The Saturday Read this week is ‘The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World’, by former NPR correspondent and self-described philosophical traveler, Eric Weiner. It’s a travelogue of personal discovery with a universal message, “where we are is vital to who we are”.
Early in his career decision process, Weiner decided travel was a necessary component to success – free travel. He started out as a foreign correspondent, going to some of the most unhappy global places. After a number of years covering conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Indonesia he decided it was time to consider the alternative, the happy places.
“What if, I wondered, I spent a year traveling the globe, seeking out not the world’s well-trodden trouble spots but, rather, its unheralded happy places? Places that possess, in spades, one or more of the ingredients that we consider essential to the hearty stew of happiness: money, pleasure, spirituality, family and chocolate, among others.”
And we’re off. First to the Netherlands and the World Database of Happiness to meet Ruut Veenhoven, Professor of Happiness Studies.
Veenhoven was a graduate student in sociology when he found his calling in a new discipline, happiness studies. In a career story that may resonate with others in academia, he describes a meeting with his advisor. He was interested in the study of healthy minds and happy places. “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…Today, Veenhoven is at the forefront of a field that churns out hundreds of research papers each year.”
By simply asking folks if they are happy, researchers have found:
“Extroverts are happier than introverts; optimists are happier than pessimists; married people are happier than singles, though people with children are no happier than childless couples; Republicans are happier than Democrats; people who attend religious services are happier than those who do not; people with college degrees are happier than those without, though people with advanced degrees are less happy than those with just a B.A….people are least happy when commuting to work; busy people are happier than those with too little to do; wealthy people are happier than poor ones, but only slightly.”
Before returning home to the U.S., Weiner traveled to Switzerland, Bhutan, Qatar, Iceland, Moldova, Thailand, Great Britain, and India. Finding your bliss is subjective, but deeply rooted in culture.
“The glue that holds the entire enterprise together is culture.” He embarked on an odyssey to find happiness, and discovered one of the key elements to success in life and work.
“…where we are is vital to who we are.”
“By ‘where’, I’m speaking not only of our physical environment but also of our cultural environment. Culture is the sea we swim in – so pervasive, so all-consuming, that we fail to notice its existence until we step out of it. It matters more than we think.”
Each new chapter invites the reader to experience another place, a new culture, citizens adapting to change, and challenges preconceived notions of the happiest places.
Sitting in an airport bar at the end of his journey, Weiner reflects on what he has learned. “Money matters, but less than we think and not in the way that we think. Family is important. So are friends. Envy is toxic. So is excessive thinking. Beaches are optional. Trust is not. Neither is gratitude…Happiness is not a noun or a verb. It’s a conjunction. Connective tissue.”
The shelves of bookstores are brimming with self help tomes on happiness. Eric Weiner’s global journey sets this book apart from the competition, transporting the reader on a round trip from domestic familiarity to places of contrasting mindsets, and back. It’s the perfect book for a winter read.