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 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 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 way Americans pursue happiness is by physically moving, but that means never having firm roots 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 you want to share your happiest place/s?

Saturday, September 06, 2008

"Firaaq" a movie by Nandita Das

I'm back, thank you, everyone, for the holiday wishes, we had a great time and there are pictures on FB should you wish to view them. But now, on to the Toronto International Film Festival and the brilliant film I saw yesterday titled "FIRAAQ"

Firaaq has been directed by Nandita Das, prominent Indian actor who has appeared in such films as Deepa Mehta's Fire (96) and Earth (98). Firaaq (08) is her feature writing and directing debut.

Here's a small introduction to the movie from the TIFF site

Onscreen, Nandita Das has proven herself the most soulful of actors, capable of combining emotional expressiveness with unshakable integrity. Off screen, she has maintained an ongoing commitment to social justice in India. Das brings these two worlds together in her feature debut, telling the story of one of India's great wounds with both sincerity and passion.

Conflict between Hindus and Muslims continues to flare into violence in India, and is often stoked by political interests. Firaaq begins in 2002 in the state of Gujarat, where three thousand Muslims died in communal riots. In an early scene of almost Shakespearean gravity, two Muslim men dig a mass grave for the victims. From there, the story jumps forward one month, away from the direct physical effects of the conflict to the more amorphous – but increasingly persistent – inner discord.

When Hanif and Muneera return to the modest home they had fled during the violence, they find it ransacked. With their lives shattered not simply by vandalism but by betrayal from their neighbours, Hanif seeks revenge. Elsewhere, middle-class Hindus Sanjay and Arati were untouched by the hostilities, but are met with new moral challenges. Serene older musician Khan Saheb (Naseeruddin Shah) has tried to transcend religious differences, but as a Muslim living in a Hindu neighbourhood, he now finds this stance more complicated. At the same time, Anu and Sameer, an intermarried Hindu-Muslim couple, finally face the tensions they have long suppressed.

Das interweaves these stories over one twenty-four-hour period, as characters of both faiths and from many levels of society grapple with the new, post-violence reality. Through it all, a young boy named Mohsin embarks on an urban odyssey from his refugee camp towards a better future, wherever he might find it.

Firaaq is an Urdu word that means both separation and quest. Like this courageous and essential debut film, the word acknowledges divisions while pointing a way forward to hope.

My thoughts: There were several things I loved about Firaaq. One, neither the Muslims nor the Hindus were made out to be the villains of this sorry affair, rather, the movie seems to place the onus squarely on the shoulders of the police and the state of Gujarat and I, for one, am inclined to agree with that determination. Also, the movie poignantly explores through the character Samir (ably played by Sanjay Suri) what it might feel like to be a Muslim in India. Is it right for one to have to live in fear just because of one's name, one's religion? It also explores how fear eats at you, eats into your relationships, your self-worth and changes the kind of person you were meant to be. No one should have to pay for the sins of another, but as a society isn't that what we're doing when we paint an entire community with the same brush? There can never be peace or justice for as long as we keep doing that. I think this movie forces us to examine our racial prejudices, hopefully it will make us see people as individuals and not tag them based on their names, castes or religion.