Interested in Volunteering Abroad?

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Here are a few resources to help you explore the growing field of Voluntourism.  For those looking for a way to give back while diving deeper into other cultures.


Go Overseas — clearinghouse with articles, program listings and participant reviews, organized by destinations and types of activities.

Transitions Abroad – clearinghouse with articles, programs organized by country and region and participant reviews. — information for travelers on program selection, trip preparation and how to process your experience during and after your service abroad.


A Broader View Volunteers – spring break journeys, gap year trips, humanitarian mission trip and Peace Corps alternative programs.

Cross Cultural Solutions – “CCS practically invented short-term international volunteering. Inspired by the Peace Corps and filling a need not addressed by most NGOs, Steve Rosenthal and his team have made international volunteering a valuable service to vulnerable communities and a life-altering experience for aspiring difference-makers. CCS was the right partner for CARE and continues as the standard bearer of international volunteering.” – Marilyn Grist, Former Executive Vice-President of External Relations at CARE and CEO at Help Age USA.  For adults, high schoolers, families, gap year, groups to work with infants, children, elderly, people with disabilities, those affected by HIV/AIDS.

Earth Watch – “On an Earthwatch Expedition, you’ll help find solutions to some of today’s most pressing environmental challenges. Join respected scientists in the field where they’re investigating critical environmental issues. Our volunteers make hands-on contributions to research while experiencing the cultural and natural wonders of places around the globe. Travel the world while saving the planet.”

Global Volunteers – “Working hand-in-hand with local people since 1984, Global Volunteers is a long-standing NGO leader in special Consultative Status with the United Nations, and in partnership with UNICEF and the Food and Agriculture Organization.”

GVI – UK based; projects include construction, work with kids, marine conservation, sports, teaching, wildlife, animal care, healthcare.

i-to-i – “We’ve been sending eager volunteers to contribute within underprivileged communities in Africa, Asia, Australasia and Latin America for 20 years. We are the original volunteer travel company and we’re all passionate travellers who have seen the world and done our bit. 50,000 volunteers have made a difference abroad with i-to-i, and now it’s your turn!”  Projects including construction, community development, teaching, conservation, work with children, wildlife, and sports.

Me to We – “Each Me to We trip takes place in a developing community where our charity partner, Free The Children, works. And, half of our profits are donated to Free The Children—helping you make an even bigger impact on the place you visit.”

Raleigh International — UK-based; focused on sustainable development. “We operate in partnership with communities, non-governmental organisations and governments. With permanent field offices in Borneo, Costa Rica, India, Nicaragua and Tanzania, we work at grassroots level using first-hand knowledge and local insight. Our volunteers live and work alongside communities and experience for themselves how sustainable development can transform our world for the better.”

United Planet – “The underlying principle of our programs is the concept of Relational Diplomacy – recognizing that the relationship between people of diverse backgrounds is the basic building block for uniting the world. United Planet’s innovative programs are designed to expose our common human bonds, generate respect and appreciation for our cultural, racial, and religious diversity, and enrich lives of our neighbors worldwide.”

Travellers Worldwide – “Our volunteer projects abroad suit everyone, from 16/17 year-old gappers to Career Breakers and Grown Up Gappers in their 20s, 30s, 40s or 50s, as well as for the more mature volunteers who have retired but have lots of experience and energy to give to society. Travellers volunteers fulfil a wide variety of roles, including that of teacher, coach, carer, nurse, researcher, builder and conservationist, and so on.”

Volunteers for Peace – “VFP works with large network organizations worldwide to promote International Voluntary Service (IVS) projects, historically known as ‘workcamps’. Through our international alliances, we exchange over a thousand volunteers each year who work together to help communities meet local needs and some of the goals of the United Nation’s Millennium Declaration.”

