Sunday, July 24, 2011
The Geography of Bliss
During this past trip to Japan I had my Kindle with me. This is the first trip where I have used it since Aya got it for me last November. It was quite handy as I could “pack” four books along with me into a device the size of a thin paperback. One of those books was called, ‘The Geography of Bliss’. It was about one man’s realization that he wasn’t all that happy and his idea to explore the places of the world the normally rank high on happiness scales to see what they had in common if anything and if he could learn from them. I really liked the book and would recommend it if that idea appeals to you. The author was insightful and funny. He went to many countries that rank high like the Netherlands, Iceland, Thailand, Bhutan, and Switzerland as well as some that should rank high like Qatar (having a very high gdp per head) and went to some other places that perhaps don’t rank high like Moldova, finally ending up in India which I believe ranks somewhere in the middle of the scale. In the end he comes to a few conclusions. To simplify, people in countries that have money, but aren’t too rich are happy. Those in countries that discourage envy are happy. Those with a sense of community and trust are happy. Spirituality can make you happy, but maybe not. Opportunity is surely in the mix.
If you take a look at the website for the happiness index you can get an idea of the things that make people happy, generally. Of course there are all sorts of different things that can make us happy in our lives like career fulfillment, family relations, connection with ecology, diet/exercise, etc. It also really depends on the person as one person’s hell is another’s heaven.
Going back to Japan this past time I realized just how much I missed living in Japan and why. Standing on a crowded, yet almost silent, Tokyo subway platform one night, making the connection between the book and the travel I was taking wasn’t hard to do. In Japan I felt safe, I could trust people. I was connected to nature just about everywhere I went. The standard of living and care for all people is pretty high and the society discourages envy. Japan is a rich nation and I fear in some ways perhaps they are too rich, to the point where they have more money than they know what to constructively do with. People’s diet and exercise routines are some of the best in the world and Japan boasts the longest life spans. However on the overall scale of things Japan ranks somewhere below where you might expect as does the U.S. and Germany despite having some of the largest economies in the world. Most of the highest ranking countries are Nordic, though Norway might move down a couple notches after the recent attacks. Though maybe it will raise it.
While in Japan I watched the news often and something I saw more than once was a happy couple getting married. The story was that after the March 11th earthquake and tsunami this couple had put things into perspective and decided there was no reason to wait. Similarly polls throughout the country ranked overall happiness, or satisfaction with life, as rising after the disaster. Perhaps a little of “this is what could happen” puts things into perspective. People stop being unsatisfied with what they don’t have and start being satisfied with what they do have. I think the poor of most 1st world nations like the U.S. could take a lesson away from that, but really that is a good lesson for anyone.
On the author’s trip around the world he encountered expatriates in each nation who had made their place in their new country and now called it home. They claimed to be happy and that makes sense as happiness is in the eyes of the beholder. I know that feeling as I was pretty happy living in Japan. Having lived in four countries now I think that Japan is my favorite, it fits me. People are quiet and polite. Streets are clean and things run on time. People concentrate more on “we” than “me”. Religion is not at the forefront of most people’s decision making and does not influence politics. While most Japanese people say they don’t trust the government there actually is a level of trust which is why Japan has such a high level of public debt but is still not considered a risk. Crime is fairly low and people generally trust each other and feel a sense of responsibility for their actions and the well being of others. Diets are good and people value the environment and exercise. Though the country can get crowded in places there are natural expanses and many sights of historical and/or cultural heritage. Unlike the U.S. people who are smart and value learning are themselves valued, no child in school has to hide the fact that they study hard or like learning from their peers. There is also a sense for me of adventure and learning. As an outsider there are constantly new things to learn and that is stimulating.
Of course there are things I didn’t like about Japan, but there will always be things that frustrate one no matter where you live. In hindsight those things didn’t really matter much when weighed against the things I did enjoy. The only thing that sticks out for me was my job, teaching English. I enjoyed it to a degree, but it was not satisfying. Here in China I am satisfied with my job, but not with where I live. I think I have found the geographical location of my happiness, now if I can only get a job there.