Geography of happiness and bliss

Trip Start Jan 30, 2007
Trip End Dec 31, 2011

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Flag of Netherlands  , Noord-Holland,
Thursday, March 26, 2009

Take two basic aspirations: the quest for happiness and the desire to travel.


The result: a new book. Well, published a year or so ago.

Add another page to the "Why Didn't I Think of That?" file.

"The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World" (Twelve), a memoir/travelogue by Eric Weiner, looks at people in the 10 most content places on earth. It does have something of an American view of things - packed a little with stereotypes.

The foreign correspondent is not the happiest man on earth, in fact he's a self-confessed grumpy old guy.

His pursuit of happiness takes him to hash bars of the Netherlands, and onto Iceland, Switzerland, Bhutan, Thailand, as well as some less happy places.

The sad man went around the world on his quest, his odessey, exploring different cultures and theories on happiness. "In happiness terms, extroverts beat introverts, the busy leave the idle standing and the wealthy are as miserable as sin. But while marriage brings joy, having children confers no advantage. And although university degrees make us happier, advanced degrees bring us down."

In Thailand he picks up the attitude "mai pen lai", meaning "never mind - just drop it and get on with life", while in Buddhist Bhutan he sees how letting go of ambition and national policies promote contentedness.

Along the way he finds mixed happiness through boredom and effeciency, through mre money - and less, through alcohol and drugs, and even visits to graveyards.

An interview in World Hum talks to him about "hedonic refugees" - people who have found long-term happiness in cultures other than their own.

"The one quote in the book that really resonates for me comes from a Bhutanese, who tells you the idea of personal happiness makes no sense; all happiness is relational. Are the Bhutanese way ahead of the rest of us on this count?

EW: Not necessarily. Many countries around the world seem to grasp this notion that happiness is relational-that we derive much of our joy from our connections to other people. In America, I think, we have lost sight of this and today view happiness as a strictly personal state of mind. I think that is a mistake.

So what happiness advice have you been dispensing to the (likely overstressed) American audiences you've encountered on your book tour? Mai pen lai, like the Thais?

Absolutely. Mai pen lai! That Thai expression, which translates roughly as "never mind," is a simple yet liberating approach to life's pratfalls. I find myself using it frequently, like when my iPod crashed the other day and I lost some 2,000 songs. Mai pen lai. The Thais have another expression, one that translates as "Don't think too much!" Thais believe that the very act of thinking can be destructive and erodes our happiness. I think (there's that word again) they're on to something. In fact, I found that in many of the world's happiest nations people don't think about happiness very much. Ironically, that is one of the keys to happiness.

The Geography of Bliss

by Eric Weiner

409pp, Black Swan, 7.99

First Chapter
'The Geography of Bliss'

Published: December 30, 2007

My bags were packed and my provisions loaded. I was ready for adventure. And so, on a late summer afternoon, I dragged my reluctant friend Drew off to explore new worlds and, I hoped, to fi nd some happiness along the way. I've always believed that happiness is just around the corner. The trick is finding the right corner.

Not long into our journey, Drew grew nervous. He pleaded with me to turn back, but I insisted we press on, propelled by an irresistible curiosity about what lay ahead. Danger? Magic? I needed to know, and to this day I'm convinced I would have reached wherever it was I was trying to reach had the Baltimore County Police not concluded, impulsively I thought at the time, that the shoulder of a major thoroughfare was no place for a couple of fi ve-year-olds.

Some people acquire the travel bug. Others are born with it. My affliction, if that's what it is, went into remission for many years following my aborted expedition with Drew. It resurfaced after college with renewed fury. I desperately wanted to see the world, preferably on someone else's dime. But how? I had no marketable skills, a stunted sense of morality, and a gloomy disposition. I decided to become a journalist.

As a foreign correspondent for National Public Radio, I traveled to places such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Indonesia: unhappy places. On one level, this made perfect sense. Unconsciously, I was observing the first law of writing: Write about what you know. And so, notebook in hand, tape recorder slung over my shoulder, I roamed the world telling the stories of gloomy, unhappy people. The truth is that unhappy people, living in profoundly unhappy places, make for good stories. They tug at heartstrings and inspire pathos.

