Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Geography of Bliss, by Eric Weiner

When the emotional going gets tough, some of us seek refuge in chocolate or vodka, others in retail therapy
or the gym. I'm a big fan of the geographical cure. Give me plane tickets. Am I measurably happier in a place very far from the one in which I was so vexed? Well, for a little while, sure, and in the longer term, I firmly believe that happiness and geography are linked, so any book with the subtitle "One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World" was bound to catch my attention.

When I can't escape my woes by train or plane, I dive into a book, and The Geography of Bliss indeed proved an effective little happy pill. Mr. Weiner, a confessed curmudgeon and NPR correspondent, is clever and funny; the book is a pleasure to read, but a reader looking for deeper analysis will be disappointed -- Mr. Weiner is a journalist, not a scholar or a philosopher. He spent a couple of weeks in each of the countries he profiled, interviewing fewer than a dozen people in each. Still, the book is not without substance.

Starting in the Netherlands, Weiner begins by interviewing Dutch sociologist Ruut Veenhoven who has spent much of his career building the 'global happiness index'.  It's a universal problem, not only for academics, but for writers and composers as well -- happiness is a tough sell. It just seems so frivolous.
Veenhoven was studying sociology -- a field that, at the time, meant only the study of sick societies, dysfunctional ones. Its sister discipline, psychology, studied sick minds. But not young Ruut. He was interested in healthy minds and happy places. One day, a bit timid but determined nonetheless, Veenhoven knocked on his advisor's door and asked if he could please study happiness. His advisor, a sober man with solid academic credentials, told him, in no uncertain terms, to shut up and never mention that word again. Happiness was not a serious subject.
How to define happiness? Is happiness in New York the same as happiness in Tokyo? Unsurprisingly, no.
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.
Weiner frequently mentions that his vision of paradise includes white sand, azure sea, palm trees and rum drinks with umbrellas in them. (Which, I must say, reinforces the idea that happiness equals vacuity...)  But Dr. Veenhoven, the Dutch scholar, tells him that there is no simplistic formula for creating a happy nation.
The happiest places, he 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. One finding, which Veenhoven just uncovered, has made him very unpopular with his fellow sociologists. He found that income distribution does not predict happiness. Countries with wide gaps between the rich and poor are no less happy than countries where the wealth is distributed more equally. Sometimes, they are happier...
"My colleagues are not amused,"says Veenhoven. "Inequality is big business here in the sociology department. Entire careers have been built on it."
Of course countries embroiled in war or suffering famine will not be happy places, but Weiner takes a look at some of the countries that are ranked unhappiest without patently obvious reasons. The former Soviet republics fall into this group. When I was in Lithuania some years ago, I read that it had one of the highest suicide rates in the world at the time.  The explanation was that many, especially middle-aged men, had failed to make the transition from the security of the communist system to the more competitive capitalist economy. In all three of the Baltic countries (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia), people complained that crime had increased and quality of life generally decreased since the Communist days. As someone who grew up being told that the USSR was the Evil Empire, this came as a bit of a shock.  It surprised Mr. Weiner, too.
Curiously, I find another batch of nations stuck at the bottom of the happiness spectrum: the former Soviet republics -- Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, and a dozen others. Are democracies happier than dictatorships? Not necessarily. Many of those former Soviet republics are quasi-democracies; certainly they are freer now than in Soviet times, yet their happiness levels have decreased since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Ahhh, western Europe... That must be the happiest region, in my estimation.  Having concluded his interviews with the happiness scholar, Mr. Weiner takes a look at Holland, which sounds like a fairly blissful place to me, but he concludes that too much liberality may not be a good thing.
I retire to my cafe, order a beer, and ponder Dutch happiness. 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. Does smugness lead to happiness? I wonder, sipping my Trapiste beer. No, there must be something else. Tolerance! This is the original "don't tread on me" nation. A nation where, it seems, the adults are out of town and the teenagers are in charge. Not just for the weekend, either. All of the time. The Dutch will tolerate anything, even intolerance. In the past few decades they have welcomed, with open arms, immigrants from around the world, including those from nations that don't tolerate things like religious freedom and women who work or drive or show their faces. Dutch tolerance comes at a cost, as the murder of the filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a Muslim extremist highlighted. But Veenhoven's research shows that tolerant people tend to be happy.