World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms – “Usually you live with your host and are expected to join in and cooperate with the day to day activities. In most countries the exchange is based on 4-6 hours help-fair exchange for a full day’s food and accommodation. You may be asked to help with a variety of tasks like sowing seed, making compost, gardening, planting, cutting wood, weeding, harvesting, packing, milking, feeding, fencing, making mud-bricks, wine making, cheese making and bread making. The length of your stay at the farm is negotiated directly between you and your host. Most WWOOF visits are between one and two weeks, though some may be as short as two or three days or as long as six months.”


Adventures Cross-Country – for middle school through high school students; service and gap semester programs.

Bold Earth — teen service programs; “Since 1976, Bold Earth Teen Adventures has focused on leadership and teamwork in a supportive environment which has included 14,000+ teenagers on six continents.”

Putney Student Travel – for middle school through high school students; “Since the early 1990’s, Putney’s Community Service projects have sown seeds for progress throughout small communities in Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia, Africa, and Oceania.”

Rustic Pathways — service projects and gap semester programs for high school students focusing on education, infrastructure, environment, community health and economic development.  My son has participated in their programs in Tanzania, Peru, India and Australia.





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What Happened to Egypt’s Revolution?

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The Square explains the aftermath of the 2011 Egyptian uprising that ousted Mubarak, only to be followed by the limited choice between — and alternating rule by — the military and the Muslim Brotherhood.  It is the story of the original revolutionaries who persevere in their fight for social justice, democracy and human rights.

One cast member, Ahmed, describes last year’s protests against Mohamed Morsi:

Millions and millions of people took to the streets to tell him “leave”. Millions more than those who protested against Mubarak protested against Morsi.  This is the revolution’s achievement because our revolution’s weapon is our voice. For it to sound in every home. If you ask me, “What is the revolution’s biggest victory?”  It’s that kids today play a game called “Protest,” where some kids are playing the revolutionaries and others play Police or army or Muslim Brothers.

Nominated for a 2014 Oscar for Documentary Feature, The Square is a Netflix Originals production.


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Foreign Films and Resources

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Academy Award Winners and Nominees for Best Foreign Language Film – a Wikipedia list 1947 to present — delivered by Netflix; search by country here

Intercultural Film Database – allows for search by culture, actor, director, even cultural dimension for those interested in intercultural communication

Acclaimed Films – recent films, mostly New York Times picks

IFC Films — independent film distributor; the archive allows you to search films by country

Documentary Educational Resources – Since 1968, promoting documentary film and media for learning about the people and cultures of the world.

Visionaire Media – “dedicated to creating issue driven content in the Public Diplomacy arena that promotes cross cultural dialogue and mutual understanding”;  “On the Road in America” was excellent — a twelve part documentary-reality series about four young Arabs from the Middle East traveling across America with an American film crew.

Layalina Productions - produces award-winning films and television series that bridge the divide between the Arab world and the United States.


Blood Brother — “Rocky Braat, a young man from a fractured family and a troubled past, went traveling through India without a plan. Then he met a group of HIV positive children living in an orphanage — a meeting that changed everything for him.”  My thoughts here.

The Finland Phenomenon – “Finland’s education system has consistently ranked among the best in the world for more than a decade. The puzzle is, why Finland? Documentary filmmaker, Bob Compton, along with Harvard researcher, Dr. Tony Wagner, decided to find out.”

Strangers No More – “In the heart of Tel Aviv, there is an exceptional school where children from forty-eight different countries and diverse backgrounds come together to learn.”

Crossing Borders — “a feature documentary that brings together four Moroccan and four American university students on a week-long journey through Morocco, a journey of dialogue and of understanding. With group travels and frank discussions, the students confront the complex implications of the supposed ‘clash of civilizations’ between Islam and the West.”

Exit Through the Gift Shop – “This is the inside story of Street Art – a brutal and revealing account of what happens when fame, money and vandalism collide.”

Life in a Day – “A documentary shot by film-makers all over the world that serves as a time capsule to show future generations what it was like to be alive on the twenty-fourth of July, 2010.”

