The Geography of Bliss

Some Kindle highlights from The Geography of Bliss, a solid book with some fun writing:

Until the eighteenth century, people believed that biblical paradise, the Garden of Eden, was a real place. It appeared on maps—located, ironically, at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, in what is now modern-day Iraq.

We humans are creatures of the last five minutes. In one study, people who found a dime on the pavement a few minutes before being queried on the happiness question reported higher levels of satisfaction with their overall lives than those who did not find a dime.

we report even higher happiness levels if the interviewer is a member of the opposite sex. Instinctively, we know that happy is sexy.

(On paradoxes)
Many of the world’s happiest countries also have high suicide rates. Or this one: People who attend religious services report being happier than those who do not, but the world’s happiest nations are secular.

Susan complains that the Swiss are “culturally constipated” and “stingy with information.” Even if that information is vital, such as “your train is leaving now” or “your clothing is on fire,” the Swiss will say nothing. To speak out would be considered insulting, since it assumes ignorance on the part of the other person.

There’s a wooden crucifix, which strikes me as odd in such a secular country. Underneath are three words: “Be more human.”

the Swiss didn’t give women the right to vote until 1971—in one canton, or state, not until 1991.

an ingenious little experiment by psychologist Paul Rozin of the University of Pennsylvania. He asked a cross-section of people from six countries (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland) a simple question: “Imagine that you feel like eating ice cream and that you have the choice between two ice-cream parlors. One offers a choice of ten flavors. The other offers a selection of fifty flavors. Which ice-cream parlor would you choose?” In only one country, the United States, did a majority (56 percent) of respondents prefer the ice-cream parlor with fifty flavors. The Swiss were on the other end of the spectrum. Only 28 percent preferred the ice-cream parlor with more choices.

Too often when we say we feel joyful, we’re really feeling manic. There is a frenetic nature to our joy, a whiff of panic;

Franklin D. Roosevelt named his presidential retreat Shangri-La (later renamed Camp David).

He says things like “Shall we take some vestigial food, sir?” At first I have no idea what he is talking about—some Bhutanese delicacy perhaps?—then I realize he means leftovers.

The word “travel” stems from the same root as “travail” does.

Qataris, however, are in a league of their own. The State Department issues travel advisories for Americans venturing overseas. Normally, these warnings are reserved for dangers like terrorism and civil war, yet the State Department flags the driving in Qatar, which it describes as an “extreme sport.”

half the time I can’t find where I parked my car let alone my place in the universe,

Neuroscientists have discovered that the parts of the brain that control wanting and the parts that control liking are separate;

I’m a few minutes early. I ask the hostess for a table for two. She freezes, speechless. After a moment, I realize the problem. I have not given her enough information. She needs to know who my dining companion will be: male or female.

Abdulaziz relays a joke making the rounds in Doha. One man says to his friend, “Did you hear about the criminals who kidnapped the rich man’s eight-year-old son? They couldn’t collect ransom because the rich man didn’t notice the son was missing.” “Big mistake,” says the other man. “They should have kidnapped the maid. That way, the rich guy would have noticed that someone is missing.”

Prohibition was lifted in the 1930s, and Icelanders have been drinking heartily ever since. Oddly, the government continued to ban beer for many more decades—apparently concerned that people would remain lightly buzzed all week rather than bookending their drunkenness with a few days of sobriety. Finally, in 1989, the ban on beer was lifted, and Icelanders put down their shot glasses and picked up their beer steins.

There are no strangers in Iceland. People are constantly running into friends and acquaintances. It’s not unusual for people to show up thirty minutes late for work because en route they encountered a parade of friends. This is a perfectly valid excuse, by the way, for being late. The Icelandic equivalent of traffic was hell.

The greatest Icelandic poet of all was a Viking named Egill Skallagrímsson, who lived about one thousand years ago and is widely known, as one Icelandic artist told me, “as that mean motherfucker who wrote beautiful poetry.”

The psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihalyi wrote in his book Flow, “It is not the skills we actually have that determine how we feel but the ones we think we have” (emphasis added). When I first encountered that sentence, I reread it four or five times, convinced that it must be a misprint, or perhaps Csíkszentmihalyi was strung out on consonants.

in Moldova the relationship between host and guest is reversed. It is the guest’s obligation to make the host feel at ease. Reverse hospitality.

When I return to the apartment, Luba greets me at the door—after spending a few minutes unlatching the various latches. Palms opened, shoulders shrugged, I “ask” her how she is. “Feevty-feevty,” she says, pointing to her left shoulder, which is sore, I presume, and fanning herself to indicate that the heat is getting to her. It’s amazing, I think, how much two people can communicate with a shared vocabulary of only six words, one of which is “vodka.”

In the former Soviet republics, there are three staples of life: vodka, chocolate, and corruption. I know someone who once survived in Uzbekistan for two weeks solely on these three items.

Envy, that enemy of happiness, is rife in Moldova. It’s an especially virulent strain, one devoid of the driving ambition that usually accompanies envy. So the Moldovans get all of the downsides of envy without any of its benefits—namely, the thriving businesses and towering buildings erected by ambitious men and women out to prove they are better than everyone else. Moldovans derive more pleasure from their neighbor’s failure than their own success. I can’t imagine anything less happy.

the smile is not private. Researchers have found that people, sane people at least, rarely smile when alone. The smile is a social gesture more than a reflection of our inner state, though it can be that, too.

I hit the pause button. I can’t take it anymore. Watching Brits shed their inhibitions is like watching elephants mate. You know it happens, it must, but it’s noisy, awkward as hell, and you can’t help but wonder: Is this something I really need to see?

In Arab countries, it’s crucial to graciously accept many, many cups of tea before asking anything that might be construed as a substantive question. In India, I found that flattery was the way to get people to talk. In America, microphobia is extremely rare, and no such foreplay is necessary.

pub is, after all, short for “public house”

The English penchant for strict rules of behavior extends into the pub. The one that sticks with me is this: Don’t introduce yourself right away. It’s considered “cloyingly American,”


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One response to “The Geography of Bliss

  1. I sense I need to read this book if only for the portion on being American amidst British culture.

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