The secret of happiness

The secret of happiness

The secret of happiness

Jan 17th 2008

From The Economist print edition

The search for happiness is becoming more scientific. But does that make it any more accurate than it used to be? Two books explore a growth industry

THE World Database of Happiness, in Rotterdam, collects all the available information about what makes people happy and why. According to the research, married, extroverted optimists are happier than single, pessimistic introverts, and Republicans are happier than Democrats. Nurses enjoy life more than bankers, and it helps to be religious, sexually active and a college graduate with a short commute to work. The wealthy experience more mirth than the poor, but not much. Most people say they are happy, but perhaps that is because they are expected to be.

Having long ignored the subject, psychologists, economists and social scientists are now tackling happiness with zeal, particularly in America. Mostly this involves examining why people are not as happy as they should be, given the unprecedented access to freedom, opportunities and riches. Because happiness is now considered more an entitlement than a pursuit among citizens of prosperous countries, unhappiness has become a sign of failure, of weakness, and a prime source of dread. “Happy, you might say, is the new sad,” writes Eric Weiner in “The Geography of Bliss”, the latest contribution to the expanding field of positive psychology.

A reporter for National Public Radio and a self-proclaimed unhappy person, Mr Weiner used the Rotterdam database to find out where the happiest people live. He then travelled to these places in search of the secrets of contentment. “Are you happy?” he asks the locals of Iceland, Thailand, India and the Netherlands. “Have you seen our public toilets?” replies a man in Switzerland, one of the happiest countries. “They are very clean.” (Also the landscape is gorgeous, the trains prompt, the government attentive and the unemployment rate low.) In Qatar, a land of cartoonish opulence where happiness is seen as God’s will, Mr Weiner’s question is met with cringes; one of those asked suggests he ‘should become a Muslim” in order to know happiness. In mellow Thailand everyone is “too busy being happy to think about happiness.”

Mr Weiner offers colourful observations, even when he samples hakarl, or rotten shark, an Icelandic speciality. Yet he chronicles his travels with a wearying feather-light jocularity, prizing one-liners over lucid analysis. And he fails to provide footnotes to his sources, despite relying simply on his “journalist’s instincts”.

Still, there is insight amid the anecdotes. Mr Weiner learns that the world’s happiest places (such as Iceland and Switzerland) are often ethnically homogeneous even if they have high suicide rates. The least happy places (such as Moldova) are often former Soviet republics, where new political freedoms are undercut by general mistrust, nepotism, corruption and envy. For the British, happiness is a suspicious transatlantic import (“We don’t do happiness,” quips one chap). While Americans, who “work longer hours and commute greater distances than virtually any other people in the world”, struggle hardest to be happy, and are often blind to their own failure; perhaps because the pursuit of happiness is an “inalienable right” in America.

In any event, it is this “American obsession with happiness” that Eric Wilson lambasts in his slim polemic, “Against Happiness”. An English professor at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, Mr Wilson has crafted a tirade against the country’s “wanton” embrace of “manic bliss”. He sounds a shrill alarm: “We are right at this moment annihilating melancholia,” he declares, which will deprive us of the creativity, genius and intellectual brilliance that come from this gloom. To experience beauty and lightness, we must also have death and darkness. But with anti-depressants, high-tech gadgets and botox, America is desperately trying to create “a brave new world of persistent good fortune, joy without pain, felicity with no penalty.”

Given America’s shift into positive-psychology overdrive, a thoughtful critique of this solipsistic grasping is welcome. Alas, Mr Wilson’s is not that critique. Instead, it is an angry, emotional and often repetitive attack on a host of targets, including consumer culture (“happiness through acquisition”), the church (“happiness companies”), politics (“we blithely cheer its increasing demise”) and, most of all, those bland, robotic happy types, with their “paper-thin minds”. But who are these heartland Americans who are unable to feel pain and sadness? How did he find them? The author’s self-serving indictment seethes with malevolence.

Mr Wilson seems to be overlooking the fact that America’s growing self-help industrial complex does not indicate “flaccid contentment” but its absence. As Mr Weiner writes, since 1960 America’s “divorce rate has doubled, the teen-suicide rate tripled, the violent-crime rate quadrupled, and the prison population quintupled.” Also depression, anxiety and other mental-health problems are on the rise, ensuring there will be plenty of melancholic types to write poetry and compose music for some time. There is certainly little risk of eradicating the blues. As Eric Hoffer, an American social philosopher, once observed: “The search for happiness is one of the chief sources of unhappiness.”