Babies – “simultaneously follows four babies around the world – from birth to first steps. Babies joyfully captures on film the earliest stages of the journey of humanity that are at once unique and universal to us all.”

The Square — “The Egyptian Revolution has been an ongoing rollercoaster over the past two and a half years…The Square is an immersive experience, transporting the viewer deeply into the intense emotional drama and personal stories behind the news. It is the inspirational story of young people claiming their rights, struggling through multiple forces, in the fight to create a society of conscience.”  My take here.

50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus — “a dramatic, previously untold story of Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus, a Jewish couple from Philadelphia who followed their conscience, traveling to Nazi-controlled Vienna in spring 1939 to save a group of children.”


A Separation (Iran)
After the Wedding (Denmark)
Amreeka (France)
Another Year (UK)
Before Sunrise; Before Sunset; Before Midnight (US and Germany)
Biutiful (Mexico)
Billy Elliott (UK)
Blue Valentine (Australia)
Cairo Time (Canada – set in Cairo)
Everyone Else (Germany)
Five Broken Cameras (France; Palestine)
I Am Love (Italy)
Il Postino (Italy)
In a Better World (Denmark)
Incendies (Canada; Middle East)
Jiro Dreams of Sushi (Denmark; Japan)
L’Auberge Espagnole (France; Spain)
Leaving (France)
Live-In Maid (Argentina)
Lemon Tree (Israel)
Man on Wire (UK)
Moscow, Belgium (Belgium)
Motorcycle Diaries (US; Latin America)
Seraphine (France)
Slumdog Millionaire (India)
Summer Hours (France)
The Edge of Heaven (Germany)
The Gatekeepers (Israel)
The Lives of Others (Germany)
The Queen and I (Iran)
The Trip (UK)


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Finding Meaning and Connection in India

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Blood Brother is a powerful documentary about a young American, adrift at home, who travels to India and finds purpose and love at an orphanage for children with H.I.V.  The story and the cinematography are beautiful.

I was reminded that:

  • children who have nothing to call their own but sickness and poverty are gorgeous, and can have the purest smiles and the biggest hearts.
  • in the midst of suffering and grieving, a touch and silent presence can go further than words.
  • love can sometimes save a life.

New York Times Critics’ Pick review here.


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The Need for More Food Diversity

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From Slate, we’re still exporting our Western diet around the world, with dangerous consequences — for not only personal health, but also food availability:

The typical Western diet—heavy on meat, starch, and sweets—is taking over the world. From Mexico to China, changes in what people eat are driving up rates of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.

Research published last month underscores another disturbing consequence of this energy-dense diet. If the cheeseburger and fries don’t kill you, the food system that sustains it one day could—by putting food supplies in peril.

The largest global survey of crop diversity and diets conducted to date, released last month, paints a bleak picture of global food supplies. Countries are 36 percent more reliant on the same staple crops than they were 50 years ago. Just 50 crop commodities provide more than 90 percent of calories, protein, and fat around the world.

To paraphrase folk singer Greg Brown, it’s as if “the whole world struggles to become one bland place.”

A possible solution: “radical eating”, or “eating more of the world’s less popular foods.”

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The 100+ Hour Work Week to Make Rent

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The AtlanticCities on the minimum wage and growing inequality in America:

The housing wage for the country as a whole is $18.92 an hour, up 52 percent since 2000. Across the country, this means it would take an average of 2.6 full-time minimum-wage jobs to afford a modest two-bedroom apartment.

…In Washington State, where minimum-wage workers are some of the best off in the country, earning a hard-fought $9.32 per hour, it would still take an untenable 80-hour work to afford a two-bedroom rental unit. In Hawaii, it would take 4.4 minimum-wage jobs to afford fair market rental. And in Puerto Rico, where the gap between wages and costs is the lowest, it would still take 1.4 full-time minimum wage jobs. There isn’t a single state where full-time minimum-wage workers could afford a market-rate one or two bedroom unit on their own.

