On the look-out for a happy ending

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The Geography of Bliss
By Eric Weiner
Black Swan £7.99

Happiness, Aristotle claimed, is the highest good. But if that is true, how can the billboard near my parents’ house assert that happiness is a foot-long hotdog? Happiness, of course, can be both things and neither – debased by copywriters and ignored by science, the word is meaningless as a signifier of a real emotional state.

Grumpy American journalist Eric Weiner (pronounced “whiner”) spends 400 pages trying to nail the word down in his search for the happiest country on the planet. His starting point is the modish new academic field of “subjective well-being” and the World Database of Happiness run by Rotterdam professor Ruut Veenhoven. Prof Veenhoven alienated fellow liberal sociologists when he argued that homogeneous societies were happier than diverse ones. For Weiner, as for Prof Veenhoven, this seems like the kind of misguided quest that can only end in despair.

But The Geography of Bliss turns out to be an entertaining mix of the counter-intuitive and the blatantly obvious.

In the first category is the fact that equality, choice and money do not matter in the way we have come to believe. The Swiss can vote six or seven times a year and it makes them very happy, according to the database. Yet the people of Bhutan do not vote at all and are still pretty content. The Himalayan Buddhist kingdom is the antithesis of rich, liberal, atheist Switzerland and measures its success not in gross national product, but gross national happiness. Here, keeping up with the Joneses must mean looking permanently serene, regardless of your mood.

The research suggests that happiness rises with wealth up to about $15,000 (€10,300, £8,000) a year, then levels off. There are diminishing returns on comfort: that second Mercedes is much less satisfying than the first. Weiner finds proof for this in Doha, a spiritless facsimile of a city where culture is imported off the shelf and petro-fuelled wealth is displayed at pornographic levels of ostentation. One man spends $2.5m on a lucky phone number.

Qatar may be a society off balance, but Iceland has got it about right – it sits at the top of the happiness ladder. Small and beautiful, it is also the least genetically diverse nation on earth which, as Veenhoven found (to his sadness), seems to play a role in trust. They might all look similar but they are less prone to envy – the most corrosive of the deadly sins. Weiner finds a rich vein of melancholia in the Icelanders which, rather than making them sad, is revelled in. Psychologist Norman Bradburn thinks that someone can be happily unhappy, which the British, like the Icelanders, know instinctively.

The Moldovans, on the other hand, are not happy to be unhappy. The former Soviet republic is, in Veenhoven’s database, the world’s saddest place. Here, Weiner reveals the flaw in the journalistic technique of flying in to a country and, in two weeks, trying to take its temperature as a society. In trying to keep the tone frothy he can lapse into stereotypes in search of a joke. The Moldovan women come across like babushkas or mini-skirted prostitutes with central-casting, east-European English, while the men have “a thuggish quality”. Still, he has a point about the Moldovans. They have no money, but neither do the Bhutanese and it does not seem to bother them. Weiner thinks Moldova suffers because it is a “poor man in a rich neighbourhood”. But it has no sense of national identity, and you cannot be happy if you do not know yourself.

Could they be made happy? English philosopher Jeremy Bentham speculated that nations could apply a “felicific calculus” to achieve the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Weiner sees Benthamite tendencies in the British willingness to tolerate government intervention in their lives. While the English do not “do happiness” they have at least learned how to talk about it. Conservative opposition leader David Cameron sounds positively Bhutanese: “We should be thinking not just what is good for putting money in people’s pockets but what is good for putting joy in people’s hearts.”

The journey ends, as you would expect, in America. Here, in the richest country in the world, happiness is tended to by a “self-help industrial complex”. In 1840, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote of Americans: “So many lucky men, restless in the midst of their abundance.” Americans manage only 23rd on some happiness scales and while they are three times richer than they were in 1950, they are no happier.

So, if happiness is a place, there are many routes to it. But you knew this already: it is all about the journey and this book is a pleasant one. Whether any of it is reliable science is hard to judge. It is probably as reliable as economics, so you should not stake your well-being on it.

The author is the FT’s deputy comment editor

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