Some people acquire the travel bug. Others are born with it. My affliction, if that’s what it is, went into remission for many years following my aborted expedition with Drew. It resurfaced after college with renewed fury. I desperately wanted to see the world, preferably on someone else’s dime. But how? I had no marketable skills, a stunted sense of morality, and a gloomy disposition. I decided to become a journalist.
As the author Eric Hoffer put it, “The search for happiness is one of the chief sources of unhappiness.” That’s okay. I’m already unhappy. I have nothing to lose.
All around me I hear the pleasant chortle of Dutch. It sounds vaguely familiar, though I can’t imagine why. Then it dawns on me. Dutch sounds exactly like English spoken backward.
Happy feelings, in other words, register in the regions of the brain that have evolved most recently. It raises an intriguing question: Are we, in evolutionary if not personal terms, slouching toward happiness?
My days in Rotterdam fall into a pleasant routine. I have breakfast at the hotel, perhaps indulge in a bit of inter course, then ride the subway to the World Database of Happiness. There, I sift through the research papers and the data, looking for my elusive atlas of bliss. In the evenings, I go to my café (I never do learn its name), where I drink warm beer, smoke little cigars, and ponder the nature of happiness. It’s a routine that involves much contemplation, moderate amounts of intoxicants, and very little actual work. It is, in other words, a very European routine. I’m going native.
My train is eighteen minutes late, causing mass consternation in Basel, the border city where I am supposed to catch the train to Geneva. Schedules are thrown into disarray. Passengers, myself included, scramble off the slightly late German train and run to catch our perfectly on-time Swiss train. Amazing, I think, huffing and puffing up a flight of stairs, only the Swiss could make the Germans look sloppy.
Susan is a writer from New York. She is a woman who speaks her mind, in English and French. Her candor is constantly bumping up against the Swiss reserve. Susan complains that the Swiss are “culturally constipated” and “stingy with information.” Even if that information is vital, such as “your train is leaving now” or “your clothing is on fire,” the Swiss will say nothing. To speak out would be considered insulting, since it assumes ignorance on the part of the other person.
“Hmmm. Maybe we are happy. Who knew?” “So, now that we’ve determined you are indeed happy, what is the source of Swiss happiness?” I ask. “Cleanliness,” says Dieter. “Have you seen our public toilets? They are very clean.” At first, I think he’s joking but quickly rule out that possibility, since the Swiss do not joke. About anything. Ever.
The Swiss have done for boredom what the French did for wine and the Germans for beer: perfected it, mass-produced it.
I ask Dieter—diplomatically, of course—if it’s true that the Swiss have no sense of humor. “Define sense of humor,” he responds instantly, thus sealing the case. Swiss humorlessness has a long and serious history. One academic tells me that in the seventeenth century in Basel, there was actually a prohibition on public laughter.
The Swiss are as fond of rules as the Dutch are of marijuana and prostitution.
The strangeness of it all sinks in. In Switzerland, it’s illegal to flush your toilet past 10:00 p.m. or mow your lawn on Sunday, but it’s perfectly legal to kill yourself.
No wonder it was the Swiss who invented the modern concept of homesickness; they were the first to put a word, “heimweh,” to that nagging feeling of dislocation, that feeling of loss we experience when uprooted from the place we call home.
“Attention” is an underrated word. It doesn’t get the … well, the attention it deserves. We pay homage to love and happiness and, God knows, productivity, but rarely do we have anything good to say about attention. We’re too busy, I suspect. Yet our lives are empty and meaningless without attention.
When the last tree is cut, When the last river is emptied, When the last fish is caught, Only then will Man realize that he can not eat money.
Bhutan is the world’s first non-smoking nation; the sale of tobacco is banned. There are more monks than soldiers. The army, such as it is, produces most of Bhutan’s liquor, including Red Panda beer and my favorite, Dragon Rum. Imagine if all of the world’s armies got into the alcohol business. “Make booze not war” could become the rallying cry for a whole new generation of peaceniks.
“Looking back at my life, I find that the answer is yes. I have achieved happiness because I don’t have unrealistic expectations.” This strikes me as an odd explanation. In America, high expectations are the engines that drive us, the gas in our tanks, the force behind our dreams and, by extension, our pursuit of happiness. “My way of thinking is completely different,” he says. “I have no such mountains to scale; basically, I find that living itself is a struggle, and if I’m satisfied, if I have just done that, lived
Bhutan is an upside-down place. Here the number thirteen is considered lucky. Children greet you with “bye-bye.” The king wants to abolish himself.
[…]take marijuana. In Bhutan, they have a novel use for it. They feed it to pigs. This makes the pigs hungry and therefore fat. The first time I heard this, I couldn’t help but imagine an entire barnyard of pigs with the munchies.