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Iranian Women Behind the Veil

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Beautiful photographs of beautiful women:

Improper dress code, including insufficient coverage of a woman’s head, shoulders and chest in public is officially illegal and can incur arrest and fines. Though Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, whom many see as a moderate and a reformer, has said publicly that guidance on women’s dress code should be encouraged through education rather than enforced by the police, secular Iranian women continue to face censure for insufficiently modest dress.


Rick Steves on “Travel as a Political Act”

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Rick Steves is known for his travel guides and PBS series focused on Europe.  He’s a champion of traveling deeper into cultures.  His book, Travel as a Political Act, is a call to action to use what we learn abroad to improve our own corner of the world.

I enjoy learning about my society by observing other societies and challenging myself (and my neighbors) to be broad-minded when it comes to international issues. Holding our country to a high standard and searching for ways to better live up to its lofty ideas is not ‘America bashing.’  It’s good citizenship.


Traveling thoughtfully, we are inspired by the accomplishments of other people, communities and nations.  And getting away from our home turf and looking back at America from a distant vantage point, we see ourselves as others see us–an enlightening if not always flattering view.


Growing up in the US, I was told over and over how smart, generous, and free we were.  Travel has taught me that the majority of humanity is raised with a different view of America.  Travelers have a priceless opportunity to see our country through the eyes of other people.  I still have the American Dream.  But I also respect and celebrate other dreams.

He writes that “travel becomes a political act only if you actually do something with your broadened perspective once you return home.”  Here are his suggestions for how to do this:

Be an advocate for those outside of the US who have no voice here, but are affected by our policies.  See our government policy through a lens of how will this impact the poor…

Share lessons, expect more from your friends, and don’t be afraid to ruin dinners by bringing up uncomfortable realities.  In a land where the afflicted and the comfortable are kept in different corners, people who connect those two worlds are doing everyone a service.  Afflict the comfortable in order to comfort the afflicted…

Encourage others to travel.  For example, support student exchange programs…One trip can help forever broaden the perspective of a young person with a big future…

Promote the wisdom and importance of talking to your “enemies”, even in everyday life.  Confront problems — at home, at work, in your community — with calm, rational, and respectful communication.

Travel within the United States to appreciate the full diversity of culture and thought within our vast, multifaceted society…At home and abroad, the vast majority of people who look scary aren’t.

Consider an educational tour for your next trip.

Seek out balanced journalism.  Assume commercial news is entertainment…

Read books that explain the economic and political basis of issues you’ve stumbled onto in your travels.

Find ways to translate your new global passions to local needs.



Socializing, Dutch Style

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This article from Afar Magazine manages to explain an esoteric Dutch concept called “gezelligheid”, which is difficult to translate into English. The word “cozy” comes close.  The author calls it “a kind of cozy conviviality, an aesthetic as well as a style of socializing”.

My experiences in Holland of gezelligheid usually involve a cold, rainy evening spent next to a fireplace enjoying a glass of wine with Dutch family and friends.  Inevitably someone says, “gezellig, eh?”.  “This is cozy, isn’t it?”  It’s an appreciation of the warmth and connection of spending time together in a relaxed way.

In the article, the author – who lives in California – writes:

As a visitor from the land of chain stores and exurban sprawl, I succumb to the appeal of a nation wrapping its social fabric around this rather gentle and nuanced idea. In opposition to sterile, anonymous, or otherwise cold environs, gezelligheid emphasizes homey atmospherics: Pillows. Old postcards on the wall. Cat in your lap. The recipe is ever refinable. Soft, warm lighting can nudge things toward the gezellig. A long winter outside the door helps. The right music helps. Pace helps, too—the slow living trend is de rigueur here. Ditto human-scale architecture, as opposed to more corporate and generic spaces. Ditto being a little more present.

Gezelligheid, as he learned, is not something that would happen naturally in a society like America’s. It has a “communal component – the ideal isn’t compatible with rugged individualism”.