They can also be a real bummer.

What if, I wondered, I spent a year traveling the globe, seeking out not the world's well-trodden trouble spots but, rather, its unheralded happy places? Places that possess, in spades, one or more of the ingredients that we consider essential to the hearty stew of happiness: money, pleasure, spirituality, family, and chocolate, among others. Around the world, dozens of what-ifs play themselves out every day. What if you lived in a country that was fabulously wealthy and no one paid taxes? What if you lived in a country where failure is an option? What if you lived in a country so democratic that you voted seven times a year? What if you lived in a country where excessive thinking is discouraged? Would you be happy then?

That's exactly what I intended to find out, and the result of this admittedly harebrained experiment is the book you now hold in your hands.

I was born in the Year of the Smiley Face: 1963. That's when a graphic designer from Worcester, Massachusetts, named Harvey Ball invented the now-ubiquitous grinning yellow graphic. Originally, Ball's creation was designed to cheer up people who worked at, of all places, an insurance company, but it has since become synonymous with the frothy, quintessentially American brand of happiness.

Ball's cheery icon never worked its magic on me. I am not a happy person, never have been. As a child, my favorite Winnie-the-Pooh character was Eeyore. For most of human history, I would have been considered normal. Happiness, in this life, on this earth, was a prize reserved for the gods and the fortunate few. Today, though, not only is happiness considered possible for anyone to attain, it is expected. Thus I, and millions of others, suffer from the uniquely modern malady that historian Darrin McMahon calls "the unhappiness of not being happy." It is no fun at all.

And so, like many others, I've worked at it. I never met a self-help book I didn't like. My bookshelf is a towering, teetering monument to existential angst, brimming with books informing me that happiness lies deep inside of me. If I'm not happy, they counsel, then I'm not digging deep enough.

This axiom of the self-help industrial complex is so deeply ingrained as to be self-evident. There's only one problem: It's not true. Happiness is not inside of us but out there. Or, to be more precise, the line between out there and in here is not as sharply defined as we think.

The late British-born philosopher Alan Watts, in one of his wonderful lectures on eastern philosophy, used this analogy: "If I draw a circle, most people, when asked what I have drawn, will say I have drawn a circle or a disc, or a ball. Very few people will say I've drawn a hole in the wall, because most people think of the inside first, rather than thinking of the outside. But actually these two sides go together-you cannot have what is 'in here' unless you have what is 'out there.' "

In other words, 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.

With our words, we subconsciously conflate geography and happiness. We speak of searching for happiness, of fi nding contentment, as if these were locations in an atlas, actual places that we could visit if only we had the proper map and the right navigational skills. Anyone who has taken a vacation to, say, some Caribbean island and had flash through their mind the uninvited thought "I could be happy here" knows what I mean.

Lurking just behind the curtain is, of course, that tantalizing, slippery concept known as paradise. It has beguiled us humans for some time now. Plato imagined the Blessed Isles, a place where happiness flowed like the warm Mediterranean waters. Until the eighteenth century, people believed that biblical paradise, the Garden of Eden, was a real place. It appeared on maps-located, ironically, at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, in what is now modern-day Iraq.

European explorers prepared for expeditions in search of paradise by learning Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke. I set out on my journey, my search for paradise, speaking not Aramaic but another obscure language, the modern liturgy of bliss spoken by the new apostles of the emerging science of happiness. I brush up on terms like "positive affect" and "hedonic adaptation." I carry no Bible, just a few Lonely Planet guides and a conviction that, as Henry Miller said, "One's destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things."

And so, on a typically steamy day in Miami (itself some people's concept of paradise), I pack my bags and depart my home on what I know full well is a fool's errand, every bit as foolish as the one I tried to pull off as a peripatetic five-year-old. 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.