As Schumacher said, “The richer the society, the more difficult it becomes to do worthwhile things without immediate payoff.” That is a radical and profound statement. In a wealthy, industrialized society, one where we are supposedly enjoying a bountiful harvest of leisure time, we are discouraged from doing anything that isn’t productive—either monetarily or in terms of immediate pleasure.
The road is only wide enough for one car at a time. Passing is negotiated through a series of elaborate, poetic hand gestures, and I’m reminded of what one Bhutanese told me back in Thimphu: “There is no room in Bhutan for cocky assholes.” He’s right. Everything in this country requires cooperation. Harvesting the crops. Passing another car on the road. In the west and in the United States especially, we try to eliminate the need for compromise. Cars have “personal climate controls” so that driver and passenger need not negotiate a mutually agreeable temperature. That same pair, let’s say they’re husband and wife, need not agree on the ideal firmness of their mattress, either. Each can set their own “personal comfort level.” We embrace these technologies. Why shouldn’t everyone enjoy their own personal comfort level, be it in a car or in a bed? I wonder, though, what we lose through such conveniences. If we no longer must compromise on the easy stuff, like mattresses, then what about the truly important issues? Compromise is a skill, and like all skills it atrophies from lack of use.
Happiness is relationships, and people in the west think money is needed for relationships. But it’s not. It comes down to trustworthiness.” I’d heard the same thing in Switzerland. Trust is a prerequisite for happiness. Trust not only of your government, of institutions, but trust of your neighbors. Several studies, in fact, have found that trust—more than income or even health—is the biggest factor in determining our happiness.
Why bother? Ahh, I was asking the wrong question. In Qatar, nobody asks why. Why? Because you can. That’s why.
Getting someone behind the wheel of a car is like putting them into deep hypnosis; their true self comes out. In vehicle veritas. Israelis, for instance, drive both defensively and offensively at the same time, which is, come to think of it, the way Israelis do pretty much everything. A policeman in Israel once pulled me over. I couldn’t imagine why. Was I speeding? No, he explained, I was driving too slowly. Not ridiculously slowly, mind you, just too slowly for a nation of maniac drivers. Miami is no better. (I seem to be drawn to places with bad driving.) Driving there is like driving a bumper car, and as for using your turn signal, don’t. As humorist and Miami resident Dave Barry once quipped, it’s “a sign of weakness.” Miami drivers aren’t passive-aggressive. They’re aggressive-aggressive. Or take the Swiss. Normally, they are upright and boring but get them behind the wheel of a car and they become … upright and boring. Oh well. Sometimes people are exactly the way they seem.
The entire nation of Qatar is like a good airport terminal: pleasantly air-conditioned, with lots of shopping, a wide selection of food, and people from around the world.
A sign, I think, that Lisa is right. She had claimed, over breakfast one day, that the Qataris had no culture. I felt compelled to defend the Qataris, though I’m not sure why. “That seems a bit extreme. Every country has a culture.” “Okay,” she said. “They have no cuisine, no literature, and no arts. To me, that means no culture.” “But they have a Ministry of Culture.”
The emir of Qatar, ruler of the land, is determined to do something about his country’s missing culture. In true Qatari fashion, he plans to buy a culture and, while he’s at it, some history as well. It sounds like a sensible plan. But there’s a hitch. While it’s true that money talks, it talks only in the future tense. Money is 100 percent potential. You can build a future with money but not a past.
“Tax” is another word for vote. If a public worker is goofing off on the job, Qataris can’t chastise him with that old standby, “Hey, I pay your salary, buddy.” No, you don’t. Qataris have neither taxation nor representation, and that’s not a happy thing.
I wonder: Who is my God? No obvious answer springs to mind. Over the years, I have been spiritually promiscuous, dabbling in Hinduism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and even occasionally Judaism. None, however, could qualify as my full-time faith, my God. Then, suddenly, His name pops into my mind and His is not a name I expected. Ambition. Yes, that is my God.
When Ambition is your God, the office is your temple, the employee handbook your holy book. The sacred drink, coffee, is imbibed five times a day. When you worship Ambition, there is no Sabbath, no day of rest. Every day, you rise early and kneel before the God Ambition, facing in the direction of your PC. You pray alone, always alone, even though others may be present. Ambition is a vengeful God.
All things considered, colder is happier.
Necessity may be the mother of invention, but interdependence is the mother of affection.
“Better to go barefoot than without a book,” the Icelandic saying goes.
Traditionally, Icelanders won’t eat anything ugly.
