By Kathleen McCarthy
Be Inkandescent Magazine
“I am not a happy person, never have been,” discloses journalist Eric Weiner in the introduction to his best-selling book about happiness.
He hasn’t been sanguine about it—for a time he embraced self-help books, along with the mantra that happiness lies within. Then he discovered that not only is happiness to be found “out there,” but specifically that “where we are is vital to who we are.”
Though he recognized the perils “of searching for happiness, of finding contentment, as if these were locations in an atlas,” the former foreign correspondent decided to do just that, spending a year “traveling the globe, seeking out … its unheralded happy places.”
The result was the 2008 New York Times best-seller, “The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World.”
Devoting each of the book’s 10 chapters to one country, he uses a scant handful of words to describe the source of each nation’s happiness:
- The Netherlands: Happiness Is a Number
- Switzerland: Happiness Is Boredom
- Bhutan: Happiness Is a Policy
- Qatar: Happiness Is a Winning Lottery Ticket
- Iceland: Happiness Is Failure
- Moldova: Happiness Is Somewhere Else
- Thailand: Happiness Is Not Thinking
- Great Britain: Happiness Is a Work in Progress
- India: Happiness Is a Contradiction
- America: Happiness Is Home
Despite his intriguing findings, Weiner confounds happiness seekers by noting huge inconsistencies in what makes people happy. “The Swiss are uptight and happy. The Thais are laidback and happy. Icelanders find joy in their binge drinking, Moldovans only misery.”
Scroll down for summaries of three countries described in “The Geography of Bliss“—Qatar, Thailand, and the United States—and the source of their inhabitants’ happiness, plus Moldova, a very unhappy place.
This desert country in the Middle East is one of the wealthiest nations in the world, with a fortune based on oil and natural gas. That fortune, however, has been a mixed blessing. Over the past 50 years, Qatar’s wealth has exploded, while its culture has undergone a rapid and radical change. Qataris are so wealthy now that most have servants. In fact, most people who live in Qatar are servants, Weiner says.
While initially rationalizing that researching Qatar required him to stay in the luxurious Four Seasons Hotel, the excessive pampering provoked Weiner to ponder the nature of happiness: “We equate happiness with comfort, but is there really any connection? Is there a point where excess comfort actually dilutes our contentment? The big question, though, is: What happens to a person’s soul when he or she indulges in excessive, obscene—truly obscene—amounts of craven luxury?”
Weiner checks out of the Four Seasons early, checks into a more modestly comfortable hotel, and concludes that for a nation to be truly happy, it needs both a sense of community and a sense of history, which Qatar’s sudden wealth has eradicated. Before Qataris won the natural resources lottery, “life was too harsh for culture. Today it is too comfortable for culture.”
Foreign males may be able to indulge their unbridled sexual desires in Thailand, but observing these hedonistic visitors makes it instantly obvious to Weiner that “happiness is more than animal pleasure.”
As for the Thais themselves, he discovers that two of their expressions—“You’re too serious,” and “Don’t think too much!“—reflect the nation’s attitude toward what defines the good life.
Thais feel that the Western penchant for thinking is overrated. So thinking about problems (or issues such as what would make someone happy) is pointless. Weiner seems to take perverse pleasure in citing research that confirms, “Thinking about happiness makes us less happy.”
That’s partly because Thais distrust words, he says, viewing them as “tools of deception.” The Thai way is mai pen lai, Weiner says, which means “never mind.” Not the “never mind” that we in the West “often use angrily, as in, ‘Oh, never mind, I’ll do it myself,’ but a real, just-drop-it-and-get-on-with-life ‘never mind.’” Foreigners living in Thailand “either adopt the mai pen lai attitude or go insane.”
At the United Nations office in Bangkok, he meets with a Thai woman who answers Weiner’s question about why Thais seem so happy by saying, “Thai people are not serious about anything. …Whatever it is, we can accept it. … You can’t change things outside yourself, so you change your attitude. … Like when you’re pissed at someone, and you can’t do anything about it. You feel you want to hit them, but you can’t, so you take a deep breath and let it go. Otherwise it will ruin your day.”
The United States
It may come as a blow to discover that Americans are not among the happiest people on earth. We rank 23rd, behind countries such as Costa Rica, Malta, and Malaysia.
“Americans, like everyone, are notoriously bad at predicting what will make us happy and what will not,” Weiner notes. “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.”
One modern way that Americans pursue happiness, Weiner says, is by relocating. Some Americans feel they will only be happy if they live in the “right” state, he observes. These research-reliant souls zero in on their relocation destination with the avidity of miners in a gold rush, including such requirements as a place that provides not only access to feta cheese, but “a variety of feta cheeses.” (Asheville, NC, got the nod for this woman.)
Despite a big rise in income since the 1950s, Americans’ happiness gauge has budged very little. That’s partly because, Weiner says, the self-help industry has encouraged Americans to look within, when they actually should instead be looking to develop connections with other people.
The former Soviet country located between Romania and Ukraine has the unfortunate moniker of “the unhappiest place on earth.” When Weiner asks a young Moldovan woman why Moldovans are unhappy, she says it’s because “We have no money for the life.” Though it’s true that Moldova is a poor country, Weiner notes that other countries are poorer but happier.
Why? Because Moldovans don’t compare themselves to those less well off; they compare themselves to Italians and Germans. “Moldovans are a poor man in a rich neighborhood, never a happy position to be in,” Weiner observes.
Also, though Moldova is a quasi-democracy, the government doesn’t function well, because successful democracies are based on trust and tolerance, neither of which is abundant here. And while Moldovans are poor compared to other Europeans, clearly “it is their reaction to their economic problems, and not the problems alone, that explain their unhappiness,” Weiner says.
The fact that young women dress indistinguishably from prostitutes puzzles Weiner, until someone explained that “so many Moldovan men have left the country in search of work abroad that Moldovan women must compete fiercely for what has become a scarce resource: the Moldovan man.”
The icing on the (stale) cake? “Moldovans derive more pleasure from their neighbor’s failure than their own success. I can’t imagine anything less happy,” Weiner says.
So, What Is the Secret to Happiness?
“Money matters, but less than we think and not in the way that we think,” Weiner sums up. “Family is important. So are friends. Envy is toxic. So is excessive thinking. Beaches are optional. Trust is not. Neither is gratitude.
“Place. That is what ‘The Geography of Bliss’ is about. How place—in every aspect of the word—shapes us, defines us,” Weiner says. “Change your place, I believe, and you can change your life.”
About Eric Weiner
Eric Weiner is author of “The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World” (Hachette Publishing Group, 2008). A New York Times best-seller, the book has been translated into 16 languages. Weiner, a former correspondent for NPR and the New York Times, he has written stories from more than three dozen countries. His work has appeared in the New Republic, International Herald Tribune, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, The New York Times Magazine, and the anthology “Best American Travel Writing.” He writes a regular column for the literary travel website worldhum.com. For more information, visit his website: ericweinerbooks.com/.