The Quest for Happiness Across Cultures

Human beings long have been on a quest for happiness. This often is expressed in
religious, philosophical, and psychological thought. Perhaps this is why so many people
are interested in these disciplines, as they may further individuals‟ personal quests for

As the world has become more interconnected, the quest for happiness increasingly is
approached through study of different cultures. This is one of the reasons why I like to
travel and read about different customs across the world. I have read two books
specifically geared toward trying to understand what enables some places in the world to
produce people with more happiness. Although life circumstances such as location
generally appear only to play a minimal role in causing happiness, these still are

The Geography of Bliss

The first book I read about culture and happiness is “The Geography of Bliss,” by Eric
Weiner. In this book, Weiner travels the globe to find “secrets” of happiness (and
unhappiness) in various locations. Below is a summary of factors that Weiner
emphasizes as possible aids to happiness that he discovered in his travels (in no
particular order).

1. Contentment.

In Switzerland, for example, envy is deeply discouraged. People typically do not flaunt
their successes or wealth. Weiner thought this was one of the primary reasons why the
Swiss generally report considerable happiness. In contrast, in Qatar, as well as other
locations, such as Maldova, generally unhappy locations, people often seemed to
compare themselves to others. This often seemed to lead to an excessive focus on work
and material acquisitions, a point that caused Weiner to reflect:

“When Ambition is your God, the office is your temple, the employee handbook your
holy book. The sacred drink, coffee, is imbibed five times a day. When you worship
Ambition, there is no Sabbath, no day of rest. Every day, you rise early and kneel before
the God Ambition, facing in the direction of your PC. You pray alone, always alone, even though others may be present. Ambition is a vengeful God. He will smite those who fail
to worship faithfully, but that is nothing compared to what He has in store for the
faithful. They suffer the worst fate of all. For it is only when they are old and tired,
entombed in the corner office, that the realization hits like a Biblical thunderclap. The
God Ambition is a false God and always has been.”

The importance of contentment also was noted in the book in relation to being at peace
with a lack of certainty. As someone in Bhutan told Weiner, “If you want proof, you will
never be enlightened.”

Another interesting component to contentment may involve a lack of thinking. In India,
Weiner was struck that thinking was discouraged because it contributed to discontent.
As an Indian told him, “You should not think too much. You should not have anything in
your mind. The more you think, the less happy you will be.”

2. Connection to nature.

This is revealed across the world in beautiful places such as Switzerland, Bhutan, and
Iceland. Consider, for instance, this saying from Bhutan, which shows the Bhutanese
value of nature:

“When the last tree is cut, When the last river is emptied, When the last fish is caught,
Only then will Man realize that he can not eat money.”

3. Connection with a place.

Weiner realized the importance of connection with a place when he visited Qatar. In
Qatar, Weiner was struck to find what he thought of as “a people without a culture.” The
essential elements to “home,” including a sense of history, seemed absent. The notion of
the importance of a sense of place was reinforced when Weiner visited Moldova,
generally regarded as one of the least happy places in the world. In contrast, in more
happy cultures, such as Iceland and Italy, customs that encouraged connection with a
place, such as art, flourish.

4. Interconnectedness with other people.

Weiner often suggests that interconnectedness within a community and trust of the
people around us promotes happiness. In Maldova, again, apparently quite the unhappy
place, Weiner reported an amazing lack of trust among individuals.

In light of this, it may be important to note that certain trends in the United States may
make interconnectedness and trust more difficult. For example, consider the trend for
Americans to select preferences without compromise. As Weiner suggests, “If we no
longer must compromise on the easy stuff, like mattresses, then what about the truly
important issues?”

In fact, there are many cultural forces discouraging Americans from forming deep
connections with other people. For instance, Americans work longer hours and
commute more than any people in the world. This takes away time from our loved ones,
an important source of true happiness.

5. Exposure to death and dying.

This idea really challenged me. In Bhutan, for example, individuals regularly are
exposed to death and dying. Weiner suggests that this helps people become more
comfortable with these processes because they‟re continually exposed to them.
Furthermore, being confronted more often with death and dying may encourage people
to think more about to what they want to devote their lives. As one person in Bhutan
told Weiner, “You need to think about death for five minutes every day. It will cure you,
sanitize you.”

