Two years ago, a grumpy, middle-aged, long-time foreign correspondent realized he had spent his career chasing misery around the planet, in places such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Indonesia. He thought perhaps his unhappiness might have something to do with the fact that he spent his life meeting gloom and writing about gloom. So, he packed some bags and headed out for happier climes. Going by the World Database of Happiness, Eric Weiner chose nine relatively happy places and one very unhappy place (Moldova) and set off in a quest for his book The Geography of Bliss. Over coffee in New Delhi, Weiner explained how the book helped him become less unhappy and why Iceland will be okay despite the bankruptcy. Edited excerpts:
Was there a single unifying happy factor?
I reach a few conclusions, which may not be earth shattering, but I still think they’re valued. (Jean-Paul) Sartre said hell is other people. Well, happiness is other people. Happiness around the world is defined in a much more communal way. Personal happiness is 100% relational. Also, envy is one of the great enemies of happiness. Envy will just eat you up. Trust is also hugely important in happiness.
Happy camper: (clockwise from right) Icelandic people remain content despite financial woes; Westerners seek spiritual bliss in India; and dancers celebrate a Buddhist festival in Bhutan. Images by AFP, Indranil Mukherjee / AFP and Jupiter Images, India
What was some of the best advice you were given?
Karma Ura, head of the best think tank in Bhutan—which also happens to be the only think tank in Bhutan—came from a small village and went on to study at Cambridge. He said, “I’ve achieved a lot but I’ve never expected it.” Basically you should give 100% effort and expect 0% results. This was also in the Bhagvad Gita, with Krishna talking to Arjun. Low expectations or no expectations are the key to happiness. Low expectations does not mean you’re sitting around doing nothing, it just means you aren’t worried about the outcome.
How does travel factor into happiness?
People think that if you travel, you’re always running away from something. But you could be running to something. The reason why people are happier when they travel is that you give yourself permission to be someone else in someplace else. You have no history; you have no past; so, often you are a better person. Henry Miller said. “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” I like that. It’s as if you’re taking your glasses off and cleaning them.
The Geography of Bliss: Twelve, 331 pages, Rs257.
When you wrote your book, Iceland seemed pretty well off, but in September during the worldwide financial crisis, the country had to declare bankruptcy. Can you still count it as one of the happiest places on earth?
I was watching the news and the headlines said: “Iceland bankrupt; terrorists attacks in India and airport closed in Thailand.” And I thought all the happy places I wrote about! I jinxed them! But it’s not true. We just assume a country bankrupt equals a country miserable. I’ve been in touch with people and they are worried. But I discovered this term “worried happiness”. The terms are not mutually exclusive. People have their antennas up and are cautious, but their thinking is not miserable. Iceland comes from the Viking tradition. They have a feast or famine attitude toward things. They’ll get through this and move on.
What did you find about India?
I came here partly because of my connection to it, and partly because India ranks middle to lower on the happiness scale. But I found it so ironic that Westerners come here and truly think they will find their bliss. In India, happiness is a contradiction. Indians are much better at holding two contradictory thoughts at the same time and not exploding. For example, I have a very level-headed friend here who’s a lawyer but she’s also a big follower of Osho. I said to her, “What about all the Rolls-Royces he had in Oregon!” And she says she just leaves that behind and takes the wisdom she finds in his writings. I also think fatalism serves them well.
Are you happier now?
Seeker: The Geography of Bliss became a New York Times best-seller in 2008. Ramesh Pathania / Mint
I am less unhappy. The whole idea of the book was to combine my two passions, which is travel and grumpiness. Look at what we could learn from other cultures and how they define and pursue happiness. They weren’t all the happiest places. It was nice to look at the world as a laboratory of ideas rather than a basket case of disease.
What do people get wrong about happiness?
There’s the expectation of happiness. Happiness is a cultural construct. Partly what I was suffering from was the unhappiness of not being happy. It is a modern American malady. But happiness is a by-product —it’s a by-product of a life lived well.
So then, is happiness overrated?
I reach that conclusion at the end of the book. We think that happiness is the be-all and end-all. But we don’t really want our children to be happy. What if they are happy bank robbers or happy paedophiles? We ultimately want them to lead meaningful lives. Happiness, 2,000 years ago, used to be related to virtue. Now it’s just feel-good.