The Geography of Bliss and recent findings on well-being

The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner.

Author Eric Weiner visits the happiest country (Switzerland!), the most bummed out (Moldova), the wealthiest (Qatar), and others, using wherever he is to reflect on happiness and the locals. There are some good basic points about happiness and culture, but Weiner expends too many words laughing at his own jokes. The book was fun but I didn’t find much beef.

Here’s a brief excerpt. And some positive reviews. And Weiner’s description of the book.

What I learned from the book

Talking about various happiness indexes, Weiner mouths the words of the critics. “How can you measure happiness? Happiness is a feeling, a mood, an outlook on life. Happiness can’t be measured.”

“Or can it?” MRI machines, cardiac monitors, and facial coding make a stab at measurement. However, there’s one remarkably accurate way to gauge a person’s happiness: ask them. Ruun Veenhoven, keeper of the World Happiness Database, says self-reporting is accurate. “You can have a disease and not know it but if you’re happy you are aware of it,” notes Veenhoven. Of course, happiness is fleeting. “We humans are creatures of the last five minutes” writes Weiner. What’s more interesting is well-being, the quality we see when we reflect on the arc of our lives. Happiness is momentary; well-being is lasting afterglow. “Subjective well-being” is the scientific term for what we’re talking about.

Weiner had this incredible parting exchange with Ruut Veenhoven:

Author (EW): It must be wonderful working in the field of happiness studies.

Ruut Veenhoven: What do you mean?

EW: Well, you must have an abiding faith in mankind’s capacity for happiness.

RV: No, not really.

EW: But you’ve been studying happiness, analyzing in your entire life.

RV: Yes, but it does not matter to me if people are happy or not, as long as some people are happier than others. I can still crunch the numbers.

EW: “I just stand here for a moment, stunned. Here I thought Veenhoven was a fellow traveler, a comrade in the hunt for happiness, but it turns out that, as they say in the South, he has no dog in this hunt. Or, if your prefer, Vennhoven isn’t a player in the happiness game; he’s the referee, keeping score.”

Who do you think is happier? Answer at bottom of entry.*

  • extroverts or introverts?
  • married people or singles?
  • Republicans or Democrats?
  • churchgoers or not?
  • people with college degrees?
  • people with bachelors degrees or people with advanced degrees?
  • busy people or idle people?

In Bhutan, Weiner consults with a thought leader named Karma who tells him “We don’t believe in this Robinson Crusoe happiness. All happiness is relational.”

Why Bhutan? Bhutan is the poster child for making national happiness a major priority. In 1986, the Financial Times interviewed King Wangchuk and headlined Bhutan King: Gross National Happiness More Important than Gross National Product. Bhutan is now the baby harp seal of national happiness indexes.

Bhutan is not paradise. It is an impoverished, isolated mountain nation with 700,000 people, primarily Buddhists, and no paved roads. A celebrated healer explains to Weiner, “You see, everything is a dream. Nothing is real. You will realize that one day.” Don’t overgeneralize.

Weiner goes into the incongruity that the Exxon Valdez raised Gross Domestic Product (disasters are expensive to clean up) and volunteer work isn’t counted. Robert Kennedy said GDP fails to measure, “the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, or the intelligence of our public debate.” He concluded that GDP measures everything “except that which makes life worthwhile.”

Progress report on my learning

Twelve days ago, I began curating a stream of information on happiness and well-being from Google Alerts and various recommendation engines. I’ve commented on 40 articles and posts via 500 people have looked in, 135 of whom registered an opinion. I’ve scanned hundreds of items. There’s a digest of this and a place for discussion on the Well-being Facebook page. Drop by and make a recommendation.

I am becoming conversant in the conundrums, echo-chambers, bunk, and trade-offs of the happiness trade. My crap detectors are active. I’ll share what I learn.


Reporters love Gallup’s reports on its happiness index findings. “Right here in River City, people have smiles on their faces.” Two paragraphs down will be the astonishing finding that money can’t buy happiness. Sometimes the story will carry advice: have friends, exercise, be grateful, give stuff away, and keep on smiling.

The discussions about measuring happiness are as bad as those in the training industry about pinning down the ROI of training. Folks, you don’t need two-place accuracy to make a business decision. No measure has been found more effective than asking “How happy are you?”

The Fed chairman argues in favor of monitoring happiness as well as cash flow. This draws some boos from the crowd but I think he’s right on target. Too bad he can’t do much about it.

There are several yawning gaps in the research that’s being gathered. On the small end, there are lots of prescriptions for individuals. On the big end, many countries have jumped on the national happiness index bandwagon, although some of these smell like those groups that inevitably meet on the Mediterranean coast in the dead of European winter and conclude that well-being is a good thing in every member state and should be encouraged by the next year’s commission.

What’s missing is research and sound practice for rolling out the upsides of happiness to a corporation or work group.

Studies have found that people are least happy when at work. It’s the botton of the scale. Why, then, is there no concern about doing something? This is akin to informal learning, where corporations acknowledge continuing with suboptimal approaches and yet keep on doing them because it’s too much of a hassle to change. Yes, before you ask, we already know how to increase workers’ subjective well-being.

A friend asked what it was like to switch career directions. I replied online. Unlike Ruun Veenhoven, I am totally jazzed by this new area of focus. I would like to help a minimum of 10,000 become happier this year.

I’m a firm believer in narrating my work. The reflection helps me learn. People see ways to help me and they do! How might we work together on this? Would your organization be interested in partnering on measuring the impact of well-being on productivity? My measurement tool will be available as an app soon and I’m recruiting research partners. Call me.

There’s lot more to come. Citizens of the world are scratching their heads are asking “What’s the point?” If we’re happy and healthy, what more are we looking for?”

*The groups on the left are happier than those on the right.

Jay’s well-being reference page

Don’t worry, be happy