Is there an underlying geography to happiness in the world? I know that there are parts of our planet ravaged by war, disease and famine. I know, too, that a huge disparity exists between the haves and have-nots in many quantifiable respects: gross domestic product per capita, life expectancy, literacy rate, to name but a few.
After all, people in some countries live for a year on what some of us make in a day. That has to translate into happiness (or the lack thereof), right? Is there a measure, a single yardstick, to show that happiness is an ordinal scale by which countries are ranked?
Last year I read "The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World," by Eric Weiner. Intriguing title to be sure, and the author, as a foreign correspondent for National Public Radio, clearly has the credentials of a participant observer in the international arena.
"The Geography of Bliss" is a travel book insofar as Weiner visits nine countries with a single agenda: What makes people happy (or unhappy)? His guidebook is the so-called "World Database of Happiness," compiled and maintained by a Dutch sociologist, which lists countries on a scale of 1 to 10 according to their relative happiness. The happiest of the world's nations: Iceland. The least happy: the former Soviet republic of Moldova. He goes to both, and others in between, in pursuit of the story of what is it exactly that makes us happy.
As a cultural geographer, I have to confess a certain amount of skepticism. We've been down this road before. The "National Character Studies" funded by the U.S. Department of Defense during World War II, and some earlier research in culture and personality by anthropologists such as Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead, were required reading when I was a graduate student
30-plus years ago. My professors asked the question: Can we ascribe to a nation personality traits normally used to describe individuals?
After many interviews, chance encounters, personal impressions and immersion into a body of academic literature (including the works of geographer Yi-Fu Tuan), the author is able to conclude the following: "Money matters, but less than we think and not in the way that we think. Family is important. So are friends. Envy is toxic. So is excessive thinking. Beaches are optional. Trust is not. Neither is gratitude."
Admittedly, happiness, or what serious researchers call "subjective well-being," means different things to different people. It's also subject to change, both as we age and as circumstances (like the recent global financial meltdown) fluctuate. Nevertheless, I agree with Weiner that some places are happier than others. I also believe in the wisdom of Walt Disney: "When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are."
Mires, Ph.D., teaches geography at the University of Delaware and is a member of the American Geographical Society's Writers Circle. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (302) 875-4237