Opinion

Actually, happiness isn't within

Some cultures are simply better at producing happy citizens than others.

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A new year is upon us, and the self-help industrial complex is in full swing, pestering us to slim down, bulk up, become a new you, a better you, a happier you. Yes, it's all about you. The 1970s may have been the "Me Decade," but the naught years are shaping up to be the "You Decade."

There is, it turns out, little difference between You and Me. Both outlooks reflect a firmly held and particularly American belief that happiness lies deep inside the inner you, or me, or whatever.

The self-help industry has it wrong. Social scientists studying happiness (or subjective well-being, to use the academic term) have found that external factors – quality of government, social interactions and, to an extent, money – determine our happiness more than anything else. In other words, happiness does not reside inside of you. Happiness is out there.

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Which particular "out there" makes a huge difference in your happiness level. National levels of contentment vary widely, from the morose Moldavians to the chronically cheerful Danes. Happiness, it turns out, is like oil. Some countries are awash in it; others are bone dry.

In fact, psychologists at the University of Leicester in Britain recently produced the world's first map of happiness. Using data from the emerging science of happiness, they created a color-coded atlas of bliss, a topography of the human spirit, from Algeria to Zimbabwe. It's not climate or topography or some mysterious "energy" that is at work here, but national culture. Some cultures are simply better at producing happy citizens than others.

Not surprisingly, democracies tend to fare better than dictatorships, though it's not clear which way the river of causality flows. Perhaps happy countries tend to embrace democracy and not the other way around.

Trust of others is another prerequisite for a happy nation, and that is a troubling fact for fans of American happiness. In 1960, 58 percent of Americans felt most people could be trusted. By the 1990s, only 35 percent held that view. Indeed, given our economic and military muscle, the US occupies a modest spot on the atlas of bliss. We are not as happy as we are wealthy.

The map contains more than a few surprises. Latin American countries, for instance, are among the happiest in the world, despite their relative poverty and often shaky political situations. "The Latino bonus" is what some researchers have dubbed this phenomenon. One explanation: the close family ties found in Latin American countries and among many Hispanics in the US.

Jean-Paul Sartre famously declared that "Hell is other people." Sartre got it wrong, or perhaps he was hanging out with the wrong people. The emerging science of happiness has found that the single biggest determinant of our happiness is the quantity and the quality of our relationships.

The way people relate to one another varies tremendously from one nation to another and, to a lesser extent, from one city to another. These differences persist despite the advent of cellphones, the Internet, and other technologies that have supposedly conquered distance.

We can be anywhere, the apostles of a placeless future tell us, a message that dovetails nicely with the self-help movement's we-can-be-happy-anywhere mantra. Rumors of geography's demise, though, have been greatly exaggerated. Yes, technology has, in some cases, compressed distance, but not nearly as much as we've been led to believe. The vast majority of phone calls and e-mails never cross an international border. Even the Internet is largely a local technology, with most people checking local weather and sports and not the price of a grande latte in China.

Place matters even to those who forecast its demise. The purveyors of the placeless world, it turns out, tend to congregate in one place: a 50-mile corridor between San Francisco and San Jose, where they happily bike and hike and generally behave as though geography does matter.

Which it does. Its role in our happiness and our psyche is a fact that the forces of globalization and technology have failed to erode. That's why each year about 40 million Americans pick up stakes. Sure, we move for career opportunities or for family (a desire for either greater proximity or distance). But for many Americans, moving is about happiness: the U-haul version of Horace's legendary search for the Happy Isles.

The forces of technology aren't slaking our thirst for our own Happy Isles but stoking it. The number of people traveling – for work and pleasure – is on the rise, as packed airplane flights make painfully clear.

So, at the dawn of another new year, I say: Stop looking for the new you and, instead, book a flight. Or better yet, call a friend.

Eric Weiner is the author of "The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World." ©2007 Los Angeles Times.

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