Until the 1950s, Icelandic fishermen threw lobsters back into the sea. Too ugly. And to this day most Icelanders avoid eating cod for the same reason, even though the fish is so plentiful in the North Atlantic waters it practically swims up to your dinner plate, fillets itself, and jumps into a nice lemon meunière sauce. Instead, Icelanders export cod to America, where people apparently have no compunction about eating ugly things.
And so it came to pass that a few days later I found myself sitting down for an afternoon coffee with Hilmar the Happy Heathen.
Hilmar has a stock answer to those who criticize his excessive book buying. “It is never a waste of time to study how other people wasted time.”
I’ve officially entered Moldova, the world’s least happy country.
“Is it true,” I ask Natasha, “that people here are unhappy?” “Yes, it is true,” Natasha says, in passable English. “Why?” “We have no money for the life,” she says, as if that settles the issue and I could go home now. Funny, I think, I was recently in a country where they have too much money for the life. Maybe you and Qatar could work something out.
Moldova is nation building gone horribly awry, and, like plastic surgery gone horribly awry, the results are not pretty.
The Moldovans have amassed a repertoire of expressions to blunt their despair or at least explain it away. One of the more popular is “ca la Moldova”: “This is Moldova.” It’s usually said plaintively, palms open. That and its companion “ce sa fac”—“What can I do?”—are employed when the bus breaks down, again, or the land-lord demands an extra forty dollars a month in rent, just because. My favorite, though, the expression that sums up this country, ties it into a neat little package and sticks a bow on it, is: “No este problema mea.” Not my problem. A country with so many problems yet nobody’s problem. Nobody takes ownership.
What the Moldovans fail to recognize is the power of selfish altruism.
Envy, that enemy of happiness, is rife in Moldova. It’s an especially virulent strain, one devoid of the driving ambition that usually accompanies envy.
Moldovans derive more pleasure from their neighbor’s failure than their own success. I can’t imagine anything less happy.
In Moldova, language is not a source of joy, as in Iceland, but a source of divisiveness. Language as weapon.
The seeds of Moldovan unhappiness are planted in their culture. A culture that belittles the value of trust and friendship.
A culture that rewards mean-spiritedness and deceit. A culture that carves out no space for unrequited kindness, no space for what St. Augustine called (long before Bill Clinton came along) “the happiness of hope.” Or as the ancient Indian text the Mahabharata says: “Hope is the sheet anchor of every man. When hope is destroyed, great grief follows, which is almost equal to death itself.”
Thais are deeply suspicious of thinking. For the Thais, thinking is like running. Just because your legs are moving doesn’t mean you’re getting anywhere.
When you get down to it, there are basically three, and only three, ways to make yourself happier. You can increase the amount of positive affect (good feelings). You can decrease the amount of negative affect (bad feelings). Or you can change the subject.
The Thais have a different way, the way of mai pen lai. It means “never mind.” Not the “never mind” that we in the west often use angrily, as in “Oh, never mind, I’ll do it myself” but a real, just-drop-it-and-get-on-with-life “never mind.” Foreigners living in Thailand either adopt the mai pen lai attitude or go insane.
“The relationship always comes first. It is more important than the problem,” explains Kunip. I try to wrap my mind around that. We in the west usually put problem solving ahead of relationships. In our search for answers, for the truth, we will gladly jettison friends and even family overboard.
“Thai people are not serious about anything. We don’t take anything seriously. Whatever it is, we can accept it.”
“I have stress. Of course I have stress. But there are some situations we can’t control. You can’t change things outside yourself, so you change your attitude. I think that approach works for Thai people. Like when you’re pissed at someone, and you can’t do anything about it. You feel you want to hit them, but you can’t, so you take a deep breath and let it go. Otherwise, it will ruin your day.”
He’s used to having his rational, atheistic mind assaulted in Thailand. Like he did on the morning he woke up and found people making paper cranes. Everyone was doing it, from street vendors to stockbrokers. What the heck was going on? It turns out that the king had proclaimed that people needed to cool hearts in the southern part of Thailand, where a Muslim insurgency has been raging for decades. So the prime minister came up with the perfect solution: paper cranes! Yes, they would make thousands and thousands of paper cranes and drop them from airplanes as a peace gesture. “They basically bombed the south with these paper cranes,” says Scott, incredulously. “It was the most bizarre thing I’ve ever seen.”
“Suspicion of happiness is in our blood,” said English travel writer E. V. Lucas. Or, as one Brit told me, in colloquial American so I could understand, “We don’t do happiness.” No indeed.