But maybe we can incorporate some gezelligheid into our lives just by appreciating it and by being aware that it exists, that it’s possible and desirable.

It’s not just America or Facebook that keeps us from this mode. It’s us, too. Somehow, with age, one has to work harder to be deliberate about what one’s living space looks like, what one does on a Friday night, how the hours pass. You don’t have to move into a houseboat to be gezellig—smaller steps will do. Gezelligheid happens when you’re deeply futzing with the espresso machine, or drunkenly sneaking into bed with your wife as your sleeping child snores, or rolling your eyes with your mom as you try to convince your dad his rental bike isn’t a bike made for girls. There is a serendipitous togetherness in those moments, even if they are forgettable, even if they lead to a moronic squabble 10 minutes later. That fact—not just the homey architecture, or the simplicity of the comfort food, or the cushiness of the couch—is what constitutes coziness.

This epitomizes for me what’s so beautiful about spending time in another culture.  You become aware of what’s possible and maybe end up adding new dimensions, habits, and values to your own life. 

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Home Food Italy – Eat in an Italian Home

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For the next trip to Italy…Home Food is a movement that connects visitors with the culture of traditional Italian food, cooked at home by “Cesarine” — or ladies of the house.  These are “all the grandmothers, the carers, the aunts, that have enriched our childhoods and made them happy with tastes.”

For around 50 Euro, you can enjoy a home-cooked meal in an Italian home with a Cesarina who will introduce you to the history, culture, traditions and conviviality of Italian food.  And you’ll most likely meet other immersion travelers during this experience.

Home Food has aimed to create a virtuous circuit in which antique recipes, the sense of hospitality, peculiarities of the area, emphasis on the typical product merge into a characteristic and characterising proposal not just of the Region, but of the single Province and the specific Area. Home Food has created a network of Cesarine across the whole country in order to offer the possibility of finding in many places throughout Italy a welcoming table of traditional foods carefully prepared and cooked only for our partners.

The project is supported by The Association for the Guardianship and Exploitation of the Traditional Culinary-Gastronomic Heritage of Italy, sponsored by the Ministry of Agricultural Politics, by various regions of Italy and in collaboration with the University of Bologna.  It’s a serious cultural heritage program that offers an informal yet deep understanding of one of Italy’s most treasured resources, its food.

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How to Use Radio Apps to Practice Foreign Languages

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Some say knowing a foreign language is like a riding a bike — you can’t really forget how.  But if you don’t get to use it much, you’ll probably find that you forget vocabulary (among other things).  I know I do, so am trying to be more proactive about keeping my foreign language skills fresh.

Going to a local class or meetup can be fun, but takes a chunk of time and commitment.  There are plenty of language learning apps, but I’m finding it more helpful to listen to real people having real discussions. Here are two ways you can hear them speaking at home, in your car, anywhere you have access to your phone, tablet or computer — using radio apps.

Listen to world radio stations

I use ooTunes to listen to live radio.  You can search by country and listen to stations all around the world. When I randomly look up Morocco, I find a list of over 20 channels.  I have Spanish, Italian, French and Dutch stations in my favorites — music as well as news.

Listen to foreign language learning programs

Stitcher gives you news and talk radio “on demand”.  It’s great for choosing specific programs and queuing them to listen to whenever you have time. Type “Spanish” into the search bar, and you’ll get a list .  I’ve been listening to Maxmondo Incontro Italiano for news stories in Italian.  These are geared more towards language learners.  So the presenter of a news story on Maxmondo won’t be speaking quite as quickly as the anchor of a live Italian news station (admission: sometimes makes my head spin!)

Have fun with these.  It still takes discipline and commitment to practice, but there are fewer excuses when the resources are in your pocket.

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An International Student’s Perspective on How Americans Are Different

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An Indian student from Mumbai who has spent two years at Carnegie Mellon University lists what surprised him most about American culture and society.

