In The Geography of Bliss, Eric Weiner wonders: What if you lived in a country that was fabulously wealthy and no one paid taxes? What if you lived in a country where failure is an option? What if you lived in a country so democratic that you voted seven times a year? What if you lived in a country where excessive thinking is discouraged? Would you be happy then?
How can you measure happiness?
Happiness is a feeling, a mood, an outlook on life. Happiness can’t be measured. Or can it?
Neuroscientists at the University of Iowa have identified the regions of the brain associated with good and bad moods. They do this by hooking up research subjects (college students in need of quick cash) to MRI machines and then showing them a series of pictures. When they show people pleasant pictures—bucolic landscapes, dolphins prefrontal lobe are playing—parts of the activated. When they show unpleasant images—a bird covered in oil, a dead soldier with parts of his face missing—the more primitive parts of the brain light up.
Happy feelings, in other words, register in the regions of the brain that have evolved most recently. It raises an intriguing question: Are we, in evolutionary if not personal terms, slouching toward happiness?
Some people should be happier than others…for happiness researchers
WEINER: “It must be wonderful working in the field of happiness studies.”VEENHOVEN: “What do you mean?”WEINER: “Well, you must have an abiding faith in mankind’s capacity for happiness.”VEENHOVEN: “No, not really.”WEINER: “But you’ve been studying happiness, analyzing it your entire life.”VEENHOVEN: “Yes, but it doesn’t matter to me if people are happy or not, as long as some people are happier than others. I can still crunch the numbers.”
One study found that, of all the factors that affect the crime rate for a given area, the one that made the biggest difference was not the number of police patrols or anything like that but, rather, how many people you know within a fifteen-minute walk of your house.
Extroverts are happier than introverts; optimists are happier than pessimists; married people are happier than singles, though people with children are no happier than childless couples; Republicans are happier than Democrats; people who attend religious services are happier than those who do not; people with college degrees are happier than those without, though people with advanced degrees are less happy than those with just a BA; people with an active sex life are happier than those without; women and men are equally happy, though women have a wider emotional range; having an affair will make you happy but will not compensate for the massive loss of happiness that you will incur when your spouse finds out and leaves you; people are least happy when they’re commuting to work; busy people are happier than those with too little to do; wealthy people are happier than poor ones, but only slightly. So what should we do with these findings? Get married but don’t have kids? Start going to church regularly? Drop out of that PhD program? Not so fast.
The happiest places, he explains, don’t necessarily fit our preconceived notions. Some of the happiest countries in the world—Iceland and Denmark, for instance—are homogeneous, shattering the American belief that there is strength, and happiness, in diversity. One finding, which Veenhoven just uncovered, has made him very unpopular with his fellow sociologists. He found that income distribution does not predict happiness. Countries with wide gaps between the rich and poor are no less happy than countries where the wealth is distributed more equally.
Another researcher, a Swiss economist named Bruno Frey, examined the relationship between democracy and happiness across Switzerland’s twenty-six cantons. He found that the cantons with the greatest number of referendums, the most democracy, were also the happiest. Even foreigners living in those cantons were happier, though they couldn’t vote.