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In the Whirled: The happiest place on earth

Published: Wednesday, July 30 2014 10:20 a.m. MDT

Can geography determine happiness or is happiness simply a state of mind?

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It’s a happy time here in Minnesota. The summer wildflowers are at their showiest. Gardens are in full production mode. The landscape is a riot of green, and each of our 10,000 lakes has warmed to a swimmable temperature.

All summer, I sing praises to my Minnesota home. So do my neighbors. We revel in the sunshine. We love Minnesota!

Yet there is a sense of impending doom. The days are already shortening and the sun is swinging lower in the sky. Six months from now, we’ll be combing through brochures for the Maldives and checking on real estate in Aruba.

Most of us probably have a place in our heads where we think we’ll be supremely happy. My oldest son has a hankering for Utah, the state where he was born. I swear allegiance to the Midwest but have a secret love affair with the Pacific Northwest. My husband misses the moist, balmy days of a Miami winter. Yet another son proclaims, almost daily, that Disney's Magic Kingdom truly is "the happiest place on earth."

Can geography determine happiness? Are there places, within the U.S. and without, that can make us happier? I’ve lived in eight of the 50 U.S. states and traveled a great deal in and out of the country. It is not an exhaustive sampling, but it has raised my curiosity about the tie between location and happiness.

I recently plowed my way through the book “The Geography of Bliss” by Eric Weiner, eager to discover, as the subtitle proclaims, “One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places on Earth.”

The book has its flaws (and some irreverence), but Weiner's discoveries have kept me pondering. Here’s what he found:

1. Connection to nature brings happiness. You don’t have to live in the Swiss Alps to be happy (although that helps), but if you can find ways to appreciate your natural surroundings, you will be happier.

2. Money is not a barometer of happiness (surprise, surprise!). Some of the wealthiest countries (such as Qatar) are not happy places, whereas places like Bhutan and much of Latin America report high levels of happiness despite their humble conditions.

3. Culture and cultural identity add a surprising level of happiness. A rooted identity and a common story contribute to happiness.

4. People are what bring true happiness, such as through a connection to our neighborhoods and communities, as well as a strong sense of family (one of the big factors in Latin American happiness). The book's author quotes a Bhutanese scholar, Karma Uma, who says, “There is no such thing as personal happiness. Happiness is 100 percent relational.”

5. Happiness is a difficult thing to measure. Also, it can fluctuate wildly.

6. While Americans have a great deal of access to happiness and care more about it than do those in most other countries, we are routinely poor at seeking happiness in the right places. Weiner quotes one study from Britain that ranks America as the 23rd happiest nation, “behind countries such as Costa Rica, Malta and Malaysia.” Why, as one of the world’s wealthiest nations, can we not seem to buy our own happiness?

That, it seems, is part of the problem. Most of us think (although we may not admit it) that an increase in money will make us happy. Or that a move to a bigger house/better city will make us happy. We Americans, it turns out, are terrible at keeping the commandment about coveting our neighbor’s house.

Weiner points out that the self-help industry perpetuates this fallacy: “By telling us that happiness lives inside us, it’s turned us inward just when we should be looking outward. Not to money but to other people, to community and to the kind of human bonds that so clearly are the sources of our happiness.”

That doesn’t mean we’ll ever stop our hunt. We are, as Weiner writes, a nation of happiness-seekers, going all the way back to the pilgrims who sought happiness on the other side of the great pond. We headed West across our own land with the same intent. We are a culture of happiness foragers.

Weiner said the majority of Americans think about happiness at least once a week. I found myself there on Saturday. I was sitting on a kayak in the middle of a glistening lake. The sun overhead was gentle and the water smooth as glass. My son floated next to me on his miniature blue kayak. I can’t remember what we talked about, but I was acutely aware of my own happiness. I was making a family connection in nature, the perfect equation for bliss.

In my own experience, I have found that happiness can be closely tied to geography. I happen to love the culture and climate of the Midwest. But even that is fleeting. A Minnesota summer only lasts so long. In a world of snow and ice, lasting happiness, the kind money can’t buy, is found through connections and families, neighborhoods and nature.

It is a place without borders or boundaries. It is where we are, right now.

Tiffany Gee Lewis lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, and is the mother of four boys. She blogs at thetiffanywindow.wordpress.com. Her email is tiffanyelewis@gmail.com

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