While these are the opinions of one person based on his unique experience, there are a lot great insights:

This may be biased/wrong because I was an intern, but at least in the tech world, nobody wants to put you under the bus for something that you didn’t do correctly or didn’t understand how to do. People will sit with you patiently till you get it. If you aren’t able to finish something within the stipulated deadline, a person on your team would graciously offer to take it off your plate.

The same applies to school. Before I came to the United States, I heard stories about how students at Johns Hopkins were so competitive with each other that they used to tear important pages from books in the library just so other students didn’t have access to it. In reality, I experienced the complete opposite. Students were highly collaborative, formed study groups, and studied / did assignments till everyone in the group “got it”. I think the reason for this is that the classes are / material is so hard that it makes sense to work collaboratively to the point that students learn from each other.

Fat people are not respected much in society. Being fat often has the same connotations as being irresponsible towards your body. If you’re thin (and tall, but not as much), people will respect you a lot more and treat you better. You will also receive better customer service if you’re well maintained. This extends my previous point which mentioned that if you’re thin, you’re statistically likely to be rich. Reason why I know this is that I went down from being 210lbs to 148-150lbs. The way people started treating me when I was thin was generally way better than the way I was treated when I was fat. As a small example, the Starbucks baristas were much nicer to me and made me drinks with more care / love.

The way that stores price their products makes no apparent economic sense, and is not linear at all.
For example, at a typical store:  - 1 can of coke : $1.00 - 12 cans of coke : $3.00 - 1 Häagen-Dazs ice cream bar : $3.00 - 12 Häagen-Dazs ice cream bars : $7.00

The return policy on almost everything: None of my friends back in India believed me when I told them that you can literally buy anything, including food, and return it within ninety days for a full refund even if you don’t have a specific reason for doing so (most stores actually have a “Buyer’s Remorse” category under Reason for Return options while returning the product).

The pervasiveness of fast food and the sheer variety of products available: The typical supermarket has at least a hundred varieties of frozen pizza, 50 brands of trail mix, etc. I was just astounded by the different kinds of products available even at small gas station convenience stores.

US Flag displayed everywhere: I was surprised to see that the US flag is displayed in schools, on rooftops of houses, etc. India has very strict rules governing the display and use of the national flag. Also, something that struck out to me was how it was completely normal to wear the US flag or a US flag-like pattern as a bikini.

You can see his full list in his post on Quora as well as 255 other answers to the question “What facts about the United States do foreigners not believe until they come to America?”.


Where the Hell is Matt?

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Maybe you’ve already seen it.

I watch it regularly — it’s such an uplifting way to have a mini-virtual-immersion travel experience.

Here’s a New York Times interview with Matt for some behind-the-scenes information on how he made this happen.

A “Grumpy” Former NPR Reporter Looks Worldwide for Happiness

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Eric Weiner’s The Geography of Bliss is part travel memoir, part self-help.  Written with plenty of humor and irony, his style reminds me of Bill Bryson and P.J. O’Rourke.

He tells us from the start that he’s not a particularly happy person:

As the author Eric Hoffer put it, “The search for happiness is one of the chief sources of unhappiness.” That’s okay. I’m already unhappy. I have nothing to lose.

Then off he goes on a worldwide search for happiness which takes him to The Netherlands, Switzerland, Bhutan, Qatar, Iceland, Moldova (allegedly the world’s unhappiest country), Thailand, Great Britain, India and his homeland the U.S.

He explores how culture shapes our level and concept of happiness:

…where we are is vital to who we are. By “where,” I’m speaking not only of our physical environment but also of our cultural environment. Culture is the sea we swim in—so pervasive, so all-consuming, that we fail to notice its existence until we step out of it. It matters more than we think.

In The Netherlands, he visits with Ruut Veenhoven, who runs the World Database of Happiness at Erasmus University in Rotterdam.

Some of what Weiner learns from Veenhoven:

All cultures value happiness, but not to the same degree. East Asian countries tend to emphasize harmony and fulfilling societal obligations rather than individual contentment; perhaps not coincidentally, these countries also report lower levels of happiness, what’s been called the East Asian Happiness Gap, which sounds to me like some sort of Chinese Grand Canyon.


