I got in a Fight With Dwight Schrute
A Disagreement with Rainn Wilson over the Concept of Happiness
Rainn Wilson is a lovely guy, who is hosting a quite good travel program on Peacock (Peacock, for your streaming needs not covered by Hulu, Netflix, HBO, Paramount+ and Youtube). The Geography of Bliss, based on a book by Eric Weiner.
As in the book, the Peacock series follows a downbeat tour guide to the happiest places in the world to sample different cultures’ secrets to fulfillment. In Iceland Wilson takes a communal frigid ocean plunge while noting that this extremely happy country also leads the world in per capita consumption of anti-depressant medication. In Ghana, Wilson assists a village elder in making an offering before embarking on an intense fishing expedition. In Bulgaria, Wilson encounters locals who seem dour while in the public square, but bond in private spaces. It’s all very interesting, well-shot, engagingly hosted, and really quite a good watch. It is also, at root, misleading.
I’m all for coming into contact with new cultures and mindsets and exploring how the outlooks of others differ from our own. This is educational, and demonstrates an openness to experience that is in fact a characteristic of those who experience life satisfaction. But a curious traveler can no more glean himself blissful than a frail man can learn himself fit. The Geography of Bliss delivers as a worthy non-fiction book and TV show, but it is an impractical guide to happiness.
On my podcast The Gist, (episode available here Friday evening:) Rainn and I butted heads, with Eric doing some mediation, but mostly siding with Rainn, over the issue of the possibility of sustained hedonic improvement. I acknowledge that there are certain practices and interventions have been shown to increase the measures of happiness that psychologists study. Meditation, exercise, and above all human connections absolutely correlate to a more positive outlook and affect. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy works, and medical intervention are often an essential tool to combat serious mental disorders. But the idea behind surveying and visiting societies as a pathway to happiness is a losing proposition. It’s little more than outlook tourism or going on mindset safari. It doesn’t work, because what makes nations happy isn’t determined by how a population thinks. It’s determined by how a population lives.
I can understand why Wilson, a practitioner of the Baha’i Faith who has chronicled his own history with anxiety and has written about the importance of spirituality might be searching for deeper meaning within the heads and hearts of others. The man’s a searcher, and one whose operating with some urgency.
Wilson’s curiosity is laudable, it has led him to not only search the world, but to search the world’s religions for answers and meaning. In fact travel and contact with others can themselves lead to happiness. But there is less insight to be gained by understanding a population’s attitudes than there is in appreciating the overall latitude they are afforded by material prosperity and good governance.
The Geography of Bliss relies on the World Happiness Report, used by the United Nations, as its guide for adjudicating national happiness. Weiner’s book is excellent on the history and methodology of calculating happiness, chronicling the different strengths and weaknesses of the various measurements. The WHR, rigorous and thoughtful, is as good a guide as any. This year Finland ranked #1 in happiness, the United States came in a not-shameful 15th.
The top 20 countries in happiness are all in or near the top ten countries in terms of per capita wealth. The five Scandinavian countries are all in the top seven of the WHR. To be happy is to be wealthy, with a little extra dollop of happiness for those countries that have robust social safety nets and a strong senses of national identity.
So what’s their secret?
Maybe there are many paths to a successful national temperament. The Swiss are reserved, the Swedes are hearty, the Australians are rowdy, the Dutch are permissive, and the Fins are a bit stoic. They all have different national characters, outlooks on life, values and ways of thinking of the world. None of that is what leads to mass personal satisfaction, positive affect or the absence of anguish. What makes the populations of these countries happy is that they all have enough prosperity to not be miserable.
Let’s Take Lebanon
If mindset or outlook were strongly correlative to happiness, it would be hard to explain what happened in Lebanon. The small factious nation emerged from civil wars as a burgeoning success story about a decade ago. When war then waged next door in Syria, the world looked to Lebanon as an example of an oasis of functionally.
