Right now I am reading a book by Eric Weiner called The Geography of Happiness. I wasn't too enthusiastic about it when I bought it; it sounded mildly interesting, was 50% off at Borders, and I badly needed something to read in the evenings to help me wind-down. However, I'm about 2/3 of the way through and am so glad I bought it and am reading it right now. It's perfect timing.
In the book, Weiner, who is a correspondent for NPR and a lifelong grouch, trots around the globe trying to find out what makes people happy (or unhappy, in some cases) in different countries and cultures, in an effort to determine whether there are universal conditions for happiness and, if so, where he might be able to find them and, therefore, "be happy."
The book initially appealed to me less from the perspective of really caring about the nature of happiness than because of the travel and culture components. I enjoy reading and learning about other cultures (which, in turn, is one of the reasons I love to travel) and I'm fascinated by how people, culture, and environment feed on and off of one another - also probably a lingering intellectual interest sparked by my degree in Media & Cultural Studies.
It has indeed been stimulating on this front but what has been most thought provoking for me is the way it has me thinking about my own road map for happiness, or, in the spirit of the book, my personal geography of happiness. Not in the sense of whether or not I'm happy but more in the sense of trying to understand what makes me happy and how I differ or identify with the different cultures in the book, especially since many of the countries Weiner visits are in Europe.
I'm not done with the book yet and so I'm saving any conclusions for the last page but here is what has occurred to me so far:
Happiness to me is fleeting and morphous. It's not a destination or a permanent state but a mood, just like sadness, anger, frustration etc... I suppose I could say I would think someone is "happy" based upon whether their general disposition is more happy than sad but I think that's oversimplifying things a tad.
Although we all definitely have our list of things that bring us joy, or make us "happy", I think whether or not those things make us happy greatly depends on many things on any given day - hormones, the weather, the mood of those around us, the news, the time of year, external events or circumstances... For instance, I love to read, it engrosses and stimulates me in a way that no other medium can BUT if I've had a particularly stressful day, reading can actually make me irritated. Similarly, I don't like to drink water as a rule, it makes me feel sick. But, on a really hot day, when I'm physically active, nothing tastes better. These things bring me joy under certain cirumstances and so what happiness is to me is constantly changing.
Yet, happiness should not be confused with joy. Too many people spend their life searching for a constant state of elation and wind up feeling disappointed when it eludes them. Whether it be drug addicts looking for the greater high or consumers trying to buy their way into happiness with the most expensive designer item or coolest gadget, our society encourages us to find "things" to make us happy but leaves us a state of perpetual wanting when the "high" fades. One of the common threads between the happiest countries on earth, Weiner seems to be finding, is contentment through moderation of emotion - highs and lows. The Swiss, for instance, are (based upon data and Weiner's own research) a happy nation but it's not as if they run around in a perpetually happy mood, singing at the tops of their voices and smiling all day. They're just in that nice middle place, perhaps you could say well-balanced.
Balance seems to be the key overall, in fact, although Weiner has not specifically addressed it that way. Balance between home and work life, public and private life, capitalism and socialism, individualism and collectivism, seems to show up in many different ways in the book. As an example, the folks of Iceland consistently score high on the happiness scale, even despite living in a freezing cold country that is pitch black for several months out of the year. One of the reasons they cite for their happiness is the fact that their social safety net gives them the freedom to fail and therefore the freedom to take chances. As an example, many Icelandic people have several different careers throughout the course of their life. Without the concerns we have here in the States like losing health insurance if we quit our job, they lack the fear or dire consequences of trying something new. As a result, there is a thriving spirit of entrepreneurism and artistic talent in Iceland right now - the culture of the starving writer just doesn't exist in their country. All an example of where a more socialist system (than the U.S.) actually promotes greater individualism and risk-taking.
In addition to thinking about the nature of happines, the book has also cued my reticular activator and has started me thinking about when I am happy.
It's been a rough few weeks over here in Randomrantville with things you know and more you don't, and it's tempting to pile one negative event on top of the other, wringing one's hands in despair at the state of life, as well as worrying about all the potential outcomes of the future. But allowing unrelated bad events to build on one another is just like allowing physical pain to build and take over your psyche. Having had two recent surgeries, I know about this and I know you need to get ahead of the pain, take each day as it comes, and not allow yourself to pile-up the bad stuff. The same is true of life in general, I think.
It's funny but when I make a list of the last twelve months and all the events in it, I'd like to bet that my list of happy events at least equals, if not exceeds, my list of unhappy ones. Yet, it's only the bad events that we group together, no matter how unrelated, saying things like we've had "a run of bad luck"; it becomes the story of a period of time in our lives, like, for instance, my last few weeks: Mum breaks hip and has surgery, we cancel our trip, we all get stomach flu for New Year = a bad holiday. But it's very rarely that we line up those positive events and amass them into a narrative. What about if instead I wrote: Bought new car, Daisy's first Christmas, my first time cooking Christmas dinner, saved $3k on vacation and now have something to look forward to in March. These things all happened at the same time as the bad stuff but yet the negative events are the ones that somehow end up defining. I wonder why that is? Misery loves company, I guess.
I don't have a closing thought here, these are just random ramblings right now, spurred by the book.
One idea I am going to put into action, provoked by the book, is journaling things that make me happy every day. In research, people who kept a journal of things that made them happy every day are more likely to report increased levels of overall happiness, than those who do not keep a journal. Since I have two blogs, two twitter accounts, and two Facebook accounts, I don't think a journal, per se, is needed, so what I'm going to do instead is create a list here on this site of things that have made me happy each day. You can see it over there on the right. We'll see if it reveals anything about me, my life, or my levels of happiness.
Anyway, it's late (for me late is 9pm) and I need to go wind-down before bed. Feel free to comment and share your thoughts on happiness!
1/8/09 - Edited to add: although the book spends all it's time talking specifically about happiness, the book itself is actually called "The Geography of Bliss", if you're looking for it.