Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World by Eric Weiner

Iceland: Happiness is Failure

I first became interested in Iceland when I started to read the Icelandic sagas. I initially expected them to be long epic poems similar to Beowulf. I was pleasantly surprised to find them to be like intergenerational novels with more politics and fighting and less romance than the usual American ones. I ultimately ended taking a class on Icelandic feuds so that I can recall a fair amount about medieval Icelandic legal and political structure. The only thing I initially knew about present-day Iceland is that Bjork likes to wear fake swans.

The sagas still continue to influence present-day Iceland, which has (or had) a flourishing publishing industry. Weiner comments that Iceland is a very literate and creative society. Everyone in Iceland is writing a book or a poem, forming a rock band, or wearing some kind of fashion innovation (more innovative, I suspect, than the striped briefs that blew Weiner's mind) while drinking coffee in hip cafes and eating rotting shark. He attributes much of this creative energy to Iceland’s willingness to allow people to fail at one endeavor and try again at another. People can start out as web programmers and then become bankers or carpenters as they mature and find their interests changing. Artists actually get government checks and never starve because it is believed that they can create more and better material if they don't have to worry about having a roof over their heads and food on their plate. Life-long learning is embraced.

"Having multiple identities (though not multiple personalities) is, he believes, conductive to happiness. This runs counter to the prevailing belief in the United States and other western nations, where specialization is considered the highest good. Academics, doctors, and other professionals spend lifetimes learning more and more about less and less. In Iceland, people learn more and more about more and more." (p.161)

I found this interesting because American society did not, until recently, accept failure or people who failed. Failures were dropped from the news and fired from their jobs. They were told to pull themselves together, get some career counseling, and go on with their lives after deciding on a definite, possibly very different, preferably specialized, employment path. The higher a specialized degree you earned, the more money you could command in salary. Unless you changed careers, wrote a bestseller about doing so, and had your book chosen by Oprah, you were not applauded for career-hopping and especially not for admitting to failure. Will this change in post-bailout America? Will laid-off financial workers decide to become potters or sous-chefs?

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

This is a fascinating topic and so relevant to all times and places and peoples. Kudos for choosing this book. Iceland sounds ever more fascinating. As someone said, if US opens it borders, no one would like to live anywhere else in the world. Maybe there will be a happiness- rush toward US. Same seems to be true for Iceland. It seems to be a place where Plato's philosopher-king rules, or Thomas Moore's Utopia works, or Orwell’s 1984 will be a considered not a work of prophecy but conspiracy. I can’t believe Iceland does not have its poor, downtrodden, disabled, disenfranchised and the dispossessed, like all other societies on the planet-from prehistory to post modernity. Maybe Iceland is too uniform, in terms of race, ethnicity, color, creed, language. Because Narcissism is universal. It shows up in the geography and demography of neighborhoods. Lust for power is perennial. Nepotism is inevitable. Concentration of wealth is a norm is every polity. Conditions for inequality are embedded in the biological dimension which are reinforced by the political and socio-economic forces. Humans don’t choose their genes. And resources for growth and development cannot be accessed in an egalitarian manner because of scarcity of precious resources and realities of nepotism and power politics. Who gets incarcerated in any given culture, or who gets to do the dirty work done in any society is no secret. Global stats are available to prove that minorities suffer if they don’t have similarity, familiarity or “family resemblances” with the elite. How is Iceland managing the biological inequalities, the psychological biases, and resulting economic disparities, I wonder. As long as there is poverty, there will be unhappiness and gods. But maybe what Tolstoy said about families applies to countries and individuals: All happy families are alike but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. "But, O, how bitter a thing it is to look into unhappiness through another man's eyes," said Shakespeare in As you Like It. Maybe Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced as chick-sent-me-high), one of the greatest psychologists of all times, who discovered the state of flow, said: “Beyond the threshold of poverty, one does not need money to be happy in life, one needs meaning.”

Anonymous said...

great choice for discussion. i have not read the book, but do remember it being discussed on NPR. i will have to listen again and further comment.

Tracey said...

To Anonymous 4:11 PM:

At the beginning of the book, Weiner visits a Happiness Institute in the Netherlands. The man who runs it, Dr. Ruut Veenhoven, shares with Weiner some of the characteristics found in happy countries:

"Some of the happiest countries in the world - Iceland and Denmark, for instance - are homogenous, shattering the American belief that there is strength, and happiness in diversity...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." (p. 16)

Veenhoven remarks that his colleagues in the sociology department are not amused by such findings. Any suggestions as to why he got these results?

Anonymous said...

haven't read the book but am looking forward to doing so...

what was the happiness index in Japan, I wonder...?

well homogeneity: is this referring to race, income, social status, culture...many ways to homogeneous....

very dangerous to talk about homogeneity being a factor without discussing how this idea was arrived at....

I guess it has to do with having to make less effort at the very basics because fundamental core beliefs are share so less misunderstanding/friction erupts....

if it-homogeneity- refers simply to everybody looks the same, then that society needs to take a hard look at itself...

regardless of how "happy" it is....

Tracey said...

Anonymous 7:47 PM

I think you will find the Switzerland discussion interesting.

Anonymous said...

To Anonymous 12/1 4:11PM: Industrial psychologists have observed that salary increases are not necessarily great motivators in the long run. Building on Maslow's observation that self-actualization and self-esteem are higher order needs that social standing, safety and physical needs, Frederick Herzberg observed that compensation is not as powerful a motivator unless people feel they are being paid an unjustifiably low amount. One wonders what kind of motivation the captains of industry and finance really get from multimillion dollar salaries and compensation packages. In recent years, it hasn't led to superior performance.

Tracey said...

Anonymous 1:39

I think the answer to this is the self-esteem movement in the US. These CEO's and finance wizzes may genuinely believe that only they deserve to be compensated at enormous expense to their company and ultimately to tax payers.

It is also, I think, connected to the overspecialization in American society. These people work and live in a rarified environment and may not be aware of the far-reaching consequences of their actions. Wendell Berry has been writing for years in his essays of the interconnectedness of all levels or society and of countries

http://arts.envirolink.org/interviews_and_conversations/WendellBerry.html


Unfortunately, these business peopl focus only on their own needs and desires and not those of others outside of their social circle.

Tracey said...

Here is the full Wendell Berry link, unchopped up by Blogger.

http://arts.envirolink.org/interviews_and_conversations/WendellBerry.html