I just finished reading The Geography of Bliss, One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World by Eric Weiner. It is essentially a travel book which means I get to write about it here on my travel blog. 🙂

Usually, people travel/backpack/tour intending to find some measure of happiness.  But in this case, Eric uses the premise of investigating happiness as a way to travel around the globe. (Clever, Eric!) Actually, I got a little mad at him towards the end, with his endless, searching questions. Wasn’t he happy yet? After all, he’d been to Bhutan, Qatar, Thailand….I mean, come on! Didn’t being fortunate enough to travel to all those places make him happier?

The Geography of Bliss is not a touching story of personal transformation like Eat, Pray, Love. But it is well-researched, well-reported, and thought-provoking. Reading about happiness is exciting. Are people actually happier in Bhutan or Japan? And why? Maybe I can be happy there, too! (According to UK and US researchers Oswald and Wu, California ranks as the 46th happiest state. 46th. Hawaii, not so surprisingly, is #2).

As for what makes Eric happy, it’s a little obscure. But it’s clear he has a love of airports. And, I sensed his deep regard for the highly straightforward people he met who faced adversity and lived to smile about it. And just maybe…in chaotic India he is happy.

The book explores economic reasons for happiness (Qatar, while rich, is not necessarily happy) and social conditions, but one topic that is not deeply probed is the relationship between food and happiness. I know from experience that my happiness is a direct function of the amount of Sushi I eat. Eric mentions the food in Moldova, which is pretty uninspired and so are the people. But how about places like Italy or Greece, cultures that relish their food traditions? Are they generally happier than places that oh, say….are responsible for inventing fast food?

A friend from Brussels pointed out that for many cultures it’s not exactly desirable (or polite) to tout your good fortune. It can be considered boastful or rude to say you’re happy. For a reporter working on happiness, it might not be reliable to simply ask, “How happy are you on a scale of 1-10?” For some cultures, to flaunt one’s happiness may invite evil spirits and bad luck.*

In Thailand, Eric learns that thinking leads to unhappiness. I’ve been accused more than once of thinking too much. Or not thinking positively. It used to drive me crazy to hear my Mexican stepmother and equally positive father tell me, “just think positive.” If it were so easy, wouldn’t I be doing it by now?

So, is it thinking itself – or the type of thinking that leads us to happiness?

I read recently that depressed people generally see their lives more accurately than non-depressed people. It’s unknown which came first — the depression or the objectivity — but I like to think it’s the more observant and sensitive people among us who can see when things are truly fucked up. It turns out that the happiest people are those who actively employ a little self-delusion. The ability to self-delude seems to be missing in depressed folks.

Eric doesn’t tell us if drugs (legal or otherwise) are a panacea for happiness, but he does experiment a bit with hash. I once read that the reason alcohol and pot make you feel so happy is because they inhibit short term memory. Mundane things look bright, fresh and infinitely wonderful while you’re high, because you can’t remember that you just experienced the same thing moments ago. “Wow! Look at that traffic light! What beautiful colors…!”

Last week my sister insisted we watch a new-agey video. It emphasized positive affirmations as a way to achieve health and happiness. I figure there must be some reason positive affirmations work on personal happiness, otherwise there wouldn’t be such an industry built on the concept. Books, DVDs, gurus — there are many experts waiting to tell you that your thoughts are the basis of happiness.

Salespeople are familiar with the concept of cognitive dissonance, an internal conflict between thought and action. Most people will go out of their way to avoid this unpleasant state by adjusting their thoughts to fit their actions. I think positive affirmations work like this, but in the reverse. People also alter their actions to conform to their thoughts. For example, staying in a bad job because you once thought it was good, or doing something you no longer want to do just because you said you would. There are studies showing that customers who agree that a product is good enough to buy are more likely to actually do so. Perhaps if I think over and over “I am happy” then it’s more likely I’ll take the steps to make that thought true.

I think we think an awful lot in America. What do you think? 🙂 (If you’re giving this a lot of thought you might be American, too). Why do we think so much? I think I have an explanation. In the US, we don’t tend to rely on an extended community to help us solve our problems. We’re supposed to sort out our difficulties on our own. The individual is responsible for their successes and failures. It’s clear from Eric’s research that an overall sense of community and shared responsibility is found in ‘happier’ places. Does the lack of community and emphasis on individual happiness/responsibility explain the increased mental illness in the US over the last 40 years?

One of the last quotes in the book is from Karma Ura, a Bhutanese scholar and cancer survivor: “There is no such thing as personal happiness. Happiness is one hundred percent relational.” As Eric states, “…our relationships with other people are more important than we think.”

I wish I could remember where I read this, but it has stuck with me: “It is through personal relationships that we express our purpose in life.” In this sense, the individual doesn’t exist. Without relationships, we can’t express ourselves. If we can’t express ourselves, how can we be happy?

Years ago I read The Pleasure Prescription: To Love, to Work, to Play – Life in the Balance by Dr. Paul Pearsall. The most important thing I took from this book is that people naturally cycle through ‘low moods’ and ‘high moods’. The best time to make a decision is not when you are sad or depressed; Actually, he says, to accomplish anything meaningful, you must first be happy!

So, happiness is essential to our lives.

All of this doesn’t answer the question: Can travel make us happy? The answer to that is simple: Hell, yeah. I think even Eric Weiner is happy, he just doesn’t want to admit it. There is a big difference.

*I can’t remember where I heard this. If you know, please tell me!