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.
Tags: america, americans, bhutan, happiness, iceland, india, qatar, switzerland, thailand, the netherlands