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The Geography of Bliss

13 July 2010 No Comment
Cover of "The Geography of Bliss: One Gru...

Eric Weiner

Book Review by Molly Mayfield Barbee

Eric Weiner’s 2008 book The Geography of Bliss is an expansive, humorous, and slightly dark account of his travels and research on subjective well-being, or “SWB,” the scientific term for the field of happiness studies. The question of what comes first, democracy or happiness, is a prominent theme in the volume, and particularly apropos for the Peace X Peace reader as we examine the relationships among justice, good governance, and peace this July.

Weiner researches the happiest places on earth, then visits 10 of the most notable—either for their extreme happiness or unhappiness ratings based on multiple scales. As he travels, he comes to define happiness and the conditions that lead to happy people and/or happy countries in different ways according to different cultural interpretations. His accounts from Bhutan, Switzerland, and Qatar highlight the influence government policies and mechanisms can have on the happiness of citizens.

In Bhutan, Weiner defines happiness as a policy. As many of you know, Bhutan has a unique measure for the country’s successful growth: Gross Domestic Happiness. While the rest of the world is competing to improve the Gross Domestic Product, this tiny Himalayan community is focused more on what Robert Kennedy called “that which make life worthwhile.”

Weiner writes that in Bhutan most people are happy, but no one talks about it. Compassion is more highly valued than economic growth in this heavily Buddhist society. Happiness is not an individual experience in Bhutan. Only collectively, interpersonally, do Bhutanese find inner peace and happiness.

Weiner also notes that there are more monks than soldiers in Bhutan, and that the army produces most of Bhutan’s liquor. He says, “Imagine if all 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.”

A powerful scene takes place as Weiner is preparing to leave Bhutan and reflecting on his time there. With a sense of calm not usually evident in his self-proclaimed grumpy style, Weiner writes about realizing that everything he has been through in his life is okay. He wouldn’t change it. He accepts himself and his experiences without judgment. It’s a beautiful scene and for me the most moving in his book. Happiness and peace come from a commitment to communal well-being, trust, acceptance, and systems, including governments, that support those values.

In Switzerland happiness is boredom. Weiner travels around admiring how well Swiss systems function. They make life predictably smooth, and in that way calmly enjoyable. Behind the general thrust of his chapter on Switzerland, though, is the premise of civic participation and its relationship to happiness.

The Swiss system of direct democracy gives citizens more choices to have their say on the issues than any other country. This is not without flaw. Weiner notes that women did not have the right to vote in that country until 1971, a decision that was delayed by these same choice-loving, comfort-loving citizens. Yet, the Swiss take voting seriously. The average person there votes six or seven times a year on items ranging from international politics to local prohibitions. Several researchers have examined the relationship between choice and/or democracy and happiness. The Swiss economist Bruno Frey found that across all regions of Switzerland, those with the greatest number of referendums were the happiest. There is undeniable satisfaction in having your voice heard.

In Qatar, Weiner defines happiness as a lottery ticket. By this he means that just a few decades ago Qataris were comparatively minor players in the global economy, leading simple and somewhat isolated lives. Then they discovered vast quantities of oil and natural gas beneath their sandy dunes and sky-rocketed onto the world stage. This apparent luck, like winning the lottery, can have the capacity to both significantly increase and decrease people’s happiness.

On the other end of the spectrum from Switzerland, Qatar neither taxes its citizens nor gives them the vote. The state provides generously for the welfare of Qataris. Electricity, health care, and education are all free for citizens. When a Qatari man gets married, he is allotted a plot of land, an interest-free mortgage, and a monthly allowance of several thousand dollars. It sounds great, except for the explicit gender inequality in these policies, and the fact, as Weiner notes, that with no tax burden, there is no democracy. ” ‘Tax’ is another word for vote… Qataris have neither taxation nor representation, and that’s not a happy thing.”

In his research, Weiner is careful not to ascribe direct causality to the conditions he describes. “Are democracies happier than dictatorships? Not necessarily.” Counter to popular post-Soviet restructuring assumptions and policies, Weiner notes the possibility that democracies don’t actually promote happiness but rather, happy places are more likely to be democratic.

It’s a conundrum I haven’t yet resolved. What has your experience been? Do you have examples of peace and happiness as prerequisites for good governance? Or vice versa? Or is it one of those essentially connected phenomena where you can’t have one without the other? Raise your voices in the Comments section.

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