Besides, I can't live with so much slack. I'm too weak. I wouldn't know when to stop. If I moved to Holland, you'd probably find me a few months later, engulfed in a cloud of Moroccan hash, a hooker under each arm. No, the Dutch way is not for me. Perhaps my next destination is the one. I'm heading to a country where the trains run on time, the streets are clean, and tolerance, like everything else, is doled out carefully, in moderation. I am heading to Switzerland. 
I associate Switzerland with orderliness and precision, and I imagine that generates its own shade of happiness, if not necessarily the ecstatic variety.
Okay, so the stereotype is true. Switzerland is efficient and punctual. Also wealthy and with hardly any unemployment. And, oh, the air is clean. The streets are nearly spotless. And don't forget the chocolate, which is delicious and plentiful. But happy? I saw no joy on the faces of the well-tented Swiss couple in Africa. Only quiet satisfaction, tinged with just a trace of smugness.
Weiner muses that European philosophers have typically been a gloomy lot, and he cites Schopenhauer's thesis that happiness is the absence of misery. (He might better have quoted Nietzsche, who like Schopenhauer knew no financial or social strain but was hounded to a wretched death by his inner demons.)
To solve this mystery, we turn once again to those dead, white, and unhappy philosophers. None was less happy than Arthur Schopenhauer. If happiness is indeed the absence of misery, as he believed, then the Swiss have every reason to be happy.
A passage about a very informal survey at a small gathering proved entertaining but not very enlightening. Weiner discovers that yes, the Swiss do seem pleased with their country's high level of functionality, but then they go to pieces when the train is late. Hardly a sign of fundamental happiness.
I take an informal poll around the table. Overall, how happy are you these days? The results are in: solid eights and nines all around, and a seven from the American. The Swiss at the table look surprised, as if they're thinking, "Hmmm. Maybe we are happy. Who knew?"
"So, now that we've determined you are indeed happy, what is the source of Swiss happiness?" I ask.
"Cleanliness," says Dieter. "Have you seen our public toilets? They are very clean." At first, I think he's joking but quickly rule out that possibility, since the Swiss do not joke. About anything. Ever. ...
There are no potholes on Swiss roads. Everything works. Switzerland is a highly functional society, and while that may not be a source of joy or even happiness, it eliminates a lot of the reasons to be unhappy...
Dieter tells me that "if a train is twenty minutes late, people get very anxious." A few years ago, he says, the entire rail system broke down for eighteen hours, hurling the nation into a period of deep existential doubt.
Weiner discusses the relationship (or lack of one) between a country's overall happiness and its suicide rate. A Swiss author astutely notes the pressure to conform when everyone around you is happy -- look at the number of people who leave suicide notes saying they don't want to drag their loved ones into the abyss with them.
How can a happy country have a high suicide rate? In fact, it's easily explained. First of all, the number of suicides is still statistically low, so it doesn't affect the happiness surveys very much, since the odds of the researchers interviewing a suicidal person are quite low. But there's another reason. The things that prevent us from killing ourselves are different from those that make us happy. Roman Catholic countries, for instance, tend to have very low suicide rates because of the Catholic prohibition on suicide. Yet that doesn't mean these countries are happy. Good government, meaningful work, strong family ties -- these are all major contributors to happiness, yet if you are unhappy, truly despondent, none of them will prevent you from committing suicide. Part of the problem, perhaps, is that being surrounded by happy people can be a real bummer sometimes. Franz Hohler, a well-known Swiss author, told me: "If I'm not happy, I think, 'Shit, all of this beauty, all this functionality, why the hell am I not happy? What's wrong with me?'"
Ah, now the ability to trust one's colleagues and neighbours -- that strikes me as a critical component of happiness, and Weiner finds it to be true as he moves around the world.
Switzerland works on the honor system, like the little rest huts that dot the Alps. There's food inside. You eat the food and leave some money behind. John Helliwell, a Canadian economist, has spent many years studying the relationship between trust and happiness. He's found the two to be inseparable. "You can't feel properly engaged if you don't trust the people you engage with on a regular basis. Engagement breeds trust; trust supports engagement. It's a two-way flow; both parts are critical."
I'm not sure about Mr. Weiner's assertion that we lack verbiage for happiness.  I need to give this some thought.  Maybe we just spend more time expressing our unhappiness, and so that vocabulary seems more abundant. As for his claim that other languages are also deficient, I suspect that the German-speaking Swiss routinely describe themselves as gemütlich, a word with no precise English gloss but which describes the sort of contentment one feels to come home to a warm, well-lit and comfortable parlour with a glass of tokay on the table next to the armchair.
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.
Then Mr. Weiner goes to Bhutan, which is a remarkably different shade of happy from western Europe. The Buddhist influence is plain.