6. A focus on the positive.

In Thailand, people often intersperse their days with fun. Related to this, happy people
across the world seemed to Weiner to be mindful of the blessings of the past and
present. As a guru in India told Weiner, “We keep postponing happiness. We can only
experience happiness now. The present moment is inevitable.”

7. Travel.

Of course, this is a major undercurrent of the entire book, as the essential premise is
that travel may help to challenge people to consider their lives anew and to return to
their everyday lives somehow different and better. As Weiner reflects on this:

“The point is not necessarily that we move to these places but, rather, that we allow
these places to move us. . . Adrift in a different place we give ourselves permission to be
different people.”


A second book I recently finished concerning culture and happiness is “Thrive,” by Dan
Buettner. Buettner is best known for identifying what he terms “blue zones” across the
world that promote personal health and longevity (you‟ll watch a video on this next
week). In “Thrive,” he takes a similar approach, seeking to identify locations across the
world in which individuals express the greatest levels of happiness and the factors that
may be responsible. This led Buettner to examine four “happiness blue zones:”
Denmark, Singapore, Mexico, and San Luis Obispo (United States).

Based on his study of these locations, Buettner suggests that:

“Individuals who thrive tend to possess enough money to cover their basic needs, but
rather than striving for more cash, they focus their time and energy on developing a
caring group of healthy friends, working at meaningful jobs, engaging in enriching
hobbies, staying in reasonable shape, volunteering, and belonging to faith-based

Unfortunately, however, most societies make these habits difficult. If society was
happiness-affirming, we would have to make an effort to opt out.

For example, many happiness surveys consistently rank Denmark near the top of global
happiness levels. Why? In general, Denmark supports personal happiness through
various structures and norms. Envy, ambition, and pride generally are not encouraged.
Schools prepare students for participation in society and the arts. Ninety-five percent of
adults in Denmark belong to some club or community organization. Danish law sets the upper limit for work at 37 hours per week. In addition, workers in Denmark take, on
average, six weeks of vacation per year. The government makes sure that citizens have
their basic needs met (this, of course, comes at the cost of about a 60% tax rate, but
many Danish citizens believe the trade-off is well worth it). Nature is plentiful, and
individuals habitually enjoy it. Trust is high, to the point that parents of infants often
leave their carriages outside markets while they go shopping. Finally, families regularly
emphasize “hygge,” a blend of coziness and tranquility, in their time at home, for
instance often reading by firelight or candlelight.

However, as it stands, most societies are not happiness-affirming, meaning that we have
to make an effort to opt in. This makes happiness much more difficult to achieve
because it relies on individual wisdom, intentionality, and self-discipline (virtues many
people lack). Given all of this, Buettner raises questions about how much easier it would
be for individuals to be happier if their local environments were more supportive.

For me, all of this raises a question that happiness scholar Barry Schwartz once asked:

“One of the things I find most annoying is people saying, „Of course, that‟s common
sense.‟. . . Well, it‟s common sense that stable family relationships, close ties to
communities and friends, and meaningful work are significant contributors to
happiness. . . Then why are so many people doing everything they can to sacrifice close
relationships and giving up the chance to do meaningful work, in order to have a house
with another 2,000 square feet?”

Buettner poses several questions for personal reflection as a way to move individuals
toward the creation of happiness-affirming environments:

1. Does your government create an environment that helps you to feel good about your
life and live out your values? To the extent that it doesn‟t, what can you do to encourage
your national or local governing bodies to do so?

2. Have you selected (or are you pursuing) an engaging job that lets you exercise your
talents without consuming you? Does your workplace environment facilitate meaningful
work? If not, what can you do to find or help create such a work environment?

3. Do your friends and family influence you to eat right, to be active, to laugh, and to
otherwise reach your potential? Do you do these things with your friends and family?

4. Do you have too much easy credit or spending cash? If not, what can you do to make
it easier to be thrifty?

5. Is your home set up to nudge you into behaviors that favor happiness and away from
behaviors that generate discontent? What could you do with your home to bring you
more joy long-term?

6. Do you possess habits that encourage you to be grateful, kind, and sensitive to
beauty? What could you do to move you toward these habits?


3 thoughts on “The Quest for Happiness Across Cultures

  1. Pingback: Lessons in Thriving | The Quest for a Good Life

  2. Pingback: Lessons in Thriving across Cultures | The Quest for a Good Life

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