Interview: Geography of Bliss

Why did you decide to write this book?
For years, I was a foreign correspondent for NPR, a job that entailed traveling to the world’s least happy countries, identifying the least happy people in these countries and then spending a lot of time hanging out with them. This was rewarding work, yes, but also a real bummer. So one day I thought, “What if I sought out the world’s happiest places? What hidden wisdom might these happy people possess?” That’s how this admittedly harebrained idea got started.

So it’s a book about happy people?
In a way. But it’s really a book about happy places. There are many books out there that focus on the question “What is happiness?” I attempt to answer the question “Where is happiness?” I’ve always believed that we are creatures of geography, of place. By “place” I mean physical place, yes, but also cultural place. Culture is the sea we swim in. It matters a lot more than we think.

But can’t we be happy anywhere?
No, I don’t think so. Not any more than we could be happy married to just anyone. And that is one of the great shortcomings of the “self-help industrial complex.” We’re told, again and again, to look inward when much of our happiness depends on our environment. Change your environment and you can change your life. This isn’t running away from your problems but simply recognizing that where we are affects who we are.

The book’s subtitle is: “One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World.” Are you really grumpy?
Yes. When my editor and I sat down to write the subtitle, we considered a lot of words to describe me: curmudgeon, malcontent, crank. I’m all these things but ultimately, we decided on grump. I’m not particularly happy, and in that way I’m typical of my profession. Journalists are a sullen lot, perhaps understandably so, given the misery we’re exposed to on a regular basis. Still, I’ve always had a hidden buoyancy. I’m a closet optimist. Please don’t tell anyone.

Why are you so unhappy?
I’m not sure. I’m a perfectionist, and that is certainly a recipe for unhappiness. One friend called me a “sadness addict,” and I think that is about right. It’s better to feel sad than to feel nothing. For most of human history, I’d be considered normal. Happiness was reserved for the gods and the fortunate few. These days, happiness is not only possible for everyone, it’s expected, and that creates a lot of pressure—what historian Darrin McMahon calls “the unhappiness of not being happy.”

You’re a journalist. Is this a typical journalist’s book?
No. Despite my innate grumpiness, the pages are tinged with a sense of optimism. No self-respecting journalist would write a book like that. Basically, I view the world as a laboratory of ideas—hundreds of ideas about how to live a better life, a happier life. These ideas may not have been invented here but surely some can be transplanted here. It’s a different way of looking at the world.

How did you choose the countries that you visited?
Two ways: Scientifically—and not. There is data out there about the world’s happiest nations. Not perfect data, mind you, but reliable enough so that we can safely say that some countries are clearly happier than others. The second criteria I used was a bit more nuanced. Viewing the world again as a laboratory of ideas, I decided to travel to countries that possessed a certain “happiness ingredient” in spades. For instance, if you believe that money can buy happiness, then surely the residents of Qatar must be happy. The Persian Gulf nation is the wealthiest in the world—the perfect Petri dish for studying the connection between money and happiness.

Your first journey took you to someplace called The World Database of Happiness? Is that a real place?
Yes. It’s in the Netherlands. It contains mankind’s accumulated knowledge about what makes us happy and, even more important, where we are happy. Physically, it’s an unassuming, even ugly place, but it’s fascinating.

Can scientists really measure happiness?
Yes, though not as precisely as they measure, say, earthquakes. Basically, they ask people “Overall, how happy are you these days?” It turns out that we are surprisingly good judges of our own happiness.

Why did you go to Moldova? Is it a happy place?
No. In fact, it is, statistically, the least happy country in the world. I went there because, frankly, all of these chronically happy places were starting to bum me out. Also, what better way to study something (like happiness) than by examining its opposite?

What was your favorite country?
That’s hard to say. In a way, I liked them all (except Moldova). But Iceland and Bhutan were among my favorites. They are geographical outliers, places that are practically falling off the map yet possess an undeniable bliss. And for unexpected reasons. Icelanders manage to embrace both failure and darkness. Bhutan has an actual national policy of Gross National Happiness. Need I say more?

What about the U.S. chapter? That must have been relatively easy to write.
Actually, it was the most difficult chapter to write. It’s easier to see other cultures more clearly than your own. You’re too close to it.

Is America a happy place?
Yes, but not as happy as you’d think, given our great wealth and military muscle. There are many countries in the world that are happier than us. Yet we Americans, I think, believe deeply in this connection between place and happiness. The frontier spirit is probably the clearest manifestation of this. Every year, some 40 million Americans move. Why? Because they think they’ll be happier someplace else.

Is this a travel book?
Yes and no. Yes, because I do travel to some ten counties. I logged tens of thousands of miles. But it’s really a travelogue of ideas, and it is these ideas—about happiness, about the good life—that inform the book as much as the physical places themselves.

Who are your favorite writers?
Not surprisingly, they are writers who combine these two elements: place and ideas. Paul Theroux, P.J. O’Rourke, Jan Morris. Especially Jan Morris. I’d read anything she writes, including a grocery list.

When researching this book, how did you travel? First class?
No, except in Qatar, and that was done purely for research purposes (I swear). I tried to avoid luxury hotels. They are the worst ways to get to know a country. As often as possible, I stayed with friends and friends of friends. Not only was it cheaper, it also provided me a wonderful window into those particular countries.

Has the book changed you? Are you less grumpy?
Yes and yes. And, to be honest, I didn’t know it would turn out this way when I started my journey. But I realize now that during my travels I’ve accumulated morsels of wisdom. On of my favorites is the Thai notion of “mai pen lai.” It means basically, just let it go. You don’t have to solve every problem right now. A simple idea, but a tremendously liberating one. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not exactly the Dalai Lama but I’m definitely less grumpy than I used to be.

So, what’s your conclusion? Where is the happiest place in the world?
That’s a tough one. I have some hunches, but I’m afraid you’ll have to read the book to find out.