Monday, May 4, 2009

Happiness Project: Where We Live

I spent this (decidedly unhappy) weekend reading “The Geography of Bliss”, which happened to catch my eye on Friday as I waited for my train at South Station. I thought it was gigantic synchronicity to stumble onto this book the day after I began a “Happiness Project”, and so I bought it. I am a big believer in signs from the universe (apparently which, if seen in a spiritual context, might make me just a little bit happier than I might be otherwise).

The author, Eric Weiner, set out to explore those countries deemed happiest (and not-so-happiest), with the underlying assumption that geography contributes, if not determines, one’s level of happiness. It turns out that scientific studies show that happiness is actually determined by externalities, contrary to what those thousands of self-help books say about true happiness being an internal matter. This pleased me to no end, although ultimately I’m not sure I agree with it 100%.

As someone who is know for *ahem* moving quite a bit, the premise intrigues me. Unfortunately, I’ve never left the United States, and apparently there isn’t really that much difference in happiness within a country (although my sister’s happiness seems to have improved exponentially since moving to CA). Some of the research seems counterintuitive – for example, Iceland is home to some of the happiest people on the planet, despite being cold and dark much of the year, and isolated to boot. And money isn’t much of a determining factor – people in Qatar, the wealthiest country on the planet, aren’t really particularly happy despite wanting for nothing (although, I’d guess that the statisticians probably aren’t asking the women how happy THEY are in Qatar…). People are happier in democracies, although people living in the former Soviet Union are not necessarily happier now than they were under communism.

But it’s not just simply “geography” – like Person A is happiest living near the ocean; Person B is happiest in a thriving metropolis. That’s part of it, but it’s also about culture, societal convention, political structure, language, and food. For example, in Iceland there is much cultural and government (monetary) support for artists, and there is much freedom for people to change career paths. Contrast that with the US, where government support for individual artists is miniscule, and good luck becoming a history teacher if you’ve trained as a computer programmer. Technically it isn't impossible, but it sure is difficult.

Mainly, the book gave me pause as I assess my own semi-nomadic state. A move is imminent for me, and I’m having a really hard time trying to decide what would make me happy. Not what will be easy, or expedient, or make my parents happy…but what will make ME happy. More to the point - what will make me happy while living alone and single??? I honestly have no idea.

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