The happiest places, [Veenhoven] explains, don’t necessarily fit our preconceived notions. Some of the happiest countries in the world—Iceland and Denmark, for instance—are homogeneous, shattering the American belief that there is strength, and happiness, in diversity.

And of the Dutch in particular, Weiner observes:

Why should the Netherlands, a flat and nondescript country, be so happy? For starters, the Dutch are European, and that means they don’t have to worry about losing their health insurance, or for that matter their job. The state will take care of them. They get a gazillion weeks of vacation each year and, being European, are also entitled to, at no extra cost, a vaguely superior attitude toward Americans.

In Switzerland, an American expat he interviews:

…complains that the Swiss are “culturally constipated” and “stingy with information.” Even if that information is vital, such as “your train is leaving now” or “your clothing is on fire,” the Swiss will say nothing. To speak out would be considered insulting, since it assumes ignorance on the part of the other person.

But, he asks, are the Swiss happy?:

Content seems more like it. No, content isn’t quite right, either. Words fail me. We have far more words to describe unpleasant emotional states than pleasant ones. (And this is the case with all languages, not just English.) If we’re not happy, we have a smorgasbord of words to choose from. We can say we’re feeling down, blue, miserable, sullen, gloomy, dejected, morose, despondent, in the dumps, out of sorts, long in the face. But if we’re happy that smorgasbord is reduced to the salad bar at Pizza Hut. We might say we’re elated or content or blissful. These words, though, don’t capture the shades of happiness. We need a new word to describe Swiss happiness. Something more than mere contentment but less than full-on joy. “Conjoyment,” perhaps. Yes, that’s what the Swiss possess: utter conjoyment. We could use this word to describe all kinds of situations where we feel joyful yet calm at the same time. Too often when we say we feel joyful, we’re really feeling manic. There is a frenetic nature to our joy, a whiff of panic; we’re afraid the moment might end abruptly. But then there are other moments when our joy is more solidly grounded. I am not speaking of a transcendental moment, of bliss, but something less, something Swiss. We might experience conjoyment when we are doing something mundane, like sweeping the floor or sorting our trash or listening to that old Bob Dylan CD we haven’t heard in years. Yes, that’s it. The Swiss may not be happy, but they sure know how to conjoy themselves.

In Bhutan, a country with an official policy of Gross National Happiness, Weiner notes:

In America, few people are happy, but everyone talks about happiness constantly. In Bhutan, most people are happy, but no one talks about it. This is a land devoid of introspection, bereft of self-help books, and woefully lacking in existential angst. There is no Bhutanese Dr. Phil. There is, in fact, only one psychiatrist in the entire country. He is not named Phil and, I am sad to report, does not even have his own television show. Maybe Plato was wrong. Maybe it is the examined life that is not worth living.

And in and about Qatar:

If you were to devise an experiment to study the relationship between sudden wealth and happiness, you would need to invent something like Qatar. Take a backward, impoverished spit of sand in the Persian Gulf, add oodles of oil, dollops of natural gas, and stir. Or imagine that you and your extended family are rich. Wildly rich. Now double that amount.


I read somewhere that Qatar is 98.09 percent desert. I wonder what the other 1.91 percent is. Mercedes, perhaps.

In Iceland, he find an abundance of creativity which he attributes to a willingness to fail:

…if you are free to fail, you are free to try. We Americans like to think that we, too, embrace failure, and it’s true, up to a point. We love a good failure story as long as it ends with success. The entrepreneur who failed half a dozen times before hitting the jackpot with a brilliant idea. The bestselling author whose manuscript was rejected a dozen times. In these stories, failure serves merely to sweeten the taste of success. It’s the appetizer. For Icelanders, though, failure is the main course. Larus tells me how it’s perfectly normal for Icelandic teenagers to start a garage band and have the full support of their parents. These kids don’t expect success. It’s the trying that counts. Besides, if they fail, they can always start over, thanks to the European social-welfare net.


