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Looking for happiness? Try Bhutan

Email|Print| Text size + By Eric Weiner
Globe Correspondent / January 6, 2008

To the long list of maps - topographical, political, demographic - you can add one more: attitudinal. Researchers at the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom recently published the first world map of happiness. Using data from the emerging science of happiness, they created a color-coded atlas of bliss, a topography of the human spirit, from Algeria to Zimbabwe.

After ignoring the subject for a century or so, psychologists and other academics are going gaga over happiness, or subjective well being, to use the preferred term. They're churning out hundreds of papers on the subject each year. There are conferences, a Journal of Happiness Studies, and a World Database of Happiness. So why not a map?

To ascertain a person's happiness level, the bliss-ologists employ a rigorous and empirically unassailable method: They ask, "Overall, how happy would you say you are these days?" The results are remarkably consistent over time and, the researchers insist, are accurate. After all, they argue, who better to gauge your happiness than you?

Plot the results, throw in some color coding and - voila! - you have a map. The results are at once expected and surprising. For one thing, it turns out that, newspaper headlines notwithstanding, most of the world is relatively happy, scoring 5 on a 10-point scale. Yet happiness, like oil and other natural resources, is not distributed evenly. Some places are blessed with an abundance. Others . . not so much. At the bottom of the ladder are countries in sub-Saharan Africa, the former Soviet republics, and parts of Eastern Europe.

And the happiest nations? They are, quite literally, all over the map. I spent a year exploring the world's happiest places for my book "The Geography of Bliss." I used the science of happiness as a guide, as well as some hunches I had. Here are some random thoughts on the world's hot spots of happiness.

Switzerland

The Swiss have a well-deserved reputation for quiet efficiency and deadly dullness. Yet the nation consistently ranks among the happiest in the world. Are the Swiss on to something? Yes. For starters, nearly everything there functions exceedingly well. The trains do run on time. The Swiss, in other words, subscribe to philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer's definition of happiness as "an absence of misery." Then there is Swiss democracy. The Swiss vote on time and often . . . very often. The average citizen might vote seven or eight times a year in various referenda, and at least one study has linked that kind of direct democracy with increased happiness. Finally, there is the biochemical explanation. Not drugs but chocolate. The Swiss consume large quantities, and chocolate contains tryptophan, a chemical that the brain uses to make the neurotransmitter serotonin, which creates a sense of well-being.

Iceland

Icelandic happiness is even more of a mystery than Swiss bliss. Iceland is cold and dark for much of the year. It is isolated and, for goodness sake, has the word ice in its name. Not much happy about that, yet these descendants of the Vikings are, statistically, among the planet's happiest people. It turns out that Icelanders know a thing or two about the art of contentment. They know, as researchers have discovered, that much of our happiness is derived from our relations with others. Icelanders are a close-knit bunch. They are, virtually, one big family. Genealogists have determined that nearly all Icelanders are related, going back seven or eight generations, and family is one of our greatest sources of happiness. Icelanders also derive much pleasure from their creative streak. For a tiny country with a population roughly the size of Louisville, Ky., Iceland churns out an exceptionally large number of world-class artists and musicians (Björk being only the best known). And Iceland publishes more books, per capita, than any other country. "Better to go barefoot than to go without books," is a well-known Icelandic expression.

Thailand

Thailand is known as the Land of Smiles, and for good reason. The Thais have at least a dozen types of smiles, not all of them expressing contentment. The Thais remind us that the smile is more a social than a personal gesture (though it can be that, too). Thailand ranks in the middle latitudes of the happiness map, yet that doesn't tell the full picture. The Thais know instinctively that one of the secrets to happiness is to lead an unexamined life. "You think too much" is a common Thai expression. So is "mai pen lai," which roughly translates as "just let it go." Not bad advice for uptight Westerners.

Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico ranks high in happiness surveys, as do many Latin American nations, despite their relative poverty and often unstable governments. "The Latino bonus" is what some researchers call this phenomenon. Actually, it's not so mysterious after all. Latinos derive much happiness from their close-knit families and, certainly in the case of Puerto Rico, a fiesta attitude. Puerto Rico has many more holidays than the mainland United States and knows how to enjoy them.

The Netherlands

For the Dutch, happiness can be summed up in one word: tolerance. The Dutch famously tolerate, and have legalized, prostitution and marijuana. That tolerance extends to a welcoming attitude toward foreigners. That is changing, a bit, since the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a Muslim extremist in 2004. Still, researchers have found that, overall, tolerant nations tend to be happy ones.

Bhutan

No other country has more explicitly yoked its ethos to happiness than this tiny Himalayan kingdom. The United States may have life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but Bhutan has Gross National Happiness. The policy, first enunciated by King Wangchuk in the 1970s, aims to supplant, or at least supplement, the conventional measure of national progress, gross domestic product. To this end, the Bhutanese have forsaken millions of dollars in revenue from timber sales and mass tourism. They are developing happiness indexes in the hope of putting a hard number to this soft policy. So, are the Bhutanese happy? Yes, but that's not the point. Happiness, they'll gladly tell you, is a journey, not a destination.

India

Can an unhappy place make others happy? Apparently, the answer is yes, if that place happens to be India. While India ranks low on the happiness spectrum, foreigners from E.M. Forster to the Beatles have sought their bliss in India's ashrams and on the banks of its sacred river, the Ganges. Did they find what they were looking for? Some, perhaps, though just as many it seems left disappointed. The allure of sacred India, though, has not diminished, even as the country embraces a high-tech future.

United Kingdom

The dour British are famously allergic to the cheerier side of life and squirm at the thought of the very American self-help industrial complex. Yet Britain is home to the utilitarian school of philosophy, one that famously espouses "the greatest happiness of the greatest number." This emphasis on the common good continues to this day, as evidenced by the nation's experiments with traffic restrictions in central London and the several hundred dollars in license fees the Britons shell out each year to support the BBC, a great source of happiness for many. Don't be fooled by that stiff upper lip and reticent manner. The Brits are happier than they appear.

Asheville, N.C.

While not a nation, Asheville has earned a singular reputation as the kind of city that Americans move to seeking their bliss. With a population of some 70,000, Asheville-ites enjoy many of the benefits of urban life (ethnic restaurants, a thriving arts scene) and relatively few of its drawbacks (traffic jams and high crime rates). As more people move there, though, locals fear that may change. Paradise is a moving target.

Eric Weiner is author of "The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World" (TWELVE, 2008).

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