Tuesday, December 30, 2008

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

Final Book Discussion Post

I think the best way to sum up the book and the search for happiness is to use some quotes from Weiner's final chapter:

"Tolstoy turned on his head. All miserable countries are alike; happy ones are happy in their own way." (p.322)

"Yes, we want to be happy but for the right reasons, and, ultimately, most of us would choose a rich but meaningful life over an empty, happy one, if such a thing is even possible." (p.323)

The search for happiness is complicated and ongoing. We make our own happiness. For some, the search is the best part of happiness. While we are all now living in "interesting times" I hope Weiner's happy countries can, someday, once again be happy.

This ends the discussion of The Geography of Bliss.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

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

The Happiness Effect

Time Magazine (December 11, 2008) just published an article about a recently published 20-year study about happiness:


" showing that emotions can pass among a network of people up to three degrees of separation away, so your joy may, to a larger extent than you realize, be determined by how cheerful your friends' friends' friends are, even if some of the people in this chain are total strangers to you.
If that's so, it creates a whole new paradigm for the way people get sick and, more important, how to get them healthy. It may mean that an individual's well-being is the product not just of his behaviors and emotions but more of the way they feed into a larger social network. "

The results of the study are interesting because they show that an individual may not be happy on his or her own, but is happiest in an environment of other happy people. The Slough experiment in Britain could be the right way to spread happiness. Teach a group of people to change their way of thinking so that they become happier and they will spread it within three degrees. The furthest-away people can spread it another three degrees. Eventually entire counties, and perhaps entire countries,can become happy - but only if the happiness spreads more quickly than the unhappiness.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

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

Great Britain: Happiness is a Work in Progress

Weiner decided to visit a town in Britain called Slough because a few years ago Slough was featured in a British reality show (it is also the town where the British version of The Office is set). Six happiness experts were sent to Slough to make the populace happier. Weiner is intrigued because "here was a deliberate, ambitious attempt to take an unhappy place and make it happy-or at least happier. Could it be done?"

The happiness experts took fifty Slough residents, tested their happiness levels, which turned out to be average, and then spent twelve weeks giving them happiness training. At the end of the twelve weeks, these newly happy people were to go around spreading happiness through the rest of Slough. The happiness re-test showed that they had gone up the happiness scale by 33% and were happier than Switzerland (p.253-4).

Part of this happiness training consisted of what I view as New Age exercises - hugging trees, doing tai chi, doing yoga, submerging oneself in an isolation tanks. The whole series sounds like an episode of Absolutely Fabulous - the one where Edina is swimming around her bedroom pool with her dolphin, who later dies of fin flop. The fifty visit graveyards and reflect on how even a mundane task like vacuuming, if done well, can be pleasurable.

Weiner then tracks down three people were on the happiness show. Based on his account of them, they are innately happy people, even the one with the really serious heart condition. What they all seem to have in common, besides being happier, is that they are curious people. They use their brain. They learn new things and they think about them.They would be equally happy if they had been taught breadmaking and sheetrocking since learning, not stagnating, is what makes them happy.

Much of the chapter is spent comparing American happiness to British happiness. The Brits (to me) may actually be happier since they are not going to therapists or reading self-help books. They are doing things that make them happier (ie getting cast in reality shows) rather than just thinking about things that make them happy. One guy is even made happy by the cultural diversity in Slough, even though Weiner points out that the more homogenous cultures are happier.I wonder if Americans are happier than the Brits or whether that was just American PR?

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

Thailand: Happiness is Not Being in Control of Your Fate

"This, I realize, is what life is like for most Thais. They are not in control of their fates. A terrifying thought, yes, but also a liberating one. For if nothing you do matters, then life suddenly feels a lot less heavy. It's just one big game." (p. 241).

At the end of Weiner's Thailand chapter, Thailand has what he refers to as a "coup lite". "Coups don't really fit into my search for the world's happiest places, and this is just the sort of unhappiness I've been trying so hard to avoid." (p.241)

When I reread these quotes, I realized that this is where I diverge from Weiner. It is easy to view life as one big game when you are, indeed, in control of your fate and you are just meditively thinking about the universe before you go back to your active life. Many Americans can make choices about their education, careers, where to live, and how to invest their money. However, many Americans cannot. This also applies to Thais. Sitting back and viewing what you cannot change as a game, is, I suppose, one way to stay sane. On the other hand, it is also a way to perpetuate your society's problems. It belittles the people who do try to make changes to improve society - they are not fun, they are not playing the game. And who decided the rules of the game? Usually not the majority of the people in a society - usually the minority in power.