There’s no one on the island telling them they’re not good enough, so they just go ahead and sing and paint and write.

In Thailand, people don’t worry about whether or not they’re happy:

Thais do not buy self-help books or go to therapists or talk endlessly about their problems. They do not watch Woody Allen movies. When I ask Noi and other Thais if they are happy, they smile, of course, and answer politely, but I get the distinct impression that they find my question odd. The Thais, I suspect, are too busy being happy to think about happiness.

While in America, we’re obsessed with happiness:

Americans, like everyone, are notoriously bad at predicting what will make us happy and what will not. This quirk of the human psyche is especially frustrating for Americans because we, more than any other nation, have the means at our disposal to pursue happiness so vigorously. A Bangladeshi farmer might believe that a Mercedes S-Class will make him happy, but he will probably die having never test-driven that belief. Not so with us Americans. We are able to acquire many of the things that we think will make us happy and therefore suffer the confusion and disappointment when they do not.


When it comes to thinking about happiness, pondering it, worrying about it, cogitating over it, bemoaning our lack of it, and, of course, pursuing it, the United States is indeed a superpower. Eight out of ten Americans say they think about their happiness at least once a week. The sheer size and scope of the self-help industrial complex is testimony to both our discontent and our belief in the possibility of self-renewal.

Interspersed among the country-specific research are Weiner’s more general discoveries about what makes us happy.  A recurrent theme is that our relationships trump everything:

…the French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre metaphorically spat on the notion of communal bliss by declaring, “Hell is other people.”

Sartre was wrong. Either that, or he was hanging out with the wrong people. Social scientists estimate that about 70 percent of our happiness stems from our relationships, both quantity and quality, with friends, family, coworkers, and neighbors. During life’s difficult patches, camaraderie blunts our misery; during the good times, it boosts our happiness.

So the greatest source of happiness is other people—and what does money do? It isolates us from other people. It enables us to build walls, literal and figurative, around ourselves. We move from a teeming college dorm to an apartment to a house and, if we’re really wealthy, to an estate. We think we’re moving up, but really we’re walling off ourselves.


Necessity may be the mother of invention, but interdependence is the mother of affection. We humans need one another, so we cooperate—for purely selfish reasons at first. At some point, though, the needing fades and all that remains is the cooperation. We help other people because we can, or because it makes us feel good, not because we’re counting on some future payback. There is a word for this: love.


Our happiness is completely and utterly intertwined with other people: family and friends and neighbors and the woman you hardly notice who cleans your office. Happiness is not a noun or verb. It’s a conjunction. Connective tissue.

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Pico Iyer: Where is Home?

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I found Pico’s TEDTalk a moving commentary on the fact that some of us will never feel completely at home in any one place, and that there is beauty and freedom in constructing your own intangible sense of home.  As he says, “home has really less to do with a piece of soil than, you could say, with a piece of soul.”

 …when I go to Hong Kong or Sydney or Vancouver, most of the kids I meet are much more international and multi-cultured than I am. And they have one home associated with their parents, but another associated with their partners, a third connected maybe with the place where they happen to be, a fourth connected with the place they dream of being, and many more besides. And their whole life will be spent taking pieces of many different places and putting them together into a stained glass whole. Home for them is really a work in progress. It’s like a project on which they’re constantly adding upgrades and improvements and corrections.

…I literally couldn’t point to any physical construction. My home would have to be whatever I carried around inside me.

And in so many ways, I think this is a terrific liberation. Because when my grandparents were born, they pretty much had their sense of home, their sense of community, even their sense of enmity, assigned to them at birth, and didn’t have much chance of stepping outside of that. And nowadays, at least some of us can choose our sense of home, create our sense of community, fashion our sense of self, and in so doing maybe step a little beyond some of the black and white divisions of our grandparents’ age.

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