Being too American, or American at all, is pretty much the worst thing a Brit can be. “American” is synonymous with pushiness, tactlessness, and puppy-dog earnestness. Americans buy self-help books as if their lives depend on them. Brits, as a rule, do not. Such pap is seen as a sign of weakness. One Brit quipped that if his countrymen were to embrace a self-help book, it would probably be something like I’m Not OK, You’re Even Less OK.
I hit the pause button. I can’t take it anymore. Watching Brits shed their inhibitions is like watching elephants mate. You know it happens, it must, but it’s noisy, awkward as hell, and you can’t help but wonder: Is this something I really need to see?
Tim has several clients. All foreigners. The British don’t do therapy, philosophical or any other kind, for the same reason they don’t buy self-help books. It’s seen as weakness.
I feel sorry for the Brits, deprived as they are of the salutary benefits of the self-help industrial complex. Isn’t there something we can do for these sad souls? Perhaps a New Age Marshall Plan. I picture planeloads of Deepak Chopra and Wayne Dyer books and CDs dropped by airplane over the English countryside, with little parachutes slowing their descent to earth, of course, for there is nothing more painfully ironic than being clocked on the head by Deepak Chopra and knocked unconscious. Loudspeakers could broadcast Marianne Williamson in the Tube. Yes, it would be another Blitzkrieg, though this time the bombs would be friendly, armed with payloads of glorious self-renewal.
I picked up the companion book to Grumpy Old Men and flipped to the foreword, written by a grump named Arthur Smith. He begins by observing that “life is shit organized by bastards.” Then he gets negative.
Richard agrees with my theory that British culture hinders happiness. The most obvious manifestation is the lack of hugging. The British don’t even hug their own mothers. Once, when he was ten years old, Richard visited Canada and discovered a brave new world of hugging. He started giving his mom a hug every time he saw her. Hugging, he says, “really lifts your spirits.”
SOME PLACES ARE like family. They annoy us to no end, especially during the holidays, but we keep coming back for more because we know, deep in our hearts, that our destinies are intertwined. For me, that place is India. I hate it. I love it. Not alternately but simultaneously. For if there is anything this seductive, exasperating country teaches us it is this: It’s possible to hold two contradictory thoughts at the same time and, crucially, to do so without your head exploding. Indians do it all the time.
These latest foreign intruders are no different from the Mughals or the British or any of the other interlopers who over the centuries tried to subdue the subcontinent. India always emerged victorious, not by repelling these invaders but by subsuming them.
“We keep postponing happiness. We can only experience happiness now. The present moment is inevitable.”
The rest of my day unfolds lazily. I sit around reading and thinking about coffee. Mostly, though, I just sit. Indians, and Indian men in particular, are great sitters. World-class. I can’t compete with them, but I do my best.
This is not happy India. This is the country where, as Mark Twain observed, every life is sacred, except human life. Indians may care deeply about their families and circle of friends, but they don’t even notice anyone outside that circle. That’s why Indian homes are spotless, while just a few feet outside the front door the trash is piled high. It’s outside the circle.
“Desire is the root cause of sorrow but desire is also the root cause of action. How do we counter the paralysis of action when there is no desire to motivate us?”
After a decade bouncing around the world as a foreign correspondent, it was time to come home, and Miami seemed like a good place to reenter America. A baby step back home. Miami had tropical weather, corruption, and political turmoil. All of these things I had grown used to overseas.
Americans work longer hours and commute greater distances than virtually any other people in the world. Commuting, in particular, has been found to be detrimental to our happiness, as well as our physical health. Every minute spent on the road is one less minute that we can spend with family and friends—the kind of activities, in other words, that make us happy.
Every year, nearly forty million Americans move. Some, no doubt, pick up stakes for job opportunities or to be near a sick relative. But many move simply because they believe they’ll be happier somewhere else. That certainly worked for the hedonic refugees I met on the road—Linda, Lisa, Rob, Jared. Is it the “energy” of these places that attracted these people to them? I’m not so sure. A better explanation, I think, is that they gave themselves permission to be different people in different places. The ability to choose where we live is, in the scheme of human history, a very recent phenomenon.
It is home “for now,” she says. And that, I realize, is the problem with hedonic floaters like Cynthia and with many of us Americans and our perpetual pursuit of happiness. We may be fairly happy now, but there’s always tomorrow and the prospect of a happier place, a happier life. So all options are left on the table. We never fully commit. That is, I think, a dangerous thing. We can’t love a place, or a person, if we always have one foot out the door.
Money matters, but less than we think and not in the way that we think. Family is important. So are friends. Envy is toxic. So is excessive thinking. Beaches are optional. Trust is not. Neither is gratitude.
“A lifetime of happiness! No man could bear it: It would be hell on Earth,” wrote George Bernard Shaw, in his play Man and Superman.
My review of The Geography of Bliss