This is a very Western view. Many non-Americans, and even many Americans who study Eastern philosophies, have found happiness by accepting life as something they cannot change. They have embraced their fate.

Do countries need coups in order to become happy? Do people need periods of unhappiness so that they can re-evaluate their lives and improve them? Would we all be happier if we didn't view life as a game and that the one who dies with the most prizes wins that game? We may be able to answer that question after my next post, which will be about Great Britain where happiness is a work in progress.

Friday, December 19, 2008

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

Thailand: Happiness is not Thinking

I mentioned to a few of my friends that Thailand is considered to be one of the happiest countries in the world. Their response was to ask whether Weiner had interviewed anyone in the Thai entertainment industry. They had a point - much of Thailand spends its time entertaining wealthy Westerners. Not thinking about their job is probably the only way for many Thai to survive.

Weiner also brings up the concept of the Gross National Happiness Index. The governments of both Thailand and Bhutan are commited to this index. However, in the case of Thailand at least, it doesn't seem to have made anyone happier.

Thailand has recently been overwhelmed by political chaos. One group of protestors took over the Prime Minister's office for several months:


Someone eventually lobbed a grenade at them, but it was amazing that they could actually stay in there for weeks before the government took violent action. Happiness Index at work?

What is impressive is the attempt to revitilize the Thai tourism business, which was hampered by the fact that the anti-government protestors took over the airports, trapping foreigners in country:


Thailand may be a charming country but its population appears to now be thinking and they are not happy about their political structure. Let's see if the happiness index survives a tourism slowdown due to the sinking economies of the countries who once visited Thailand.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

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

Switzerland: Will Happiness Survive Lack of Boredom?

Switzerland's boredom may not survive a financial crisis. As the rest of the world is being sucked into what may be a global recession, Switzerland is also getting worried. One of the reasons, according to Weiner, that the Swiss can afford to be bored is because of low unemployment. People have jobs. However, there are signs that this may be changing:


One of the major Swisss banks, UBS, became involved in the subprime morgage melt-down. The bank had a public meeting which generated a crowd of 6000 people who were expecting the total loss of their lifetime savings. One annoyed elderly shareholder had enough:

"Well, those responsible were plain to see - a phalanx of UBS chief executives in expensive suits, on a raised dais, bathed in spotlights. It was not the best public relations image.
The Swiss know that UBS bosses earned among the highest salaries in Europe. Added to that were huge bonuses which they continued to award themselves even as the financial crisis unfolded.
It was all too much for one indignant shareholder. Leaping to the podium he turned to UBS chairman Marcel Ospel and told him "give back your fat bonus, now. "Here, just in case you go hungry, I've brought you something to eat," he continued.
And reaching into his pocket he produced a string of traditional Swiss sausages and waved them under Mr Ospel's trembling nose. " (see above link)

This is the action of a calm, bored, happy Swiss citizen? Many Americans may share this man's anger as they listen to the news or read papers online or in print form. However, with the exception of those factory workers in Chicago, the average American is not publicly protesting the current financial crisis. I am impressed but not optimistic for much happiness in Switzerland in the near future.

Next post - Thailand: Happiness is Not Thinking.

Friday, December 5, 2008

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

Resources For Those Who Have Not Read The Book:


Article and audiofile about the book on the NPL site with Weiner and an excerpt from the chapter on Iceland.


Weiner's own site where he talks about the book.


Weiner's happiness advice from October of 2008, with audiofile.

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

Switzerland: Happiness is Boredom

Weiner's chapter on Switzerland reveals an odd love/hate relationship with the country. On one hand, life in Switzerland functions smoothly. The country is clean, the economy is good, the chocolate is wonderful. However, he also describes Switzerland as a super-nanny country where "In many parts of Switzerland, you can't mow your lawn or shake your carpets on Sunday. You can't hang laundry from your balcony on any day. You can't flush your toilet after 10:00 PM" (p.33) An acquaintance of his even received a note asking her not to laugh after midnight. Why, I wondered, could that possibly be called a happy country?

