Thursday, May 28, 2015

Happy places

The notion that happiness can be found somewhere else is at least as old as the saying that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. It is why immigrants still flock to the United States, why pioneers went west and why retirees head south. But are some places really happier than other places? Eric Weiner, a self-confessed grump, seeks to find out in his 2009 book The Geography of Bliss.

Weiner's unscientific research takes him to 10 countries, including the Netherlands, the center of truly scientific research into happiness; Iceland, Switzerland, Bhutan and Thailand, where people really do appear to be happier than those in most places, if for very different reasons; Moldova, where unhappiness abounds; Great Britain, where a project was conducted to attempt to make one town, Slough, happier; and the United States, where people may think they are happier than they really are. He also traveled to Qatar, one of the wealthiest nations on earth per capita, to see if money really can buy happiness, and to India, which despite its great poverty, draws people seeking happiness.

People in different cultures, Weiner finds, view happiness differently. Trust plays a big role in whether one feels happy or not. "Trusting your neighbors is especially important," he writes. "Simply knowing them can make a real difference in your quality of life." Diversity, while considered among the greatest virtues in today's world, tends not to enhance happiness. Most people feel happier among others like themselves, he discovers.

He concludes, "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." Notice that his summary, except for the mention of beaches, ignores geography.

Weiner writes with such wit and charm that you will feel happier, at least temporarily, just for reading his book.

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