I would learn to appreciate the Bhutanese handshake and, come to think of it, the way they do nearly everything -- cross the street, wash dishes -- so deliberately, so attentively. "Attention" is an underrated word. It doesn't get the . . . well, the attention it deserves. We pay homage to love and happiness and, God knows, productivity, but rarely do we have anything good to say about attention. We're too busy, I suspect. Yet our lives are empty and meaningless without attention... The British scholar Avner Offer calls attention "the universal currency of well-being." Attentive people, in other words, are happy people.
Keeping expectations in check is another thing that marks the east-west divide. Weiner asks Karma, a Bhutanese man, if he is happy.
"Looking back at my life, I find that the answer is yes. I have achieved happiness because I don't have unrealistic expectations." This strikes me as an odd explanation. In America, high expectations are the engines that drive us, the gas in our tanks, the force behind our dreams and, by extension, our pursuit of happiness.
The monarch has actually instituted an index of Gross National Happiness.  Americans may be free to pursue happiness, but the Bhutanese pursue and measure it. Once more, it boils down to the absence of greed, the lack of obsessive ambition.
But what exactly is Gross National Happiness? What does it look like? The best explanation I heard came from a potbellied Bhutanese hotel owner named Sanjay Penjor. GNH, Penjor told me, "means knowing your limitations; knowing how much is enough." Free-market economics has brought much good to the world, but it goes mute when the concept of "enough" is raised.
Noting that "the word 'travel' stems from the same root as 'travail'", the author ventures out on appalling roads to the Bhutanese countryside to see if the bliss extends to the rural areas.  As he interviews a man in the back of beyond, he simultaneously scribbles notes.
I'm jotting down his comments in my small black notebook when he looks at me and says, "You are always writing, writing in your notebook. You need to experience. Really experience." I'm getting every word -- always writing . . . need to experience -- when the irony dawns on me. I stop writing and look up. I mumble something lame about old habits dying hard.
This is a lesson that most of us travellers would do well to learn:  we are so busy pursuing happiness, and recording what we find of it that we don't fully register its presence.

What makes people in other cultures happy may or may not make sense to us. Speaking with an American visitor to Bhutan, Weiner captures a moment of stunning arrogance.
"No, these people just don't know any better," she says. "If you took them to America, they would see what they're missing." I tell her that of the Bhutanese who study abroad, 90 percent return to Bhutan, forsaking western-style incomes for life here in Bhutan. Terri is silent, clearly confused. Finally, she says, "Now, why would they do a thing like that?"
If bliss is linked to wealth, Qatar should be off the charts. Even more so if happiness and sand are related, albeit not on a beach.
I read somewhere that Qatar is 98.09 percent desert. I wonder what the other 1.91 percent is. Mercedes, perhaps. The sand dunes can reach heights of two hundred feet and, due to the winds, are constantly migrating.
The Qataris are among the world's nouveau riche -- petrobillionaires who are not entirely sure how to turn their wealth into bliss. They have imported foreigners to do all their work for them, so they can bask in leisure. The problem is that foreigners are, well... foreign.  Often non-Muslim and from places quite different from the Arab peninsula, they must be segregated.
I take a sip of lime juice and ask Sami if he could help me meet some Qataris. You would think I had asked Sami if he could arrange lunch with the queen of England, rather than asking to meet the citizens of the very country I happen to be visiting at the moment. Sami brushes a speck of invisible dust off his shoulder before speaking. "This is going to be tough, Eric. Let's see what we're dealing with. First of all, you're an American. Strike one. Also, you're a journalist. Strike two. And your name sounds awfully Jewish. Three strikes... I'll see what I can do. Give me some time."
The Qataris are spending their new and vast wealth to buy, among other things, art. They are going mad at Christies and Sotheby's and everywhere else they can acquire art and antiques. Granted, these are the products of European culture, but they'll do.  Weiner speaks with an American working in Qatar, Lisa, and she says that if the rulers of Qatar want 'culture', they have no option but to import it. (Personally, I disagree with this. If a society has no literary or artistic traditions, that does not mean they are without culture, and if they choose to import Flemish paintings or establish a symphony orchestra, it does not necessarily mean they are 'buying culture'.)
I felt compelled to defend the Qataris, though I'm not sure why. "That seems a bit extreme. Every country has a culture."
"Okay," she said. "they have no cuisine, no literature, and no arts. To me, that means no culture."
"But they have a Ministry of Culture."
