In The Geography of Bliss author Eric Weiner maps an atlas of happiness. The former foreign correspondent for NPR visits countries slightly under the tourist radar, some of which have been ranked the happiest nations in the world, like Iceland, which is arguably in its Golden Age. He also experiences the most miserable place, Moldova, where even Peace Corps volunteers can’t wait to leave.
The self-proclaimed grump begins his journey in Rotterdam, where the godfather of happiness research, Ruut Veenhoven, maintains the World Database of Happiness. In this book, which is part-memoir, part-travelogue, and part-fieldwork, Weiner asks the Swiss, Bhutanese, Qataris, Thais, Brits, and Indians if they are happy. If they’re not, he inquires what they need, or think they need, to be happy. Money? Pleasure? Chocolate? Binge drinking on the weekends — or what Icelandic people call “bracketed indulgence?”
A few years ago, a “blissologist” interviewed hundreds of poor people in Calcutta, as well as hundreds of homeless people in Fremont, a city about a half hour from my home on the San Francisco Peninsula. The blissologist discovered the poorest of the poor in India were happier than those across the Bay, even though the homeless here had better access to shelter and food.
Why? Well, India exists in a mystical realm beyond American happiness. If an Indian is poor, perhaps Shiva has a reason to destroy him, but ultimately, the Indian is not to blame. But if an American is poor, it is seen as a personal failure. Happiness translates differently from culture to culture. In India, Hindus believe life is maya, illusion, which makes a life of squalor less doomed.
Wealth, democracy, and sunshine are commonly associated with happiness. In the Netherlands, happiness is interchangeable with hedonism and over-tolerance, which Weiner realizes at the Alpha Blondie Coffee Shop, where he smokes Moroccan hashish. The Dutch also don’t have to worry about losing their health insurance, or their job, as the state will take care of them.
Americans value diversity and freedom of choice, yet the happiest countries, like Iceland and Denmark, are homogeneous and cooperative. In these societies, people value happiness that is relational, not personal. The least happy countries, including many African nations and former Soviet republics, don’t have the luxury of thinking about happiness. Moldova, for example, has no wealth, and had no nationalism to fall back on after the Russian empire collapsed.
One Moldovan tells Weiner, “We don’t fit in anywhere. In Russia, they say you’re Romanian. In Romania, they say you’re Russian.” Without an identity, Moldova doesn’t exist. There, Weiner thought to test the Law of Relative Happiness — perhaps if he went somewhere less happy, he’d feel better about himself. But when he left Moldova, he felt worse!