I recently finished reading Eric Weiner’s book The Geography of Bliss. The subtitle explains more: “One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World.” Of course, the word ‘bliss’ caught my attention right away. His idea of traveling the world to discern what differences culture, religion, and expectations make intrigued me. After all, this NPR Correspondent would pay the plane fare and do the traveling for us!
He discovered geography does make a difference. Moldova and Qatar I couldn’t wait to get out of (those chapters, that is). Moldovans were, according to the World Database of Happiness, the unhappiest on the planet [yes, there really is such a database: Ruut Veenhoven in The Netherlands]. The people Weiner talked to in this former Soviet Republic claimed it was lack of money that made them unhappy. I couldn’t wait to get through reading that chapter, it brought me down so much. Money wasn’t the main factor at all: the Persian Gulf’s Qatar, where most are rich because their country sits on the world’s third largest reserve of natural gas, disproved that myth about money. Qataris, the author maintains, “possess a strange mix of arrogance and insecurity. What they crave, most of all, is validation.” Their position within the tribe matters more than money or education. Although tribes can be nurturing, it seemed in this “gilded sandbox” that in spite of all their money, Qataris were not happy.
Although I enjoyed being transported back to India (“where happiness and misery live side-by-side”), my favorite learnings were from Bhutan and Thailand. Weiner’s lesson from Thailand was mai pen lai which translates to “never mind.” This lighthearted “don’t worry be happy” encourages one to just let go rather than go insane holding on to an impossible situation. Bhutan’s culture of crazy wisdom, he says, made him lose his bearings “and when that happens a crack forms in your armor. A crack large enough, if you’re lucky, to let in a few shafts of light.” The author meets with a Buddhist Rinpoche who tells him we must be ready for the moment we “cease to exist.” Compassion is what really matters. After all, as the Rinpoche tells him, “You see, everything is a dream. Nothing is real. You will realize that one day.” Then the Rinpoche laughed and returned to his chanting. Weiner’s summary on Bhutan? “In America, few people are happy, but everyone talks about happiness constantly. In Bhutan, most people are happy, but no one talks about it.”
Back in 1973, Bhutan’s King Wangchuk created for his nation the concept of Gross National Happiness. A Bhutanese hotel owner described it this way: GNH means “knowing your limitations; knowing how much is enough.” With Gross National Happiness the official policy of the government of Bhutan, “every decision . . . is viewed through this prism. Will this action we’re about to take increase or decrease the overall happiness of the people?” The U.S. has its Gross Domestic Product, the sum of all goods and services a nation produces. Weiner wisely perceives that our GDP measures oil spills, prison population, the sale of assault rifles and prescription drugs — all these contribute to The Count regardless of merit. He quotes Robert Kennedy as acknowledging that the GDP doesn’t take into account “the beauty of our poetry . . . ,” measuring everything “except that which makes life worthwhile.”
This book makes you think — deeply. Weeks later, I apply it to my life:
* Paying a mortgage by myself makes me unhappy. But when T lived here and shared the bills (this woman I supposedly loved), I wasn’t happy.
* I tire of driving a half hour each way to the east side of town. Lately, I fantasize about moving. But would my small scale change of geography make me happy?
* “Making” is not a part of happiness. It has to do with allowing, letting in, openness. No matter where I live.
* My delivering Meals on Wheels gives me perspective and a chance to practice compassion. Applied compassion. Although some mornings I grumble about leaving my house to deliver those meals, “my people” always give back more. Something less tangible than a bag of food. Appreciation, sincerity, love.
* Sporadically, I suffer from exhaustion. I literally wear myself out. What a sad phrase that is! Do I forget that “doing” never trumps “being”? One of the main lessons of Landmark Education’s intensive workshop, The Landmark Forum, I learn this over and over again. I am still learning.
It seems that bliss can capture you anywhere: you only need to be awake enough to notice, still enough to be aware, and wise enough to follow it.