"Yeah, they also have a Ministry of Justice. That doesn't mean they have justice." She had a point. The only culture in Qatar, Lisa claims, is the kind that arrives on an airplane: artists and authors flown in fresh daily, the cultural equivalent of lobsters from Maine.
In a rare flash of native Maine pride, I ask, Well who wouldn't giddily import and relish every last butter-dripping morsel of a Maine lobster if he can afford to? Likewise, if you can afford to hang a Manet in your bathroom, why not? Does culture really need to be local to boost the happiness ratings?

As Buddhism colours the notions of happiness in Bhutan (and Thailand, which Weiner gets to shortly), the concept of bliss in Qatar is definitely framed by Islam.
"Are you happy?" There is an uncomfortably long silence.
Finally, one man says, an edge of irritation in his voice, "Why do you ask such a question?"
That question -- are you happy -- the question we Americans chew on every day, every hour, is not entirely appropriate in a Muslim country like Qatar. I'noticed that people cringe slightly when I ask and politely try to change the subject. That's because happiness, bliss, is in the hands of Allah, not man. If we are happy, it is God's will and, likewise, if we are miserable it is also God's will. Are you happy? I might as well have asked these guys if they shaved their legs. I want to slink away.
"Okay, if you insist, yes, I am happy," one man finally says.
"There's no such thing as complete happiness," says a third man, puffing away on a cigarette.
"If you want to know true happiness, you should become a Muslim," says a fourth. "You should believe and know that everything is in the hands of God. You will get what Allah has written for you. Yes, you should become a Muslim if you want to know happiness."
Weiner acknowledges a widely known statistic that those who practise a faith -- regardless of which one -- rank higher in the happiness index. Buddhist meditators who have participated in brain studies have shown that meditation and prayer produces measurable benefits. In Beginner's Grace, Reverend Kate Braestrup asks readers to think about the one thing they feel is more important than anything else: That one thing, she says, is your God.  For her, the answer is love.  Pondering that question, Eric Weiner reaches a different answer and immediately realises that his God is going to let him down. With a crash.
I keep thinking about something Abdulaziz said. When he's feeling down, he said, he talks to his God. Not prays but talks, that's the word he used. I liked how that sounded. Talking comes naturally to me. Praying does not. Of course, Abdulaziz's God is Allah. Not exactly my God. I wonder: Who is my God? No obvious answer springs to mind. Over the years, I have been spiritually promiscuous, dabbling in Hinduism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and even occasionally Judaism. None, however, could qualify as my full-time faith, my God. Then, suddenly, His name pops into my mind and His is not a name I expected. Ambition. Yes, that is my God. When Ambition is your God, the office is your temple, the employee handbook your holy book. The sacred drink, coffee, is imbibed five times a day. When you worship Ambition, there is no Sabbath, no day of rest. Every day, you rise early and kneel before the God Ambition, facing in the direction of your PC. You pray alone, always alone, even though others may be present. Ambition is a vengeful God. He will smite those who fail to worship faithfully, but that is nothing compared to what He has in store for the faithful. They suffer the worst fate of all. For it is only when they are old and tired, entombed in the corner office, that the realization hits like a Biblical thunderclap. The God Ambition is a false God and always has been.
In his chapter on Iceland, Weiner calls upon the metaphor of an unstable element. I love this image, whether applied to Iceland or any place in which we experience a moment of perfect light, of perfect symmetry, of perfect peace. And then it's gone.
Of all the substances known to man, the least stable is something called francium. It's never lasted longer than twenty-two minutes. At any given time there is only one ounce of francium in the earth's crust. "Vanishingly rare" is how it's often described. There are places like that, too.
One stable aspect of Iceland is its consistently low population.  The view of economic statistics held by Icelanders is a revelation to Mr. Weiner, and to me as well.
In the United States, there is an unspoken understanding that an unemployment rate of 5 or 6 percent is acceptable, yet inflation must stay very low --no more than 1 or 2 percent. In Iceland, the reverse is true. If the unemployment rate reaches 5 percent, it's considered a national scandal. Presidents are booted from office. Yet Icelanders will tolerate a relatively high inflation rate. Why the different approaches? The answer lies in how countries feel about pain, economic pain. High inflation is shared pain; everyone feels the pinch of higher prices when they go to the grocery store or the gas station. Everyone suffers a little; no one suffers a lot. Unemployment is selective pain. A relatively few people suffer greatly, yet most of us don't suffer at all. Or do we? High unemployment, research has found, reduces overall happiness much more than high inflation. The specter of losing one's job spreads through a nation like a ripple across a pond.
