'Bliss' Follows Globetrotting Grump's Search for Joy
As a foreign correspondent for NPR, Eric Weiner spent more than 10 years reporting on problems overseas, such as suicide bombings in Jerusalem and student suicides in Tokyo. Then he became intrigued with finding the places in the world where people are reportedly the happiest — and learning why.
He chronicled his travels in The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World.
Weiner says finding happiness hasn't always been a goal for the masses.
"Happiness went from being this glorious benefit bestowed on the fortunate few to something that each one of us expects to obtain, and expectations and happiness are not necessarily related. They often go in opposite directions," Weiner tells Scott Simon.
Weiner started his search at what he describes as a "rather unhappy-looking office building" in Rotterdam that houses the World Database of Happiness, where much of the data from the "burgeoning science of happiness" is compiled. Then, he traveled to several countries to try to create an "atlas of bliss." One of them was Switzerland.
So why are the Swiss so happy? Perhaps because things there work well, Weiner says.
"The trains really do run on time; the streets are clean," he says.
But Weiner says he believes there are other reasons why the Swiss rate high on the happiness scale.
"One is that they do vote a lot. They vote seven or eight times a year in public referendum, and they have a say in what happens. And having a say in your life is an important ingredient in happiness," he says.
They also have a healthy attitude toward money, he adds.
"In America, we have this attitude of 'If you've got it, flaunt it,' and the Swiss way is 'If you've got it, hide it. Do not provoke envy in others.' And envy, I do believe, is one of the great enemies of happiness."
In another stop on the happiness search, Weiner visited Bhutan, where he met a man with this rather unexpected advice: To be happy, you need to set aside a few minutes a day to think about death.
"That really hit home with me, I have to say," Weiner says. "In this country, we do not talk about death. ... We will talk about anything except for death. We will talk about how much money we make, we'll talk about our sex lives, we'll talk about politics. We will not talk about death."
Another theory that stuck with him is that happiness isn't personal — it's relational. "I know that sounds a bit corny and a bit hackneyed, but it's true," he says.
Since writing the book, Weiner says, "I am happier — but still grumpy."
Weiner is a correspondent for NPR.org.
SCOTT SIMON, host:
Let's put it this way: If you have a beer with Eric Weiner, he is likely the guy who'll look into his glass and say that it's half full.
Eric spent more than 10 years as a foreign correspondent for NPR News, an experience that's not likely to improve a man's disposition.
You know, I was going to change that line because it wasn't clear to me if it meant foreign news or NPR. But now that I hear it, I think we'll just move on.
After describing places afflicted with problems, from suicide bombings in Jerusalem to student suicides in Tokyo, Eric became intrigued with finding those places in the world in which people are reportedly happiest, and why they may be so.
His new book is "The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World."
Eric Weiner, who is almost smiling now, joins us in our studios. Eric, thank you so much for being with us.
ERIC WEINER: Almost but not quite, Scott. I am happy to be here, Scott. Okay.
SIMON: Well, we take that with new authority with this book. Happiness is a goal or even a purpose in life. It's a relatively new invention.
WEINER: It is for most of us. For the special people, the gods - I'm talking centuries ago - it was considered attainable. But it wasn't something that everybody aspired to or was expected to attain.
WEINER: And, you know, I think that has created a special kind of unhappiness in our deity, the unhappiness of not being happy. You know, there's a lot of pressure in this day and age to…
SIMON: Which is different than the unhappiness of envy maybe, of observing other people with more of something.
WEINER: Right, because you don't necessarily aspire to that. You don't think it's possible to be happy.
WEINER: I mean, happiness went from being this glorious benefit bestowed on the fortunate few to something that each one of us expects to obtain. And expectations and happiness are not necessarily related. They often go in opposite directions.
SIMON: Think it might be revelation to people that there actually is a World Database of Happiness.
WEINER: The World Database of Hapiness. Indeed, it exists in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. In fact, there is this burgeoning science of happiness, and a lot of it is compiled in this one rather unhappy looking office building in Rotterdam.
(Soundbite of laughter)
WEINER: And it's run by a very kindly Dutch professor who looks a bit like Robin Williams and his name is Ruut Veenhoven, and he's a pretty happy guy. And I started my search there and trying to construct a sort of utmost of bliss, I call it. The countries to be homogenous, to be honest…
WEINER: …they're not the most diverse places. They tend to be fairly wealthy. But the correlation between wealth and happiness is very tricky. A little bit of wealth will buy you a lot of happiness. If you're a Bangladeshi farmer, the best way to make you happy would be to give you more money.