I then started to do some research on Switzerland. The country is divided into French, Italian, and German cantons, which all have representation in the government. All three official languages are official. How could such a linguistically fragmented country be so conformist? The answer came from one of my sisters. As she pointed out, the Swiss had to create one society and expect everyone to conform to it, or the three different cultures would have divided the country and there would be no Switzerland. Therefore cultural conformity was needed for happiness.

However, as I researched further, some indications of current cultural unhappiness began to emerge. Last year, much tension about foreign immigration into Switzerland began to emerge during campaigns for a general Parliamentary election:



Twenty percent of Switzerland's population is from outside of the country. As the number of foreign-born inhabitants continues to rise, so does tension inside the country between the foreign-born and native-born inhabitants. This makes sense when you remember that Weider notes that "The Swiss are deeply rooted in place. Their passports list the name of their ancestral town. Not their hometown but the town of their roots. Maybe they've never even been there. But it is their home." (p.38) People who have been rooted to one geographic area in one country for so long would understandably have trouble relating to people who have just moved in from Africa or the Ukraine.

Also, Weiner never talks to any recent non-Western immigrants to Switzerland. How do they perceive Swiss society? Do they feel bored? Do they feel stifled by Swiss conformity? Do they want to change Switzerland? What is their happiness level? And then of course, there are the Swiss economic problems...

Monday, December 1, 2008

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

Iceland continued: Failure = Creativity

According to Weiner, the lack of stigma associated with failure in Iceland allows Icelanders to take creative chances. If their book flops or their band remains obscure, they can just move on with their lives. To quote Weiner, "if you are free to fail, you are free to try." (p.162) Weiner's Icelanders share music and instruments and ideas within the Icelandic community, without envy, because they view such sharing as a way of creating a better community. Everyone is also free to create because they have a safety net if they fail, paid for by the government.

This is the concept that has radically changed my life. Everyone fails. Accept that you fail, accept the consequences of that failure, and move on with your life. That there will be consequences is a given, but consequences, if viewed as creative learning experiences, can be opportunities for growth. Once I embraced the idea of taking chances and allowing myself to fail, I did become a happier person.

The hard part is accepting the consequences and turning them into something creative. At the beginning of October, the British government invoked anti-terrorism laws against two Icelandic banks. As a result, Iceland's money was frozen and ultimately taken over in the UK; its financials funds were also frozen in other countries. Iceland had to apply for loans from the IMF as well as from other countries. People in Iceland have lost their savings and their pensions. Icelandic businesses cannot get other countries to accept Icelandic currency to pay for supplies. The New York Times had a sobering article about a coffee house whose owner could not get her coffee out of a foreign warehouse, although she had enough money to pay for the coffee, since she could not get anyone to exchange the Icelandic money for her:


In response, Icelanders set up :

The Iceland Petition Site: http://www.indefence.is/Home

which provides a Q&A about their financial situation and links to many interesting articles from newspapers and sites around the world about the effects of this financial disaster on both Iceland and the UK. It also asks people to sign a petition protesting the labeling of Icelanders as terrorists, and encourages people to post photo postcards with the message "I am not a terrorist" to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. My personal favorite is the Attack Sheep one.

At the same time, Icelanders are protesting against their government. They are toilet-papering their Parliament and handing flowers to the police. Of course, everyone is posting photos of these protests online. They are demanding accountability from the government and from the banks, as well as from the UK government.

The Icelandic Tourist Board is creatively promoting Iceland as a wonderful cheap place to spend a weekend (even for people from the US)- beautiful scenery, great music and art, cool clothes, very favorable exchange rate - in order to get someone, anyone, in to spend some money. One Icelandic television show even seems to be expanding:


Weiner compares Reykjavik in the early years of this century with Florence in the time of the Renaissance - a golden age. The problem with golden age cities is that they usually meet tragic fates - most of the inhabitants dying of plague, being overrun by rulers seeking to expand empires, having their harbors silt up, or as the casualities of crusades. What remains is often an empty shell dependent on tourists who wish to recapture the beauty and excitement of a lost age. Venice, for example, is still beautiful but its empty streets lack the vitality that they had during the years of the Venetian maritime empire.

Ultimately, many Icelanders will have to leave their country to seek employment elsewhere. Will they be able to continue their creative lives in other countries? How much of their culture will they be able to export with them? How much will be left behind in Iceland's gorgeous countryside?