Icelandic is the oldest Nordic language, retaining all the grammatical complexity that sloughed off as it morphed into Swedish, Danish, Norwegian. The Icelanders can still read the Elder Edda, an epic poem penned in the 13th century.  By contrast, we struggle to decipher The Canterbury Tales (late 14th century) and often turn to translations. And yes, the Icelanders are proud of their sturdy, steadfast language. Weiner mentions the fact that they have concocted Icelandic vocabulary for new technologies rather than resorting to altered spellings of 'telephone' or 'computer'. Iceland angrily lobbied Microsoft for an Icelandic version of Windows, but as I recall, Bill Gates replied that it was not financially practical, given the country's small population, which probably resulted in a nationwide migration to Mac and Linux.
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin have discovered that the part of the brain that controls language is, like the part that controls happiness, relatively new, in evolutionary terms. So is there a connection between these two recent upgrades to our brains? If so, is language merely along for the ride -- or is it in the driver's seat, in ways we don't yet understand? That's hard to say, but there is no denying that, for Icelanders at least, language is an immense source of joy. Everything wise and wonderful about this quirky little nation flows from its language. The formal Icelandic greeting... translates literally as "come happy".When Icelanders part, they say ... "go happy". I like that one a lot. It's so much better than "take care" or "catch you later."
Once again touching on the link between spirituality and bliss, Weiner visits with Hilmar, the Icelandic Heathen. Mind you, Iceland still requires any development proposal to include certification that the site is free of elves. Incredulous foreign developers ask Icelanders whether they really, truly believe in elves. The answers tend to boil down to the fact that Icelanders are very connected to the turbulent, bubbling, occasionally exploding little block of land on which they live. Anything that disrupts the delicate balances -- whether ecological or elven -- is a cause for great concern. I love this, and whether the elves are merely a metaphor for the natural world or whether there are little people dwelling in crevices in the lava fields is purely immaterial. It reminds me, too, of something Reza Aslan noted in Zealot, his biography of Jesus:  The authors of the gospels would have been puzzled by our ideas of historical veracity. They were not concerned with accuracy; they were concerned with truth.
Heathenism is a peaceful religion, based on a love of the earth, the spirit of the place, he tells me. There are many gods, and the Eddas contain fantastical tales of one-eyed giants performing miracles. "Hilmar," I say, "you seem like a levelheaded, rational guy. Do you really believe these stories?"
Hilmar pauses for a moment before answering, and it's not the answer I expect. "Well, I suppose it could be a muddle of thought, but everyone needs a belief system, in order to have these transcendental moments." This is incredible. Here is the head of the Heathen faith of Iceland telling me that the entire religion might be a "muddle of thought." That's like the pope saying, "Well, the Bible might be a bunch of hogwash, but hey, it's something to believe in." Yet that is exactly what Hilmar is saying. It's not what we believe that makes us happy but the act of believing. In anything.
Iceland also prompts Weiner to question the image of the suffering artist and the idea that only misery can produce great art.
Iceland puts this silly myth out of its misery once and for all. I met dozens of artists and all of them were, for the most part, happy. I remember what Hilmar had said when I asked him if he was happy. "Yes, but I cherish my melancholia."
Needing some contrast to all this geographical bliss, Weiner scans the bottom rungs of the Global Happiness Index and jets off to Moldova.
What I need, what will cheer me up, is a trip to an unhappy place. According to the Law of Relative Happiness, such a place will boost my mood since I'll realize there are depths of misery to which I have not yet sunk...  Mozart is enhanced by the existence of Barry Manilow.
There is nothing like sitting down and listening to "Mandy" a few times to help one appreciate the beauty of "The Magic Flute".  Likewise, Weiner's visit revealed what the Moldovans do not have in terms of happiness ingredients.
Moldovans, unlike the Baltic states, had no fervent nationalism to fall back on. And unlike the Muslim nations of Central Asia, the Moldovans had no abiding faith or culture on which to rely. They had only themselves, and clearly that was not enough.
Attempts to turn the post-Soviet Moldova into a happy place failed.
It wasn't supposed to be this way. In the early 1990s, hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid poured in. There was talk of Moldova being the next Luxembourg. Today, the only thing Moldova has in common with Luxembourg is that no one can find it on a map.
This wry observation is something I'd concluded unconsciously, but Weiner puts it into words:
I pass a couple of Moldovan cops. The cops, like all Moldovan men, have a thuggish quality and look like they could use a bath. Unlike most Moldovan men, they are markedly pudgy. It's never a good sign when a country's people are thin and its police fat.
