Land of the blessed

<strong>The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World</strong>

When nations write their constitutions, they aspire to political ideals such as "freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law". The latest to do so is the Treaty of Lisbon for Europe. But the framers of the constitution of the United States thought differently: they aspired to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness".

There is something quintessentially American about this pursuit. In a far-from-scientific search for books on Amazon's US and UK websites, I found 255,000 titles with the word "happiness" on the US website; the UK total was a far more modest 6,600. Financial, material, physical, emotional, sexual, spiritual - the list of happinesses that Americans pursue seems endless.

Eric Weiner is a self-confessed grouch: the National Public Radio correspondent reminds readers early on that his surname is a homonym for "whiner" and he appears to be an ideal candidate undergoing mid-life angst. Intrigued by a Dutch think tank's study of nations and their sense of happiness, he embarks on a remarkable journey to nine countries that do well on the happiness scale - or which are at the bottom (as in Moldova), or where the nanny state tries to do something about it (no, not Singapore, but John Betjeman's favourite bedroom community, Slough).

Weiner's aim is serious: to understand what makes people happy and why. He begins his journey in Rotterdam, digs into a World Database of Happiness, and learns from sociologists that rich people are happier than poorer ones, but only marginally so, and that people hate commuting to work. Societies (as in east Asia) which require individuals to surrender their identity because the society values collective happiness more than individual happiness - the nail that sticks out gets hammered - are also, collectively, less happy than they could have been if each individual had been allowed to pursue his or her happiness. At the same time, individualised, happy European nations that are secular and monocultural often have high suicide rates. The paradoxes Weiner encounters during his journey are so many as to make almost any generalisation about happiness impossible.

Where Weiner excels is in identifying slices of life - moments of bliss - which indicate why a particular society could be happy. And so, in Rotterdam, he sees virtues in a welfare state that permits people to do nothing but have long, engaging conversations over coffee.

There is happiness in Switzerland, too, but it is of a dull and humourless kind. Although Weiner does not cite Orson Welles, you feel the undercurrent of his famous ad-libbed line from the film The Third Man: "In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock." (And what makes Weiner happiest is the clockwork efficiency of Swiss Rail, which makes the Germans look shabby and unpunctual.)

For happiness with a genuine smile, Weiner goes to Bhutan, where the enlightened king, now putting himself out of business, has discarded quantitative measures of economic progress (gross domestic product, or the sum total of goods and services a nation produces in a year) and replaced them with an idea - gross national happiness. Weiner approvingly quotes Robert Kennedy, who discounted GDP because it cannot register "the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, or the intelligence of our public debate" - because it can measure everything, Kennedy said, "except that which makes life worthwhile".

In Doha, Weiner discovers that money can't really buy happiness; the country lies afloat in wealth, but the few Qataris he meets are unable to explain what happiness means to them. Sensory pleasures dominate the happiness discourse in Thailand. To look at happiness from the other extreme, he explores the saddest people on earth: the Moldovans, who appear grumpier than almost everyone else he meets. Moldovans seem to have a belief that is "free-floating, anchored to nothing but the cloud of pessimism that hovers over this sad land". In India, he encounters the faux-tranquillity of ashrams. In America, he finds happiness in the comfort of home.

By the end of the book, Weiner has taken the readers on a breathtaking journey from familiar ancient philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato to relatively modern ones such as Schopenhauer and Heidegger, psychoanalysts such as Freud, pleasure-giving substances and services such as Moroccan hash and Thai massage, calming experiences in ashrams and on mountaintops. He has also expressed delight over the craftsmanship of an expensive pen or the texture of an exquisite chocolate, and pored over obscure academic journals.

The result is open-ended: there are no right answers, and each individual's pursuit of happiness must remain unique. This book won't make you rich, slim, or enlightened. But, as Vladimir told Estragon, it will pass the time.

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Art is the new activism