The Pursuit of Happiness
December 27, 2015 § Leave a comment
Eric Weiner must be a very happy man indeed. He hit the mother-lode that every journalist is desperately searching for : a book deal that allows him to go gallivanting around the world, doing drugs in Netherlands, visiting sleazy establishments in Bangkok, getting drunk at pool-side bars of luxury hotels in Qatar and sundry pubs in Britain and Iceland…all in the name of research for the book. Or perhaps, as is more likely, he did all this in his capacity as a roving radio journalist, and sewed it all into a book using happiness as a theme.
Either way, at the core of the book is the World Database of Happiness. Yes, that is a real thing, a respectable, legal and above-board entity, and you can click on the link above without trepidation. It is the brainchild of a Dutch sociologist called Ruut Veenhoven; you may have seen its periodic reports on the inside pages during the silly season. The WDH surveys the world and ranks nations in terms of how happy their citizens are. Weiner’s big idea was to go to a bunch of these countries, some at the top of the list (Iceland, Bhutan, Switzerland), some neither too high nor too low (Great Britain, USA, India) and at least one near the bottom of the list (Moldova), and to ask a few people there if they are happy, and what it is about their country that makes them happy. In between, he samples the local culture, takes in the sights, and intersperses his breezy comments with snappy quotes on happiness from a few dozen books that he has consulted. Are the people he interviews representative of the population of the countries he visits, or insightful experts on the subject of happiness? Who can tell? In fairness, his piece on Bangalore wasn’t completely off the mark, so there is a chance that the rest isn’t totally made up, either – but I have developed, over the years, a healthy skepticism for attempts at reducing notions like happiness to simple essences – like the permissiveness of the Dutch, the low expectations of the Icelanders, the secretiveness of the Swiss, the sheer opulence of the Qataris, or the ability of the Indians to simultaneously hold multiple contradictory opinions: these are national caricatures, not characteristics.
Does Weiner find the key to happiness in all this travelling? I don’t think so, but he does manage to find Americans (or Brits) in every country, and he diligently records their opinions on happiness and their adopted land (as though the question is not which country is happiest, but in which country an English-speaking westerner would be happiest). At the end of the book, his conclusion is this:
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.
Nothing much wrong with that, but did he have to travel to ten countries to figure it out? His grandmother could have told him these things. And also this: that happiness is not a place to visit, but visiting lots of places can make some people happy. Which leads us back to this: Eric Weiner must be a very happy man.