This book sat on my shelf a shamefully long time before I decided to read it. I was afraid it was a self-help book, that all important promise on how to be happy. I hate self help books. Either they are painfully obvious or leave you racked with guilt. And apparently, it's a uniquely American trait to constantly analyze if we are happy or not, and constantly question what would make us happier.
In either case, I put this one off. I wish I hadn't.
This is most definitely NOT a self help book on how to be happy. It's a study of the world's happiest places, by country, and the author, a correspondent for NPR, explores the regions and tries to assess why these places are noted for their happiness (he also visits places that rank low on the happiness scale). He visits, in which must be the coolest job ever, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Qatar, Bhutan, India, Iceland, Moldova, Thailand, the UK, and finally the US.
He goes out, meets people, explores their culture, and really gets into their real life. He doesn't stay in hotels, he tries to room with people he either knows or friends of friends. I have yet to find other books by this author, but I'm going to look. His style is breezy, sarcastic, and much of his research is backed by studies that he quotes extensively. Lots of insights on what makes people happy, and it's definitely not money.
He surmises from his experiences that it is the culture of a locale, the history that the residents exist in, that make their lives happier and more meaningful. Being aware of their place in history, the significance of their architecture and geography, and a pride in their language contributes much towards personal satisfaction (which he explains by the example of Qatar that has money but no culture to speak of). Interaction with each other rather than isolation accounts for much of the happiness they experience (again, so much for my hermit-like theory of happiness!). This is really a must read book, if not for the insights on joy, at least for this man's entertaining writing and wit.
One insight that he has is my favorite quote of the book, something he discovered in Switzerland: "Trusting your neighbors is especially important. Simply knowing them can make a real difference in your quality of life. One study found that, of all the factors that affect the crime rate for a given area, the one that made the biggest difference was not the number of police patrols or anything like that but, rather, how many people you know within a fifteen-minute walk of your house."