Thursday, October 07, 2010

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

When I was younger, I really, really, really wanted to be a journalist. They get to go to the most God-Awesome places in the world and look fabulous on TV. But my parents, who usually are the most supportive parents ever, had their doubts. They said I was TOO HAPPY to be a journalist (and of course, they said the field is too small and extremely competitive, but the other comment surprised me more). What does happiness have to do with journalism?

Back then, I suppose I did not fully grasp that as an annotator of real life, I would have to bear witness not only to royal weddings, peaceful elections and happy African children with their white, white teeth dazzling the cameras under the midday sun, but also war, famine, violence and human strife. It would just totally ruin my good vibes!

Case in point, much like how Eric Weiner’s life had been the past few years. Aside from having a last name that rhymes with whiner, he also has the task of working as a foreign correspondent for the National Public Radio. He had been to places such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Indonesia, which he claims to be unhappy places. He roamed the world telling the stories of people who are unhappy. We all know why, of course.

“The truth is that unhappy people, living in profoundly unhappy places, make for good stories. They tug at the heart strings and inspire pathos. They can also be a real bummer.”

Out of professional curiousity, he decided to travel the world for one year and search for the happiest places in the world. No, it’s not akin to a year-long vacation. He really wanted to understand why these places can be happy; he researched facts and figures which might support happiness in those particular countries.

“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. Around the world, dozens of what-ifs play themselves out every day. What if you lived in a country that was fabulously wealthy and no one paid taxes? What if you lived in a country where failure is an option? What if you lived in a country so democratic that you voted seven times a year? What if you lived in a country where excessive thinking is discouraged? Would you be happy then? (introduction, page 2)”

He went to the Netherlands where drugs and prostitution are legal and where the World Database of Happiness office is located, Switzerland where chocolates rule, Iceland where the more you fail the more you succeed, Qatar the land of Gold and More Gold and totally devoid of national culture, Bhutan where people speak with their hands as much as their lips, India where people are suffering but is the center of happiness for Julia Roberts’ Eat Pray Love character and countless others, then to sour places like Moldova, Thailand and Great Britain.

What I appreciated after reading this book is how it puts into perspective how we see and understand happiness. How, as a very objective word, it can preclude and include so many things, and all you have to do is decide which things matter. Everyone in the world wants to find even a little bit of happiness. The Philippines doesn’t really fare badly in the happiness meter. We are a relatively happier country than richer neighbours in Asia. Creating a happy culture is the sum total of history, discipline and motivation. Some of these factors you can’t change. Some depends on our choices today.

So yeah, maybe it’s the country where you live in. But in one way, maybe it’s also the country we make it to be.

I recommend reading this book if you want to ponder on the H world without falling into self-induced depression. The book is funny, insightful, without sounding privileged or haughty. It just details an average man's investigation on the world's most objective concept ever. Even a grump dreams of laughter, so it seems. And I'm willing to bet that Eric Weiner is a closet happy freak after all.

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