Thursday, August 27, 2009

Switzerland, Iceland, Moldova, and the Geography of Bliss

>> This is part 2 on The Geography of Bliss. See part 1.

Envy, says Eric Weiner in The Geography of Bliss, is a great enemy of happiness and can be toxic in a community.

The Swiss seem to know this instinctively and go to great length to avoid provoking envy in others. They hate to talk about money:
"I met a few Swiss people who couldn't even bring themselves to use the 'm' word; they would just rub their fingers together to indicate they're talking about money. At first, this struck me as odd, given that Switzerland's economy is based on banking - a profession that, last time I checked, had something to do with money. But the Swiss know that money, more than anything else, triggers envy.

"The American way is: If you've got it, flaunt it. The Swiss way is: If you've got it, hide it." (pp. 31-32)
Eric really seems to take a shine to Iceland. One obvious reason:
"In Iceland, being a writer is pretty much the best thing you can be. Successful, struggling, publishing in books or only in your mind, it matters not. Icelanders adore their writers. Partly, this represents a kind of narcissism, since just about everyone in Iceland is a writer or poet. Taxi drivers, college professors, hotel clerks, fishermen. Everyone. Icelanders joke that one day they will erect a statue in the center of Reykjavik to honor the one Icelander who never wrote a poem. They're still waiting for that person to be born." (p. 147)
The people in this quirky little country (320,000 people) are highly creative people. Consider Larus Johannesson, who owns a small music store and a recording label:
"In his forty-odd years, Larus has earned a living not only as a chess player but also as a journalist, a construction-company executive, a theologian, and, now, a music producer. 'I know,' he says, sensing my disbelief. 'But that kind of resume is completely normal in Iceland.'" (p. 161)
The reason? "Envy," says Larus. "There's not much of it in Iceland."
"The lack of envy he's talking about is a bit different from what I saw in Switzerland. The Swiss suppress envy by hiding things. Icelanders suppress envy by sharing them. Icelandic musicians help one another out, Larus explains. If one band needs an amp or a lead guitarist, another band will help them out, no questions asked. Ideas, too flow freely, unencumbered by envy, that most toxic of the seven deadly sins." (pp. 161-2)
The other factor, said Larus, is failure. Failure there doesn't carry a stigma. Icelanders seem to admire people who fail, especially if they fail for good reasons like not being ruthless enough. Nobody in Iceland goes around telling other people that they aren't good enough to do what they are doing. Their naivety, says Larus, is their greatest strength.

Eric finds the discovery that there's a whole nation of people who are naive and don't see this as a flaw remarkably healing. Twenty years before he'd been fired from his dream job at the New York Times for being "naive and unsophisticated."
"I never really got over the insult. Until now. Sitting here with Larus, in this pitch-dark speck of a nation, I could feel the wound cauterizing. Here was an entire nation of naive people, and they seemed to be doing just fine." (p. 167)
In stark contrast to Iceland is the country of Moldova, which according to the World Database of Happiness is the least happy nation on the planet.

Eric thinks he'll check it out.
"Even the name sounds melancholy. Moldooooova. Try it. Notice how your jaw droops reflexively and your shoulders slouch, Eeyore-like. (Unlike 'Jamaica,' which is impossible to say without smiling.)" (p. 186)
Moldovans say they are unhappy for one reason: money. They don't have enough of it, especially compared to other European countries. So, envy is a big problem; the Moldovans feel like they are at the bottom of the heap and disgruntled about the success of others. Trust is also a factor.
"Moldovans don't trust the products they buy at the supermarket. (They might be mislabeled.) They don't trust their neighbors (They might be corrupt.) They don't even trust their family members. (They might be conniving.)

"Another reason for Moldovan misery? 'People in Moldova are neither Russian nor Moldovan. We have been abused and abandoned by everyone. We have no pride in anything. Not even our languages. There are ministers in the Moldovan government who don't speak Moldovan. They speak only Russian. I hate to say it, but it's true. There is no Moldovan culture.'" (p. 197)
Eric asks about democracy. The Moldovan government may not be perfect, but certainly it's better than Soviet totalitarianism. Right? No, says his contact without the slightest hesitation. Back then people had jobs and a place to live and food to eat, not like now.
"For years, political scientists assumed that people living under democracies were happier than those living under any other form of government... but the collapse of the Soviet Union changed all that... Happiness levels did not rise. In some countries they declined, and today the former Soviet republics are, overall, the least happy places on the planet. What is going on? That old causality bugaboo, political scientist Ron Inglehart concluded: It's not that democracy makes people happy but rather than happy people are much more likely to establish a democracy.
"The soil must be rich, culturally speaking, before democracy can take root. The institutions are less important than the culture. And what are the cultural ingredients needed for democracy to take root? Trust and tolerance. Not only trust of those inside your group - family, for instance - but external trust. Trust of strangers. Trust of your opponents, your enemies, even." (p. 198)
This doesn't bode well for Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Iraq - all nations with fragile democracies, made of diverse peoples whose fates have been bound together somewhat against their will.

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