It's too simplistic to say that affluent countries are happier. In his first epistle to Timothy, Paul wrote, "the love of money is the root of all evil" (often misquoted as "money is the root of all evil", which is quite a different sentiment).  Weiner's Moldovan experience suggests that coveting others' money may be the actual culprit.
No, Moldovans tell me, the source of their despair is much simpler than that. In a word, money. They don't have enough. Per capita income is only $880 per year. They need to travel abroad to make money. Some Moldovan women are tricked into working as prostitutes. A few Moldovans even sell one of their kidneys for cash. None of this is good, of course, and I don't mean to belittle the economic difficulties Moldovans face. But if I've learned anything in my travels, it's that things are rarely as simple as they seem. Many countries are poorer than Moldova yet happier. Nigeria, for instance, or Bangladesh. The problem is that Moldovans don't compare themselves to Nigerians or Bangladeshis. They compare themselves to Italians and Germans. Moldova is the poor man in a rich neighborhood, never a happy position to be in.
Happy countries seem to enjoy high levels of trust, ethnic or societal sense of identity, pride of language and local culture. Moldova? None of it.
Trust -- or, to be more precise, a lack of trust -- is why Moldova is such an unhappy land,Vitalie tells me, echoing the findings of researchers about the relationship between happiness and trust. Moldovans don't trust the products they buy at the supermarket. (They might be mislabeled.) They don't trust their neighbors. (They might be corrupt.) They don't even trust their family members. (They might be conniving.) Another reason for Moldovan misery? "People in Moldova are neither Russian nor Moldovan. We have been abused and abandoned by everyone. We have no pride in anything. Not even our language. There are ministers in the Moldovan government who don't speak Moldovan. They speak only Russian. I hate to say it, but it's true: There is no Moldovan culture." ...
I'm instantly reminded of Qatar, which has no culture either. Qatar, however, is a fabulously wealthy country with no culture. Moldova is a dirt-poor nation with no culture. All things considered, the Qataris have the better deal. At least they can afford to rent other people's culture for a while.
According to the United States government, democracy is the answer. Toss out the dictators, set up the voting stations, et voila! Instant bliss. Obviously George W. Bush never chatted up the Moldovans (nor many of the Estonians I've listened to).
Moldovan democracy may be far from perfect, but certainly it is better than the totalitarian regime under the Soviets. Isn't that a source of happiness? No, says Vitalie, without the slightest hesitation. "In Soviet times, nobody thought about freedom. Communism was all they knew. They didn't wake up every day and say, 'Gee, I wish I had more freedom.' Freedom to do what? At least back then, people had jobs and a place to live. That was a kind of freedom, and they don't have that now." 
The American neo-cons seem to have got the cause and effect mixed up when they rationalised that democracy would bring contentment to Iraq.
That old causality bugaboo, political scientist Ron Inglehart concluded: It's not that democracy makes people happy but rather that happy people are much more likely to establish a democracy...
The soil must be rich, culturally speaking, before democracy can take root. The institutions are less important than the culture. And what are the cultural ingredients needed for democracy to take root? Trust and tolerance. Not only trust of those inside your group -- family, for instance -- but external trust. Trust of strangers. Trust of your opponents, your enemies, even.
The lack of trust leads to lack of simple human charity, even when it would benefit the Moldovans who are giving it. I like and agree with the conclusion that kindness -- specifically, the giving of it -- makes us happier.
"No este problema mea." Not my problem. A country with so many problems yet nobody's problem. Nobody takes ownership. Luba's apartment building, for instance, desperately needs a new water pump. (That explains the strange noises.) She tried to get people to pitch in -- it would benefit everyone -- but nobody would. No one is willing to contribute money to something that will benefit others as well as themselves. What the Moldovans fail to recognize is the power of selfish altruism. It may sound a bit Sunday school-ish, but helping others makes us feel good. Psychologists at Kobe College in Japan proved this. They divided a group of college students into two groups. One group did nothing differently for a week. The other group was asked to count the number of kind acts they performed during that week. They weren't asked to perform any kind acts, merely to take note of them. After a week, this second group reported a marked jump in happiness levels compared to the control group. "Simply by counting the acts of kindness for one week, people become happier and more grateful," concluded the researchers...
