When are people happiest
Geography of happiness: where do the happiest people live?
Eric Weiner was born in the same year as the smiley: 1963. Nevertheless, he calls himself a "grumpy man" - a grouch. For more than ten years he reported as a correspondent for National Public Radio from over 30 countries, mostly on crises and disasters, suffering and misery. Then he got tired of it and decided to try the opposite and research the reasons for confidence and serenity. This resulted in the book "Geography of Happiness. In Search of the Most Satisfied People in the World". It made Weiner an expert on happiness in one fell swoop - and a bestselling author in America.
What does happiness actually have to do with travel? Why don't we just stay at home and try to be happy within our four walls?
Eric Weiner: Well, I've been traveling for many years, and I've had an experience that I suspect many people will share: you can change the way you feel and improve your mood by moving around. The American writer Henry Miller summed it up wonderfully: "The travel destination is never a place, it is a new way of looking at things."
And how do you explain that certain places should make you happier and others less?
Places differ not only in climate and location, but also in what I would call "happiness levels". I wanted to investigate why this is so in my book.
How did you choose these happier places and countries?
According to scientific criteria. I went to the Netherlands, to the "World Database of Happiness". There the - now retired - Professor Ruut Veenhoven and his colleagues have collected data and studies for decades, material about countries, surveys, etc. - simply everything that can be scientifically found on the subject of "happiness". So I came up with the idea of looking at Iceland, for example. Or Switzerland. Because people there constantly say that they live happily ever after.
Iceland as one of the happiest countries in the world - that's surprising. You write yourself: It's dark and cold there six months a year. How is it that Icelanders consider themselves so happy?
Well, research can just ask people themselves: How happy do you feel? You can only give information about your own happiness. The answers are recorded on a scale from 1 to 10. 1 means "very unhappy", 10 means "very happy". Psychologists and sociologists can then interpret that.
What level does Iceland reach?
8 to 9. This has made Iceland a top spot for many years. But if you - as I did - tell the Icelanders in a conversation that they live in one of the happiest countries, they are a little surprised.
What is the quality of life in Iceland?
Oh, we could talk about this for hours. The nature, the pride in the language or the fact that they drink a lot there. But that's not why they are happy - they just like their vodka and beer. I think it's about a sense of community. You actually live there like in a big family. Scientists can show that everyone is related to everyone in Iceland. That goes back seven or eight generations; they share the same genes. You can feel that in everyday life, this tremendously strong feeling of community and belonging. One of the people I spoke to said to me: "You don't have to worry about falling into a black hole here. There is no such thing with us. There is always someone there to catch you." Iceland is also a very creative country. It has to do with the fact that people have developed a very healthy, relaxed attitude towards failure. Failure is part of life. When you succeed, nobody envies you, but when you fail, people still applaud you and encourage you to try again. This has a tremendously liberating effect on the mind.
But that was before the financial crisis, before Iceland practically went bankrupt?
Yes, and of course everyone wonders: are they still that happy? I still have contacts in Iceland and I know that you are going through really tough times there. But that doesn't mean misery. One can be worried - and yet happy. So factors like climate, cold and darkness are not that important when it comes to happiness? Icelanders don't need palm trees and beaches to be happy; that might even be counterproductive.
How can we understand that: palm trees and beaches bring bad luck?
Researchers call this the get-along-or-die theory: In warm zones, survival is too easy. The ripe fruits practically fall from the tree into the mouth. You don't need to make an effort to survive. In colder climates, people have to work together, for better or for worse. That creates a sense of community. Happiness is a social thing.
What were you looking for in Switzerland? You call the chapter "happiness through boredom". How is that supposed to work?
The philosopher Bertrand Russell already described this phenomenon: someone who cannot stand boredom is impatient - and therefore unhappy. But we can consider someone who can endure boredom without being bored to be a happy person. The Swiss are very good at it. You yourself draw a lot of satisfaction from the fact that your country works so incredibly reliably. The Swiss are not bored. They only seem like that - to unhappy foreigners.
You deal extensively with Asian cultures. You have been to Bhutan, Thailand, India. Do Asians, with their Hindu and Buddhist traditions, have more talent for happiness?
The central message from Buddhism and Hinduism that can help us become happy is: Lower your expectations. That sounds banal at first, but it is important. If you dig a little deeper, you can see that this is a basic concept of Eastern religions: we are in the wheel of fate. Our karma comes from previous lives. If we fail or if something goes wrong, then it doesn't help to complain. In general: the past is over. To be angry with them is foolish. Let’s deal with the present.
You have traveled extensively for a year, doing extensive research on the subject of happiness: What do you take away from it for yourself?
I am less unhappy than before. I'm a very neurotic person, you know, but I've learned a few lessons. This idea from Thailand, for example: Don't think too much! We tend to chew everything in our heads over and over again, including happiness. The Thais warned me: Thinking too much hurts! Mai pen lai, that's one of her best-known sayings: "It's okay, forget it!" Another important lesson: I now see happiness more as something that arises in relationships. It's not hidden in me. I try to bring up these kinds of thoughts over and over again. But I would have to lie to say I am a happy person.
What can travelers learn from your experiences?
As I said: check your expectations. Many travelers also read a lot about their destination. But it can be very useful not to know too much. Reading a lot means adopting other people's preconceived notions. I wouldn't say: leave unsuspecting. But I would advise against reading too much. I am also firmly convinced that it is good for a trip to avoid five-star hotels. I like luxury, like most people. But these hotels create a barrier between you and the place you want to get to know. They isolate you, they are comfortable prisons. So I try to live with friends or rent an apartment from locals whenever possible. And when you travel alone, you automatically force yourself to seek contact. The last point: Do not travel too much in the destination country. Stay in one spot. A different city every day - so you don't really get to know anything. Stay until you think you live there. You will never be able to see everything anyway. Being right in one place is much better than having just seen ten places.
Are you working as a correspondent again?
No, I'm writing my next book. I will travel a lot again for that. It will be a book about God. I am interested in people who live a different faith than the one they were born into. I can imagine the title: "Shopping for God". Religion as a conscious choice. After I was lucky, I just needed something bigger - and God was a good size fit.
Interview: Bernd Schwer
Geography of happiness. Looking for the happiest people in the world.
Rogner & Bernhard at two thousand and one
2008, 19,90 €;
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