The Geography of Bliss

So I just moved to Portland 5 months ago and am in a very broke place in life.  Every day I apply for jobs but moneys are very low and it’s stressful.  I look forward to the day when I can buy a cup of coffee without thinking of the  financial repercussions.  As a result of my desperate financial state,  I’m always looking for ways to supplement my income.

I saw an ad on craigslist about being paid to take part in a research study about depression.  I have had depression in the past but am actually happy lately in spite of my financial stress.  So I decided to try and fake being depressed.  I made it through the initial screening process and came in for the next appointment where I was asked a series of questions to evaluate my mood.   I tried my best to sound depressed  but after the evaluation, the psychiatrist looked over my answers and said I did not qualify for the study.

So I got kicked out of the study for not actually being depressed.  Oh man, and American psychology is so weird!  He said something like: “Don’t worry, it doesn’t mean you’re not depressed.  Just not depressed enough for this study.” Ha ha, oh man!  Even though I was not able to participate in the study and would receive no moneys, I went home and felt happy all day about not being depressed.  It felt like a small victory. Definitely one of the stranger ways I’ve tried to make money!

While at my appointment, I was  actually reading The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner.  It’s one of the most interesting travel books I’ve ever read and has made me think a lot about happiness and where and how to find it.  Eric Weiner, a correspondent for NPR, decided to travel to ten different countries to explore the idea of what makes a country or a culture happy or unhappy.  He decided on some of the countries by looking at the World Database of Happiness.   It’s based in the Netherlands and is a place where research is conducted about which countries are the happiest.

There are some things he’s learned that he believes are true across the board when it comes to happiness.  “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.”  However, there are also inconsistencies when it comes to what will bring us happiness.  For example, he says: “The Swiss are uptight and happy.  The Thais are laid back and happy.  Icelanders find joy in their binge drinking, the Moldovans only misery.”

In the Netherlands, he finds that happiness is drugs, prostitution and cycling.  In Qatar, he discovers that having a history and a culture are important aspects of happiness.  In Moldova, one of the unhappiest countries in the world, he discovers that having trust is a necessary ingredient for happiness. He says:  “The seeds of Moldovan unhappiness are planted in their culture.  A culture that belittles the value of trust and friendship.  A culture that rewards mean-spiritedness and deceit.  A culture that carves out no space for unrequited kindness

In Iceland, Weiner discovers that happiness is being given the ability to explore different aspirations in life. He has a conversation with a young man who has relocated to Iceland and has held a multitude of different jobs.   After talking with the young man he concludes:

Having multiple identities (though not multiple personalities) is, he believes, conducive to happiness.  This runs counter to the prevailing belief in the United States and other western nations, where specialization is considered the highest good.  Academics, doctors, and other professionals spend lifetimes learning more and more about less and less.  In Iceland, people learn more and more about more and more.”

My favorite chapter in the book was on Bhutan, where, by the sound of it, I feel I would fit in well.  Bhutan has a policy of Gross National Happiness and measures its progress not by its economic growth, but by the happiness of its people.  In Bhutan, to be attentive and sincere is to be happy.  Weiner is at first impatient with the Bhutanese but then comes to appreciate the way they “do nearly everything- cross the street, wash dishes- so deliberately, so attentively.”  He speaks of the Bhutanese relational nature of happiness and says:

They suffer from an excess of sincerity, a trait anathema to good marketing.  The Bhutanese take the idea of Gross National Happiness seriously, but by “happiness” they mean something very different from the fizzy, smiley-face version practiced in the United States.  For the Bhutanese, happiness is a collective endeavor.  The phrase ‘personal happiness’ makes no sense to them or, as Karma Ura told me, “We don’t believe in this Robinson Crusoe happiness.  All happiness is relational.””

I really appreciated this statement about the Bhutanese excess of sincerity, especially in relation to my experience with the study about depression.  It made me realize that I value sincerity, and I felt glad about not having the ability to lie or be insincere about something (even if that something was depression and would have made me a little bit of money, ha ha).  It made me think about how our values and how well we live them are something that can contribute to our happiness.

One of the things the Bhutanese value is having a relationship with death.  From a conversation with Bhutanese scholar and cancer survivor, Karma Ura:

You need to think about death for five minutes every day. It will cure you, sanitize you.”


“It is this thing, this fear of death, this fear of dying before we have accomplished what we want or seen our children grow.  This is what is troubling you.”

“But it sounds so depressing, thinking about death every day.  Why would I want to do that?”

“Rich people in the west, they have not touched dead bodies, fresh wounds, rotten things.  This is a problem.  This is the human condition.  We have to be ready for the moment we cease to exist.”

Something Weiner said that I also believe is that happiness is a choice.  There are certain conditions that I think have to be met in order to be happy such as having basic needs covered but I think that being happy is also an action that requires some amount of work.  As Weiner says:  “We want to achieve our happiness and not just experience it.”

The book also brought up the question about whether happiness really is the highest goal or whether leading a meaningful life is more important.  It was pointed out that a meaningful life is not always a happy one.  Weiner says:  “Yes, we want to be happy but for the right reasons, and, ultimately, most of us would choose a rich and meaningful life over an empty, happy one, if such a thing is even possible.”  However, I think that engaging oneself in something meaningful does bring a kind of happiness.  Also for myself I’ve noticed that the times I’ve chosen to be happy in life and work at happiness when it hasn’t been easy are also some of the times that my life has felt the most meaningful.

At the end of the book, Weiner realizes that what he’s learned the most from his travels is that “happiness is one hundred percent relationaland thatour happiness is completely and utterly intertwined with other people: family and friends and neighbors and the woman you hardly notice who cleans your office.  Happiness is not a noun or verb.  It’s a conjunction.  Connective tissue.”  I love that idea, happiness as connection and the relationships in our lives.

As for where the happiest place really is, Weiner says that as Americans we have the mindset that we could be happier elsewhere and so we never fully commit.   He says that you can’t really love a person or a place with one foot out the door, something that really struck me.  In conclusion, he notes that “Any atlas of bliss must be sketched in pencil.”


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