...to hear different languages being spoken all around me is music to my wannabe-anthropologist ears!

Take care buddy and talk to you soon!

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Melissa!

I felt the same way you did..I wanted to pack a suitcase and jump on the next plane to anywhere!

I simply think happiness is a habit. The more you practice being happy the better you get at it.

Sanjay said...

Thanks buddy for the response.
.guess what I am trying to say here is that we're so busy investing energy chasing it that maybe we're just too tired to notice it when it arrives? I am not denying that self-help books have probably helped a lot of people, but do we really need a 12-point system to procure happiness?

I see what you are saying, and some people do well with a 12 point system.

Thank you for explaining how the author used the database of world happiness to decide what countries to visit.

I agree with you that airports are indeed interesting places to people watch.

Take care and I am looking forward to your next post. No pressure though. :-) Just teasing!

sandhya said...

Thanks for such a detailed summary and overview of the book. It brings to mind a quote from Natalie Goldberg that I recently came across: “I feel very rich when I have time to write and very poor when I get a regular paycheck and no time to work at my real work.” Me thinks this can be easily adapted to reflect the state of life in these United States - "I feel very rich when I have time to live and very poor when I get a regular paycheck and no time to enjoy my life" - a trap that I see many many people fall into.

Ted said...

Great post. You know, this is just the kind of stuff I love, precisely because happiness is such a tricky thing to measure, but we know it when we experience it (or do we?). I will have to read this one.

Prithi Shetty said...

I loved your post ! I want to share it with so many I know. It is my personal belief too that "Too much analysis leads to paralysis".

Lotus Reads said...

@Sandhya ~ Thank you for reading through my notes and for leaving us such an apt thought...what is the point of money and everything else we love to accumulate if we have no time to enjoy it, right?

Lotus Reads said...

@Ted ~ Exactly,it's one of those intangible things. Do we know happiness when we experience it? Good question. I'd like to think we do. Are we better at identifying a happy experience after we've had a few miserable ones? Is there a lesson in contrasts? So many thoughts to ponder here.

Lotus Reads said...

@Prithi ~ That's a great way to sum it up! Personally, I am not given to too much introspection, but almost all the self-help books I come across tell me I should. I used to think there was something wrong with me for not wanting to introspect, GOB has helped me realize it is a cultural preference. You'll enjoy the book, try to get your hands on it if you can.

Bybee said...

I'd love to read this book.

South Korea doesn't strike me as a particularly happy country. too competitive

Lorri said...

What an excellent review! I have this book on my stack of to-reads.

Booklogged said...

Wonderful review, Lotus. I want to read this book.

A Reader from India said...

Lotus,

That was a cool review of what sounds like a must-read book (The kind of books I have come to associate your blog with) I loved the idea of Iceland being a really happy country, full of poets and dreamers.

I have put it on my MBTR (Must TBR) list.

My happiest places are almost the same as yours - large, quiet libraries, bookstores, Airports. The world's happiest place to me would be inside a really good book!

:-)

Lotus Reads said...

@Bybee ~ Oh definitely...we know some South Korean students here and man, all they ever do is study and enroll in study-related extra curricular activities like "mental math" etc. One has to admire the study ethic...I keep telling my kids to ape them a little. However, in a place like Canada which is not that competitive, I wonder how long this study and work ethic will last?

Lotus Reads said...

@Lorri ~ Welcome and thank you! Sorry that it took me so long to respond to your comment!

@Booklogged ~ Thank you, thank you my dear friend and reader. How have you been? I have been so neglectful as a correspondent...need to change all that. Love to the both of you. When is your next trip here? Soon, I hope!

Lotus Reads said...

@A Reader~ Hello! I have missed you! How have you been? I, too, love the idea of Iceland being filled with poets and writers. I think Iceland was the author's favorite place...I don't remember if he actually came right out and said it, but it seemed to me he was enamored and intrigued with Iceland. He also love Bhutan, especially the people.

I agree with you...no better place than inside a good book! :)

Lan said...

Thank you Lotus for your post^^ I start reading the book ,but I don't like it.Maybe just because I have read the Netherlands. After reading your post, I'm going to finish it soon.By the way, why didn't you mention anything about Netherlands?