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Tuesday, 04 March 2008

The Geography of Bliss

Written by Cheri Lucas
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The Geography of Bliss author Eric Weiner maps an atlas of happinessIn 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!


The World Database of Happiness shows that income distribution doesn’t predict happiness. More money leads to comfort, rising expectations, and the ability to solve a problem immediately, but not happiness. In fact, $15,000 a year can buy happiness, but anything more does little to increase it.


Weiner journeys to small, isolated Bhutan, where people eschew productivity — it was the last country to get television, in 1999. Entering Bhutan requires extra effort — every visitor must go through a tour company and trek with a guide. Bhutan has a Gross National Happiness, which measures the country’s “human betterment,” rather than numbers.


Qatar, another tiny nation, is ephemeral and gaseous, literally: the third largest natural gas reserve lies underneath its sand. Weiner stays at the Four Seasons Hotel — an indicator that Qatari culture is elusive. Since most residents are Nepalese, Indian, and Filipino servants, he can’t find Qataris to interview. The country, which is 98 percent desert, has an air-conditioned airport terminal that “real” Qataris — members of one large royal tribe — pass through. Here, happiness is illusory — its whole desert a mirage for the nouveau riche — and its nomadic, westernized citizens are plagued with “lottery winner syndrome.” Qatar, saturated with wealth, has no past.


In Iceland, where darkness and nature are overpowering, Weiner wonders why people are so happy. They drink excessively, which helps, but also have a high tolerance for idiosyncrasy and failure. Artists are eccentric, yet happy, and people know of their insignificance within the matrix of life. The Swiss, generally an uptight and boring lot, are similar: they value their mountainous landscape, and avoid talking about money or becoming jealous of others.


His search in Thailand, the land of “sexpats” and ambiguous smiles, barely scrapes the surface and I was disappointed that he failed to peel back its layers. Thailand, like India, is so complex, yet his examination of India evokes its spiritual energy, probably because he once lived there.


Lastly, he uses Miami as a prototype for paradise in his assessment of the U.S., which was a turnoff. My idea of a utopia doesn’t include beaches and bikinis, I suppose. But “utopia” translates to “good place” and “nowhere,” so maybe such a location doesn’t exist.


This is atypical travel writing from someone who refuses to romanticize faraway cultures, yet manages to find beauty and Zen in unexpected places. While Weiner discovers nothing new, he gathers surprising and amusing cultural minutiae — tidbits you can use at cocktail parties to emit the illusion you’re more traveled than you really are.



Visit to read more about this nirvana-seeking journey.



© Cheri Lucas

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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