“Beirut oozes prosperity and a lust for life,” The Telegraph declared in 2012, the correspondent noting ,“most Lebanese were not interested in violence, but in getting on with and enjoying life.”
The same year in an article titled “Resurgent Beirut Offers Haven Amid Turmoil of Arab Spring” the New York Times quoted a psychologist sunning herself on a Beirut boardwalk. “This country doesn’t change — the people like life,” she says.
Today Lebanon is the second least happy country in the world, higher than only Afghanistan. Did the outlook of the population change? Were their growth mindsets, their embrace of positive psychology, supplanted with Stinkin’ Thinkin’? No. Lebanon experienced a sudden and precipitous drop in wealth.
The Spring 2021 Lebanon Economic Monitor found that Lebanon’s economic and financial crisis ranks among the worst economic crises globally since the mid-nineteenth century. Nominal GDP plummeted from close to US$52 billion in 2019 to an estimated US$23.1 billion in 2021. The protracted economic contraction has led to a marked decline in disposable income. GDP per capita dropped by 36.5% between 2019 and 2021, and Lebanon was reclassified by the World Bank as a lower-middle income country, down from upper middle-income status in July 2022.
There was also a gigantic port explosion with didn’t help, but in the World Happiness Report conducted prior to the economic collapse Lebanon was doing fine. It had a happiness score in the mid 5’s, which is the level of Bulgaria, featured in Episode #2 of The Geography of Bliss.
Here’s a chart of Lebanon’s happiness score.
The Lebanese didn’t get less insightful or mindful. They got less rich.
Wealth isn’t the only determinant of happiness in a country but it’s a huge one. Israel is happier than its wealth would predict, Qatar a little less so. The mindsets and practices of these countries cannot be borrowed or exported to bring happiness to a less happy place, but some of the investment Dollars/Dinars/Renmimbi can.
What Are Life Lessons Worth?
If pieces of wisdom, either from the happy, or those who have studied the happy, actually had an effect, we wouldn’t need psychologists, we’d just rely on commencement speakers. Feeling hopeless? Have I got a commencement ceremony to share with you!
Yes, people can become slightly happier, yes interventions, including the pharmacological (hello Iceland!) can stave off the effects of terrible depression, yes there are habits and outlooks that correlate more toward happiness and traits that cause more gloom, but at base there is no proof that the wisdom of a book, graduation speaker, TV show, or spiritually-curious comic actor with the best of intentions will transport an unhappy individual to a place of contentment.
What makes people happy is not “how they look at things” or “all a matter of perspective, or learned from the wisdom of the ancients/gurus/ popular Yale professors . Happiness is determined by the innate characteristics of the individual, shaped by nature and nurture and enormously influenced by living in an economically flourishing society, and enormously hindered by living in a social situation of deprivation or violence.
Every resident of Malawi, Botswana, Congo, Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone, Lebanon and Afghanistan could read all the happiness books, and watch every episode of The Geography of Bliss and it would not lift their nation’s cumulative happiness. To take a less extreme example, the entire population of 50th happiest country in the world, El Salvador, or the 51st, Hungary, could dedicate themselves to absorbing the wisdom of the Fins or the Danes, and it wouldn’t move the Salvadoran or Hungarian bliss needles. Conversely, you could transport the entire population of Iceland (it’s not that hard, there are 372,000 of them) and move them to a not-too-terribly unhappy country like Hungary or El Salvador, thrust the median incomes of the locals upon them, and they would not retain the level of happiness supposedly brought about by the Icelandic mindset.
It’s possible to become slightly more happy, that’s why one of more prominent happiness evangelists Dan Abrams promises only 10% more happiness, an amount that if realized on a national level would move Malaysia (55 in the rankings) to the level of Malta (37). A study of the countries that have found happiness shouldn’t emphasize the theories of the residents, it should acknowledge what’s plain to see, healthy political systems and thriving economies are the real keys to human flourishing. If nothing else all the extra money can buy plenty of anti-depressants.
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