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The Geography of Bliss

The last time I wrote about happiness, I found myself swamped with emails requesting my data set and asking questions about methodologies for measuring happiness. Readers, it seems, are pretty interested in happiness. And editors certainly are – Businessweek just produced a story and photoset of the dozen happiest nations, according to British researcher Adrian White.

People love to think, talk and argue about happiness. I have a hard time counting the number of times I’ve been approached at development conferences by someone who wants to tell me the story of Bhutan’s decision to focus on Gross National Happiness, not Gross National Product. Or the times I’ve been forwarded an article asserting that Nigeria tops a world happiness survey. We’ve all been happy and unhappy, and we’ve all got opinions – well- or ill-informed – on what makes people happy, which means we’ve all got something to say on the topic.

I was interested in correlating happiness to health, and threw some simple statistical techniques at a data set I’d found online. In a development that made me, well, pretty unhappy, I discovered that the data I was using – also Adrian White’s Global Projection of Subjective Well-Being – was apparently “borrowed” from the New Economics Foundation’s “Happy Planet Index”. That data, in turn, is apparently extrapolated from Dr. Ruut Veenhoven’s World Database of Happiness, which is a concordance of happiness research from around the world. The database includes results from 95 countries, many of which have been surveyed several times over the course of decades, asking people a fixed series of questions about their subjective satisfaction with their own lives.

Veenhoven’s database is the starting point fror Eric Weiner’s excellent “The Geography of Bliss“, a witty, funny and insightful book, which follows the wanderings of a self-described “grump” through his travel to happy and unhappy nations.

A foreign correspondent for NPR, Weiner sees a lot of nations at their worst. And he claims not to be a happy man, an addict of self-help books designed to help him enjoy his life more. Explicit in his journey is the question, “If I lived here, would I be happy?” There are some interesting geographic patterns to happiness. Impoverished and wartorn nations are generally not happy places. Scandinavian and Alpine nations are, for the most part. You might conclude that cold, rich nations are the places to be if you’d like to be happy.

But making generalizations in this field is difficult.
Many of the former Soviet states are cold, and most rank very low in happiness. Money’s not guaranteed to help either. There’s an “East-Asian Happiness Gap“, where wealth East Asian nations are a lot less happy than you’d expect given their wealth. (Possible explanations for the gap include, “environmental disruption, excessive competitiveness, repressive education, excessive conformity, negative attitudes towards enjoyment, and the emphasis on outward appearance.” Sounds like a drag.)

Weiner travels to nine nations in writing the book, some unusually happy (Switzerland, Bhutan, Iceland), some surprisingly unhappy (Qatar, Moldova). He’s better at writing about the unhappy ones than the happy, which may reveal a fundamental truth of travel writing – it’s just not much fun to read about someone having a great time. (One of my favorite travel writers is Redmond O’Hanlon, whose jungle journeys generally sound like misery, interspersed with danger, failure and sheer terror, gently seasoned with British wit. My guess is that he wouldn’t be nearly as good at writing about beach vacations in the Bahamas.)

It’s hard to draw firm conclusions from Weiner’s travel about what makes some nations happy and others miserable. Weiner gives us intriguing hints at the state of the art of happiness research, writing at some length about “the hedonic treadmill“, a concept coined by Philip Brickman and Donald Campbell, who were studying the happiness of lottery winners and accident victims. Unsurprisingly, the lottery winners were quite happy, and the paralyzed accident victims unhappy. But over time, both returned to levels quite close to their happiness before these surprising developments.

Most people believe that acquiring a bit more money would make them happy; they tend to find that acquiring wealth is a trap, as they always want a bit more (hence, the treadmill.) There’s an exception – people who are truly impoverished will see their happiness increase with increased income. But this effect maxes out at a surprisingly low level, around $15,000 in annual income. In a rich country, there are only a few things likely to have an unambigious effect on your happiness over a long period of time, Weiner tells us: “Noise and big breasts. Studies have found that we really never get used to loud noises, despite prolonged exposure. Another study found that women who get breast implants never tire of the enjoyment it brings them, and presumably their companions as well.” And now you know.

Weiner adds his own layer of theory to his travels, introducing a couple of useful concepts to people interested in happiness. He discovers that throughout his travels, he meets people who are much happier in the places they’ve migrated to than in the lands of their birth. “They are hedonic refugees, moving to a new land, a new culture, because they are happier there. Usually, hedonic refugees have an epiphany, a moment of great clarity when they realize, beyond a doubt, they were born in the wrong country.” My guess is that a lot of people born in Burkina Faso, for instance, have this moment of clarity but aren’t able to relocate to Denmark – this is, perhaps, a more useful concept for explaining the migratory patterns of the rich and privleged than the world as a whole. But it’s an intriguing clue about “cultural fit”, the idea that someone who doesn’t fit well with the dominant culture of a place may be unhappy even if most of her fellow citizens are blissful.

Weiner also suggests that culture goes a long way towards explaining unhappiness in Moldova, the unhappiest nation he visits. Moldova is legendary in the happiness studies community, a nation that ranks extremely low in happiness despite beating out many nations in terms of life expectancy and wealth. Weiner believes this is because Moldova is:

…a fabricated nation. It doesn’t exist. Oh yes, you can go there, as I did, and walk its streets, eat its mamaliga, drink its bad wine, talk to its miserable people. Later, safely home, you can flip open your passport and admine, if that’s the word, the stamp that says “The Republic of Moldova”. None of this matters. Moldova does not exist, and existence is, in my book, a prerequisite for happiness. We need a solid identity – ethnic, national, linguistic, culinary, whatever – in order to feel good about ourselves.

This theory helps explain Weiner’s reaction to Qatar, which he finds surprisingly unhappy. His visit to Qatar’s historical museum, an unairconditioned concrete bunker in a nation where summer temperatures routinely break 50C, convinces him that Qataris have outsourced their history and heritage, not just all menial – and much technical – labor. Unless it’s the claustrophobia that comes from a society bound by tribal rules, but freed of the constraints of traditional financial rules by incredible wealth through national resources. Turns out it’s almost as difficult to pin down the causes of unhappiness as it is to explain happiness.

“The Geography of Bliss” makes a lousy self-help book – it won’t help you relocate to your happy spot on the earth, if such a thing exists. But it’s a really fun way to get a handle on what we do and don’t know about happiness, and you’ll likely be (marginally, slightly, temporarily) happier if you read it.

4 thoughts on “The Geography of Bliss”

  1. Nice piece. Quantifying happiness seems to be the problem and then there is the issue of relative experience. Someone raised in Switzerland may feel miserable having to live in Sierra Leone yet someone in Sierra Leone may already be very happy as they little experience of anything better.

    Most of the surveys I have read seem to suggest once you reach a certain standard of living its your personal relationships with family and friends that determine your happiness rather than money and where you live.

  2. Interesting, that people who’ve been through accidents or winning lotteries both winding up about as happy as they were before. That suggests if your basic needs are met (“>$15,000″…), the main component is brain chemistry.

    Does the pharmaceutical industry read your blog?

  3. Ethan – great review! I’d heard about Weiner’s book before it was published and had meant to follow up; thanks for the reminder to add it to my shelf.

  4. Pingback: …My heart’s in Accra » Moldova, bridges and storytelling

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