Where you live matters: “The Geography of Bliss” by Eric Weiner

When I first studied to become a clinical psychologist, I looked at mental health issues as a reflection of the individual’s history. I focused very much on how interactions with important figures in our formative years shape and affect us for years to come.
Later, when I did my degree in social work, I delved more into the ways in which sociological and economical factors affect our personality and the challenges we face.
The “Geography of Bliss” brought me a new perspective on broader forces that shape us as people. I had not paid much attention to the way in which values of the culture we live in determine our level of happiness. In hindsight it is obvious that the culture we live in and grew up in will influence us.
This book describes the journey of a journalist through the world in search of the secret to happiness as a function of geography and culture. He makes an effort to rely on the most current research into happiness and to understand which countries are most happy and which are most miserable and why.
Even the definition and the experience of happiness is rooted deeply in place and culture. The author describes an emotion spanning the exuberance expressed in the United States (“I am so excited”) to the calm contentment of people in Switzerland.
Happiness comes in different forms in different countries that report a high average level of happiness. There is a basic low level of income that is a fundamental requirement for happiness, enough to insure a level of food security and health care. Beyond that cultures that engender a high level of happiness take many different forms.
Some of the countries that report the highest levels of happiness are Switzerland, Iceland and Bhutan.
In Switzerland the author traced the high level of contentment to a high level of personal trust between people and to the high level of organization in society. Although for some it can be stifling, on an aggregate level the very orderly society and the high level of predictability made people content.
In Iceland, on the other hand, the small community has a robust safety net and as a society accepts failure as part and parcel of what happens when people take risks and allows them to do so, so people are less oppressed by the constant fear of failure.
As opposed to the first two examples Bhutan is not a wealthy country. It is a country that takes happiness seriously. At a national level they have a concept of of Gross National Happiness in their constitution. What impressed me most in their view of happiness, informed by Buddhist practice, is to think about our death as a way to a happier life. This practice helps puts things in perspective, it urges us to put aside the petty and unimportant irritations and to focus on the important things in our lives.
On the other hand, Moldava stood out as a miserable nation. Because of the lack of trust and lack of community. In a place where where people don’t help each other, happiness is in short supply
On the extreme end of wealth, as embodied in Qatar, the old adage rings true :Money doesn’t bring happiness. With no challenges in their lives to motivate them, boredom sets in and material wealth cannot compensate for that.
After reading this book you will not find the secret to happiness, you may not be any happier, but it is a fun and interesting read and it sparked, for me, thoughts about the broader forces that shape us.

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