Note: Page numbers for “The Geography Of Bliss” will be inflated due to my ebook’s formatting.
India possesses a mystical appeal to westerners, one that is socioeconomically inexplicable. Steve Jobs, The Beatles, and Martin Luther King Jr. were all inclined to abandon their “wealthy, functional nations” to travel to a “poor and dysfunctional nation in search of bliss” (Weiner 634). Surely this allure must have some basis, otherwise its notorious visitors would not span more than a generation or two. India and the United States both serve as fantastic examples of international economic status not being a good predictor of, or as we will see in some cases, not predicting at all, happiness in the questioned state.
A difference in focus may be seen in comparing the happiness of India and the United States. The people of America seem to compare themselves to their neighbors, mainly those who are more wealthy, with an unyielding expectation that their personal wellbeing would be better if they had more money (Weiner 712). Across the Pacific, the people of India seem to have “an infinite ladder” of individuals financially lower than them, “and that is the beauty of life in India—no matter how low your rung, there is always someone beneath you.” (Weiner 687). While this may seem true in America as well, the geographic separation of this economic disparity reduces the mindshare of the fact that life could be much worse. In India, daily life is rich with economic class clashes, even if one doesn’t leave their home as “everyone in India has a maid” (Weiner 672). This constant reminder that life could be much worse provides a sort of motivation, exuberance, and gratitude that isn’t birthright in America, but is present in the progeny of first generation Indians.
Independence and responsibility is another pivotal factor in happiness that differs from the United States due to the culture in India. It has been shown that religion assists in providing individuals happiness because it trivializes their failures by providing the security that God will defend their satisfaction with their destiny. It has also been shown, that in American society there exists a dichotomy of the social, who feed off the happiness obtained by social linking, and the independent, who depend on personal achievement to be happy. Consequently, the independent are subject to great distress in the face of failure, while the others have a safety net of peers. The existence of individuals in a society without such a safety net can negatively affect gross domestic happiness, and while America is speckled with such individuals, India’s culture seems to forbid the existence of such lonely souls: “If an Indian person is poor, it is because of fate, the gods, or some negative karma accumulated in a previous lifetime. In other words, they are not to blame. If an American is poor, it is seen as a personal failure, a flawed character.” (Weiner 696) For the people of India, life is “no more consequential than a game of chess” which gives it a certain levity and defense against stress, both assistants to a proliferation of happiness. “If it’s all theater, it doesn’t matter which role you play, as long as you realize it’s only a role”. (Weiner 702).
Community is an incredibly important factor in happiness and its contribution to the makeup of happiness in individuals in the United States versus those in India are comparable, but Weiner leaves the reader with the impression that India provides individuals with nearly constant human contact, forcing the United States to seem barren, cold, and distant. Weiner explains that “In India, a man’s home is his castle. It is a porous castle, though, with no moat, and it is prone to invasion by friend and foe alike. At my apartment in Delhi, a perpetual parade of humanity passed: plumbers, electricians, delivery boys, holy men, government clerks, taxi drivers...This endlessly flowing river of humanity, though, also means that you are never alone in India.” (Weiner 677). This everlasting flow can increase any given individuals’ sense of community and belonging, and as this is the view of an outsider, an American, it seems as though India forces this community, this flow, on everyone who enters it. Conversely, when a native Indian women traveled to the United States and spent 6 months there, “She couldn’t wait to leave. There’s too much distance between people in the United States, and by that she means more than physical distance, though that, too. She found the streets eerily quiet. Where are all the people? she wondered.” (Weiner 690)
Another happiness related factor that differs between these two countries is the directness and overtness of the pursuit of happiness itself. This difference becomes apparent when Weiner engages in conversation with some native Indians: “I tell them about my search for the world’s happiest places, about Ruut Veenhoven and his database. If anyone would understand, surely it is these people of the microchip. Yet I am met with furrowed brows and looks of incredulity. ‘Why would you want to quantify happiness?’ asks Binda, a software engineer. It’s a disarmingly simple question, and I don’t have a good answer.” (Weiner 650) This highlights the Americans’ preoccupation with happiness, and a willingness to change anything and everything about their lives if it meant increasing their happiness. Binda and the others didn’t understand why Weiner was trying to quantify happiness because they did not share nor understand Weiner’s obsession with maximizing happiness. This divide is seen again when Weiner poses a question to Guru-ji, someone who very well represents the cultural beliefs (admittedly, they may be polar/extreme) of India: “Is happiness the highest ideal, or is there something greater we should be striving for?”, to which Guru-ji response: “Yes, there is something higher than happiness. Love is higher than happiness.” (Weiner 665) The absence of this preoccupation with happiness may allow the people of India to achieve it more easily than the Americans who are preoccupied, as they may become fully attached to their environment, and spend less time worrying about whether they’re maximizing their happiness and actually do what makes them happy. Individuals like Cynthia, a woman who moved to Asheville, North Carolina as part of a literally calculated plan to maximize her happiness, aren’t ready “to call Asheville home. It is home ‘for now,’ she says. And that, I realize, is the problem with hedonic floaters like Cynthia and with many of us Americans and our perpetual pursuit of happiness. We may be fairly happy now, but there’s always tomorrow and the prospect of a happier place, a happier life. So all options are left on the table. We never fully commit. That is, I think, a dangerous thing. We can’t love a place, or a person, if we always have one foot out the door.” (Weiner 729)