Neuroscientists, meanwhile, believe they have located the part of the brain linked with altruism. To their surprise, it turns out to be a more primitive part of the brain than initially suspected -- the same part associated with our cravings for food and sex. That suggests that we are hardwired for altruism and not just faking it.
Not only do Moldovans do little or nothing to help each other, it seems they boil with rancour when their neighbours succeed regardless.  This, Weiner notes, is exceptionally corrosive.
Envy, that enemy of happiness, is rife in Moldova. It's an especially virulent strain, one devoid of the driving ambition that usually accompanies envy. So the Moldovans get all of the downsides of envy without any of its benefits -- namely, the thriving businesses and towering buildings erected by ambitious men and women out to prove they are better than everyone else. Moldovans derive more pleasure from their neighbor's failure than their own success. I can't imagine anything less happy.
On his way to the airport (and feeling quite happy about it), Weiner takes note of a billboard at the roadside advertising a large, flat-screen TV.
The billboard, indeed, all consumer culture, is mocking the Moldovans, most of whom will never be able to afford the products advertised -- unless they sell a kidney. Joseph Epstein, in his book on envy, described the entire advertising industry as "a vast and intricate envy-producing machine." In Moldova, all of that envy has nowhere to dissipate; it just accumulates, like so much toxic waste.
During his stay, Weiner asked everyone with whom he spoke, what is good about Moldova?  Everyone, both Moldovans and others, replied -- after a long, thoughtful pause -- that the fruits and vegetables are very fresh and good.  The tourism advertising boasts that Moldova is famous for its wine, but Weiner and others rate it barely drinkable.  But the fruits and vegetables?  Excellent.  That, unfortunately, does not seem to override the country's other woes. The decision to visit Moldova proved excellent in the end, because learning what detracts from happiness is as revelatory as learning what contributes to it.
Are there bigger lessons, though, to be gleaned from Moldova's unhappiness, other than the obvious point that one should at all costs and under all circumstances avoid being Moldovan? Yes, I think there are. Lesson number one: "Not my problem" is not a philosophy. It's a mental illness. Right up there with pessimism. Other people's problems are our problems. If your neighbor is laid off, you may feel as if you've dodged the bullet, but you haven't. The bullet hit you as well. You just don't feel the pain yet. Or as Ruut Veenhoven told me: "The quality of a society is more important than your place in that society." In other words, better to be a small fish in a clean pond than a big fish in a polluted lake. Lesson number two: Poverty, relative poverty, is often an excuse for unhappiness. Yes, Moldovans are poor compared to other Europeans, but clearly it is their reaction to their economic problems, and not the problems alone, that explains their unhappiness. The seeds of Moldovan unhappiness are planted in their culture. A culture that belittles the value of trust and friendship. A culture that rewards mean-spiritedness and deceit. A culture that carves out no space for unrequited kindness, no space for what St. Augustine called (long before Bill Clinton came along) "the happiness of hope." Or as the ancient Indian text the Mahabharata says: "Hope is the sheet anchor of every man. When hope is destroyed, great grief follows, which is almost equal to death itself." No, there is nothing I will miss about Moldova. Nothing. Well, that's not entirely true. I will miss Luba and her floral housecoat. She's a good soul. And, of course, the fruits and vegetables. They are very fresh.
Weiner departs the gloom of Moldova and shifts to the Land of a Million Smiles, Thailand. Here he discovers that smiling and outwardly happy people are not necessarily devoid of rage.  In the papers, he reads of a large number of Thai surgeons who have mastered the skill of penile reattachment for men whose angry, cheated-upon wives have avenged themselves with kitchen cutlery (quite possibly smiling all the while). Losing one's temper is losing face in southeast Asia, so voices must be kept dulcet.
Lately, word has spread of the surgeons' remarkable skills, so the angry wives have upped the ante and adopted a new and even more effective threat: "And I'll feed it to the ducks." Those few words, spoken with quiet conviction, have caused many a Thai man to behave like a saint...
Yes, considering that they follow a religion that espouses the "middle way", Thais, conspicuously, seem to be missing a dimmer switch. They are either keeping their hearts cool or they're chopping off penises. Nothing in between.
I like Weiner's take on capital cities and explaining their difference from the provinces.
People like to say that Bangkok isn't the "real Thailand", just as they say that New York is not the real America and Paris is not the real France. I think this is wrong. These cities did not materialize out of nothingness. They grew organically in the soil in which they were planted. They are not the exception to the rule but, rather, the rule on steroids. New York is America, only more so. The same is true of Bangkok.
