Tuesday, November 24, 2009

My geography of bliss and happiness

Im back in Thailand for 4 days only and have already been offered a boyfriend - by a noodle seller...

After badminton, I always get something to eat from the market just next to the court. Usually, it's dry yellow noodles with dumplings and red pork. Delicious. This time, when I got my noodles, the seller said that I should take the person behind me as my boyfriend. Just like that.

Now I was not sure who he meant, but early I spotted a cute face selling desserts. Still not sure whom I was offered as my new boyfriend, I walked past the cute face. It looked absent, but as I passed, it was suddenly wearing a knowing and little smile.

This is Thailand. In Korea I was offered a girl but in Thailand, people have better sensors to gayness...

In this post, I want to write about a book I read while I was in Korea. It's called "Geography of Bliss" and is written by Eric Weiner, an American journalist who used to be the foreign correspondant for the National Public Radio in India, Japan and Israel.

Anyhow, first I need to really thank Kawadjan for recommending this book to me. He is my most reliable source for interesting book ideas!!! Thanks buddy:) He also wrote a short review of the book in this post here.

The book is basically about the author travelling to 10 different countries on a mission to find out about the people's happiness. Can it be measured? Can we find universal factors which make people happy? Does money make us happy? etc...

The countries the author travelled to are: the Netherlands, Switzerland, Bhutan, Qatar, Iceland, Moldova, Thailand, Great Britain, India, United States.

Not all chapters are equally interesting, but in all chapters, we can learn something about human nature, happiness and about ourselves, and how we might relate to this particular country.

For me, this book has actually been a great eye-opener. I learnt a lot about myself and my home country, Switzerland. It is hardly believable, but Switzerland is one of the happiest countries in the world (behind Costa Rica, Iceland and Denmark).

Why is that surprising? Well, when I lived there and when I travel there, I remember how grumpy the people are, how sensitive to the weather they can be, how Swiss people really do have the worst humour in the world, if any....

But, this rich country in the middle of Europe nearly tops the worldwide list of happiness, which is compiled annually in a worldwide survey of all states of the world. (read more about it and see the rankings here)

The author, who shares my initial thoughts on Switzerland, is also puzzled. But when he travels to Switzerland, he finds out why the people are actually very content with their lives. He doesnt coins a new term for the Swiss people's happiness, CONJOYMENT. Something between enjoyment and content.

In the Swiss chapter, the author describes Switzerland as a country guided by invisible rules which people conform to and thus create a healthy and balanced social environment. I agree. One of the most important rules is that creating envy is a "nono". Because the Swiss know this, they do everything not to create envy.

I once read that in Germany, bigger cars with smaller engines are sold frequently while in Switzerland small cars with expensive engines and interior are sold more often. This does not surprise me.

Part of the rule of not creating envy is that Swiss people NEVER talk about money. Ask a Swiss how much he earns and he'll stop talking to you. Monetary imbalances create envy and are therefore simply not discussed.

Another thing which the author is writing about is the peace the Swiss people can find in themselves and nature. I guess it might be called boredom but the Swiss are exceptional at calmly doing something and letting time pass. In Switzerland, there are countless "Wanderwege" (hiking routes) and dotted along these routes are wooden benches.

Sometimes they are in scenic places, sometimes surprisingly not at all. Often, you can find people just sitting there and looking out into the scenery. This is what the author calls living with the slow process of nature.

I personally am not a calm person. I am emotional, can change moods quickly and sometimes very impatient. But in the right moment, especially when I am in nature, I can become a typical Swiss too and just sit at a spot and enjoy calmly.

The other chapters of the book are also interesting, but the Thai chapter is a bit of a letdown. The author basically spends a few days with a sexpat friend of his in Bangkok and sees Bangkok, and indeed the whole of Thailand through this lens .

Not enough I think. There isnt much about Thailand apart from the usual cliches of "mai pen rai", the Thai smile and the "jai yen" ...yes I cant think about much more.

There are still some valid points the he makes. To think in Thailand is to be unhappy, and to worry is a recipe for disaster. Inconvenient truths and issues are simply not discussed and avoided at all times. Conflicts are therefore solved as indirectly as possible.

Interestingly, there are big similarities between Switzerland in Thailand, especially in the way social interactions take place. In Switzerland, it is virtually forbidden to cause envy whereas in Thailand it is forbidden to cause someone to loose face. In both countries, people really go far to not cause either.

In the survey however, Switzerland is a far happier place than Thailand. Why could this be?

As we find out throughout the book, very important factors in determining the people's happiness can (but dont necessarily have to) be the social fabric of the society and the personal environment, the level of trust between people, any type of security, someone's own expectations, hope, etc...

Interestingly, monetary wealth and the warm weather have hardly anything to do with our general happiness as a people. Neither the thought of "the richer the happier" nor the concept of the "noble and happy savage" holds up. And the hot Thai weather generally doesnt make Thais happier people either.

Personally, I do think money plays a role indirectly. If we have monetary worries, it can seriously impact our feeling of security and social relations with other people. Even more extremely, if we dont have money to buy food, how could we be happy?

In the case of Thailand, I think people are not happy because they are unsure about the future of their country, adverse to the politics in the country and also distrust each other deeply. Thai society in fact, is very unhealthy.

Developing countries in general do face a difficult task of how to not only advance a country's wealth but also the social fabric of a country. Most developing countries do not succeed and that's why we see fights between the old elites, the new elites, the poor, the middle class and all sorts of other groups.

Switzerland has none of these problems. I wouldnt call it a classless society, but in general, people have enough wealth so that there is no need to worry. This actually results in a certain smugness.

I have some of this too I know. The Swiss are so secure in their status as a wealthy and prosperous nation that they become oblivious to the fact that other countries might perhaps do a few things better than the Swiss themselves. This smugness is probably one of the main reasons why it always takes the Swiss so long to become part of international organisations. (the UN for example, and the EU to come later...)

There are some general things that I learned from this book, apart from some rediscoveries of my own Swissness.

On Eric Weiner's tour of the world through 10 very different countries, I realised that the world is just so amazing. We are all human and, we dont necessarily "strive" for happiness, but we certainly all enjoy being happy. But, our paths to happiness are very different.

There is the Bhutanese national policy which focuses on Gross National Happiness, there are the Thai way of "not thinking", the Swiss way of not creating envy and thus creating harmony, the Indian spirituality, the Icelandic embrace of failure, darkness and national pride, the Qatari status symbols and shopping tours for imported art etc etc.

Every country seems to have a way of trying to achieve happiness and it is nice to read about all these different ways, and perhaps reflect on our own way.

For myself, I have learned that I should not judge people so easily. True, that sounds like a simple truth indeed. But here goes the thought: How could we know about people's happiness just by seeing them quickly.

Maybe they drive a big car, have a beautiful boyfriend, earn a lot of money, travel to exotic places, seem in a harmonious relationship, smile a lot....whatever we might think of people in that moment, we might become jealous.

But this jealousy is nonsense, because how can we even know whether someone is truly happy just by judging them because of a possession or a moment in which we see them.

I often get bothered by other people openly displaying apparent happiness, but I am now learning that I shouldnt. I should rather look at myself and think my own path to happiness.


teacherbob2 said...

thanks this was such a good post i forwareded it to friends.....happiness and the happy index and where and why and how are endless fascinating to all people i think....... we always wonder is the grass greener somewhere else......thanks again

BB said...

thank you very much bob for your compliments and even for forwarding the post...that's nice of you.

also worth thinking about especially in a Thai context for us....are the Thais really that happy just because they smile a lot?:)))