WEINER: But if you are a Swiss or an American person, giving you more money is not necessarily going to make you happy.
SIMON: Let me ask you about some of the datelines of happiness…
SIMON: …that you visited. Switzerland first. One of the reasons they might be happy is that things just work well.
WEINER: Absolutely. This is what the philosopher Schopenhauer called the absence of misery. And for him, that was the definition of happiness. The trains really do run on time. The streets are clean. And, you know, isn't it odd that Switzerland comes out happier than, say, Italy or France, these southern European countries that we associate with the (unintelligible). It doesn't work that way. It's Switzerland and Denmark. It's this sort of countries that live more attenuated lives, humming along with a very pleasant upper rate but not necessarily hitting these peaks and troughs all the time.
But there are other reasons, I think, why the Swiss are happy. One is that they do vote a lot. They vote seven or eight times a year in public referendum, and they have a say in what happens. And having a say in your life is an important ingredient in happiness.
They have, I think, a very healthy attitude towards money.
SIMON: And they have a lot of it.
WEINER: They have a lot of it.
WEINER: Their own per capita base is wealthier than we are. But, you know, in America, we have this attitude of if you've got, flaunt it. And the Swiss way is if you've got it, hide it. Do not provoke envy in others. And envy, I do believe, is one of the great enemies of happiness.
And then there's just this love of the land.
WEINER: The Swiss love their Alps and every ground that in their land. And I think that's an important ingredient in happiness, to feel that connection.
SIMON: I'll ask about Bhutan. You met a man named Karma(ph). I was fascinated by something he said which is to be happy, you need to set aside maybe five minutes a day to think about death.
WEINER: That really hit home with me. I think that in this country, we do not talk about death. It is - we will talk about anything except for death. We will talk about how much money do we make, we'll talk about our sex lives, we'll talk about politics. We will not talk about death.
SIMON: I'll ask about Iceland. Is there something about cold and even darkness that promotes a spirit of togetherness?
WEINER: I think there is. And I made a point of wanting to go there in the middle of January. And first of all, the cold allows for coziness. There's a huddling together, this closeness of flesh upon flesh and people embracing each other, if not…
WEINER: …literally than figuratively. And I have this theory. It's not just me. Others have it as well. And I call it the we-all-get-along-together-or-we-die theory. And it basically goes like this. You know, picture yourself in Iceland a thousand years ago. It was cold. It was dark. It was a difficult, difficult existence. If you wanted to survive, you had to cooperate or you die together.
I think a cold climate does promote closeness of humanity which is key to happiness, definitely.
SIMON: And so why isn't Russia happier?
WEINER: Russia, and any country that has had contact with Russia in the last hundred years.
(Soundbite of laughter)
WEINER: However glancing that contact may have been, they're unhappy. I mean, statistically, these are the least happy countries in the world. You know, one theory is that there is a darkness in the Russian soul and that the Russians just are a dark people, and they like to chew on their misery. And then, I don't know. There's an element of mystery as to why the Russians are as miserable as they are.
SIMON: Are you happier for doing this book?
WEINER: That's a tough one. You know, I think about the Thais. And in Thailand, they have an expression that translates as you're thinking too much. And at first, I was like, whoa, thinking too much. I thought I'm not happy because I'm not thinking enough. And I think also about the way the Thais say mai pen lai, which means never mind, just let it go. And in the other day, my iPod crashed and I lost my entire song collection, about 2,000 songs and I did not back it up. And after some initial cursing and stomping, I just found myself thinking mai pen lai, just let it go.
You know, this notion that Karma (unintelligible) brought up that happiness is not personal, he just thought it was ridiculous that we talk about personal happiness. Happiness, he told me, is 100 percent relational. I know that sounds a bit corny and a bit hackneyed, but it's true.
So to answer your question, yes. I am happier but still grumpy.
SIMON: Eric Weiner's new book is "The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World." To read an excerpt from Eric's book, you can come to our Web site, npr.org/books.
Eric, thank you so much.
WEINER: A pleasure, Scott.
SIMON: I'm very happy you joined us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.