The following point defines what I love about many of southeast Asia's cities, and it grieves me to see the inner-city kampongs being obliterated in Kuala Lumpur to make way for high-rise office/condo/shopping monstrosities. The sense of community disappears with the street stalls.
...when Thai villagers move to the big city, they are not really moving at all. They take the village with them and end up reaping the best of both worlds. You see evidence of this everywhere in Bangkok, which is not so much a city as a collection of villages. In the sois, those narrow alleyways that crisscross Bangkok like hundreds of tiny capillaries, life is conducted, more or less, as it is in the village. The smell of noodles frying, the call of hawkers, the sense of fraternity. It's all there.
The Thai view of fun, or sanuk, is refreshingly different from the American definitions. It's not an ecstatic, manic outburst of jollity but rather a quality of everyday life.
And what about sanuk, fun? Thais consider it very important, yes? With this, his eyes light up, and he bolts upright in a sudden burst of sobriety. "Ahh, sanuk. If it's not sanuk, it's not worth doing. People will resign from a good-paying job because it's not fun."
"But everyone likes to have fun. We Americans practically invented fun."
"Yes, but you Americans take your fun very seriously. We Thais do not. We don't believe in this work-hard, play-hard mentality. Our fun is interspersed throughout the day."
"What do you mean?"
"It could be a smile or a laugh during the workday. It's not as uptight as in America. Also, our patterns of holidays are different. We don't take the entire month of August off, like Europeans. We take a day off here, a week off there. Everything is interspersed."
When he enters the UK and announces to the immigration officer that he has arrived to assess Britons' levels of happiness, Weiner is quick to realise his error:  The official stares back at him, trying to discern whether he is sarcastic, criminal, or simply mad.  The classical British 'stiff upper lip' applies exhibitions of glee as well as grief. Having grown up in Maine, another place renowned for understated emotions, I appreciate this. Not everyone wears his bliss on his sleeve.
At this point, Rob interjects, feeling compelled, I suspect, to defend his homeland. The British, he declares, possess a "latent happiness". It's there, lurking deep in their bowels. You just can't see it. Or feel it. Or hear it. Or detect it in any way known to man. But it's there, Rob assures me.
Finally, Mr. Weiner turns his attentions to his own country, the United States.
America's place on the happiness spectrum is not as high as you might think, given our superpower status. We are not, by any measure, the happiest nation on earth. One study, by Adrian White at the University of Leicester in Britain, ranked the United States as the world's twenty-third happiest nation, behind countries such as Costa Rica, Malta, and Malaysia.
"But it's such a rich country!" exclaim my Maltese and Malaysian friends, wondering why one would ever emigrate from such a paradise. I should have the following paragraphs printed up on little laminated cards to explain the matter.
As a nation, we are three times richer than we were in 1950 yet no happier...
Clearly, one dynamic at work is rising expectations. We compare ourselves not to the America of 1950 but the America of today and, more specifically, to our neighbors of today. We give lip service to the notion that money can't buy happiness but act as if it does. When asked what would improve the quality of their lives, Americans' number-one answer was money, according to a University of Michigan study...
The self-help industrial complex hasn't helped. By telling us that happiness lives inside us, it's turned us inward just when we should be looking outward. Not to money but to other people, to community and to the kind of human bonds that so clearly are the sources of our happiness. Americans work longer hours and commute greater distances than virtually any other people in the world. Commuting, in particular, has been found to be detrimental to our happiness, as well as our physical health...
Every year, nearly forty million Americans move. Some, no doubt, pick up stakes for job opportunities or to be near a sick relative. But many move simply because they believe they'll be happier somewhere else.
The Geography of Bliss reinforced some of my own observations from my travels and reading, and it introduced some new ones. It makes me wonder if I should look back upon my own sojourns and reflect and write about them in terms of happiness. I wouldn't aim for bliss, however. My study would be the Geography of Contentment. As the Bhutanese sage said, we need to know how much is enough. 

1 comment:

  1. A book does not have to be philosophical to be insightful! This book sounds like it is quite a riot. I love the writer's observations on the Thai concept of "sanuk" and on the bitter guarded unhappiness of Moldovans. Some people and communities guard and defend their unhappiness jealously as though it is a basic human right to be miserable. The Americans mystify me most of all with their self-conscious and open pursuit of happiness. Gretchen Rubin's "The Happiness Project" and "Happiness at Home" come to mind. An Asian would never write such books, because (1) carrying out obligations is more important than personal satisfaction and (2) to write such a book would be to publicly admit that you are not happy, and you will thus lose face.


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