From the chapter "Iceland: Happiness Is Failure":

I arrive to blowing snow and an inky black sky as dark and vast as outer space. It is 10:00 a.m.

"When does the sun rise?" I ask the nice man at reception.

He looks at me like I'm daft. When he replies, he speaks slowly and deliberately.

"The sun? Oh, I don't think you'll be seeing the sun today."

He says this like it's an obvious fact, as in, "Oh, it's Sunday, so of course the shops are closed today."

Not see the sun? I don't like the way this sounds. In the past, the sun has always been there for me, the one celestial body I could count on. Unlike Pluto, which for decades led me to believe it was an actual planet when the whole time it was really only a dwarf planet.

I had plenty of time to ponder celestial bodies on the long flight from Miami. Flying from Florida to Iceland in the dead of winter is at best counterintuitive and at worst sheer lunacy. My body sensed this before the rest of me. It knew something was wrong, that some violation of nature was taking place, and expressed its displeasure by twitching and flatulating more than usual.

I have my reasons, though. According to Ruut Veenhoven's database of happiness, Iceland consistently ranks as one of the happiest countries in the world. In some surveys, it ranks number one.

When I first saw the data, I had the same reaction you're probably having now. Iceland? As in land of ice? As in cold and dark and teetering on the edge of the map as if it might fall off at any moment? Yes, that Iceland.

As for the winter part, I figured anyone could be happy during the Icelandic summers, when the sun shines at midnight and the weather turns "pleasantly not cold," as one Icelander put it. But the winter, yes, the cold, dark winter, that was the real test of Icelandic happiness.

I plop down on my hotel bed and drift off to sleep for a few hours. This is easy to do in the middle of the day since it looks an awful lot like the middle of the night. When I awake, the sky has lightened a bit, achieving a state of pleasantly not dark, but pleasantly not dark isn't the same as light any more than pleasantly not cold is the same as warm.

I find myself pondering darkness, something I admit I haven't pondered much in the past. For me, as I suspect for most people, dark has always been dark. What is there to ponder? In fact, there are as many varieties of darkness as there are types of landscapes or clouds. Some darkness is hard and unforgiving. Other darkness is softened by the glow of the moon or distant city lights. Then there is the expectant darkness of 5:00 a.m., when we sense though can't yet see the coming dawn.

Icelandic darkness is in a category of its own, a stingy darkness that reveals nothing and, if it could talk, would probably do so with a thick New York accent: "Yo, ya gotta problem wit Mista Darkness, bub?" It is a darkness that for several months each year engulfs Iceland, smothers it, encases it, like one of those head-to-toe burkas worn by some Muslim women. Just as black and just as confining.

How, I wonder, staring out my hotel window into black nothingness, can Icelanders possibly be happy living under this veil of darkness? I've always associated happy places with palm trees and beaches and blue drinks and, of course, swim-up bars. That's paradise, right? The global travel industry certainly wants us to think so. Bliss, the ads tell us, lies someplace else, and that someplace else is sunny and eighty degrees. Always. Our language, too, reflects the palm-tree bias. Happy people have a sunny disposition and always look on the bright side of life. Unhappy people possess dark souls and black bile.

But the number crunchers at the World Database of Happiness say that, once again, we've got it wrong. Climate matters, but not the way we think. All things considered, colder is happier. The implications of this are tremendous. Maybe we should all be vacationing in Iceland, not the Caribbean. And global warming takes on added significance. Not only does it threaten to ravage ecosystems, flood coastal cities, and possibly end life on earth, it's also likely to seriously bum us out. This might be the most inconvenient truth of all.

Theories abound as to why cold or temperate climes produce happier people than warm, tropical ones. My favorite theory is one I call the Get-Along-or-Die Theory. In warm places, this theory states, life is too easy; your next meal simply falls from a coconut tree. Cooperation with others is optional. In colder places, though, cooperation is mandatory. Everyone must work together to ensure a good harvest or a hearty haul of cod. Or everyone dies. Together.

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.

Excerpted from The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner.

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