Eight out of 10 Americans say they think about their happiness at least once a week. Some might say we are obsessed with it. We invented the smiley-face, made Oprah a billionaire and spend millions on self-help books and yoga. But for all our efforts, we're far from the happiest country. We rank 23rd in the world—behind Bhutan and the Netherlands. Malaysia even came out ahead of the world's sole superpower.
In a new book, "The Geography of Bliss," author and self-described grump Eric Weiner explored countries, from Iceland to Qatar, that ranked highest on the World Database of Happiness (which measures happiness in people and nations by asking folks if they're happy, a surprisingly simple but effective method) and one, Moldova, that's consistently near the bottom, to find out what makes a country happy—and why America isn't more so?
There's no single answer. Some factors are obvious, others just weird: optimists are happier than pessimists. People who go to church are happier then folks who don't. But the happiest countries are the most secular. The Dutch find joy in their tolerance of the illicit, from prostitution to hashish, while the Swiss are made content by trains running on time. In Qatar, money is the path to happiness while not fretting over minor things keeps you satisfied in Thailand. Iceland ranks highly because, as Weiner explains; they have "this European safety net; but they also have this American maverick mentality. They like ambitious people; but if you fail, here's your government to pick you back up."
It was in Moldova that Weiner began to see, or, rather, failed to see, the building blocks that make a culture happy. "While I did meet some people I liked, Moldova is the least happy country on the planet," Weiner says. "People go to great lengths to see their neighbors fail. Completely seriously, it is a very morose place. I've never been so glad to leave a country." Moldova became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991. Though untethered, they continue to suffer from a destabilized economy, constant fuel shortages and a lack of indigenous minerals. Forgotten in the break-up of the Soviet Union,and without the political muscle of the former superpower, Moldovans feel as if they have no place in the world. So they have built a society based on anational lack of trust and friendship.
Weiner was a foreign correspondent at National Public Radio and hence spent times in some of the world's unhappiest places from Afghanistan to East Timor. This book was an attempt to find Paradise on Earth. This kind of unhappiness in a society is different from what one might find in regions such as war-torn Iraq or Darfur, since their despair is directly linked to the conflict, and were it not for war would not be present. The same can be said for countries such as Ethiopia, where famine is the direct cause of pain. As a foreign correspondent at National Public Radio who spent time in some of the world's unhappiest places, including Iraq and Sudan, this was a distinction Weiner was careful to make. Moldova is unhappy despite being peaceful and without any environmental threat.
In America the hunt for happiness is more complicated still. For Americans bliss is an individual sport, but in the happiest countries it's a team effort. As Weiner puts it, "We're so ambitious about things, including happiness, and that's ironic because in order to be happy you have to be less ambitious. Happiness is connected to your friends and family. Getting in touch with your inner child is not necessarily the best way to be happy." It's a curious conclusion: our search for happiness might be exactly what is preventing us from finding it.