My husband has described his customer Vern as a guy who “can’t find anything good to say about life.” When Vern called Jon’s cell tonight (in the middle of our Date Night) pleading for help with his broken-down truck, I got to experience his outlook first-hand. Jon being Jon, we went to help—which meant giving Vern a lift home and promising to look at the truck in the morning, when it’s light and hopefully up to double-digit temperatures, and when Jon can be dressed to climb underneath.
I scooted to the middle of our truck-seat and Vern hoisted himself up into the passenger seat (the first time Jon picked me up for a date in this truck, I asked him to throw down a rope-ladder!) and we steered our way through the icy neighborhoods toward Vern’s house with his querulous running commentary.
“Lord love a duck, Jon, if it’s not one thing it’s a hundred and fifty. I don’t know what I’ll do. My property tax just went up, and with all these other bills I have… If it’s not one thing it’s a dozen. I don’t know why that truck won’t start, and you just did the new points too. But the city plowed us in with snowbanks and I can’t get my car out, so I’ve got to drive the truck. I tried to dig out the car and I just tore up my left arm. And my power bill just went up, I guess I’m just not fit to live. Lord love a duck, Jon, if it’s not one thing it’s twenty….”
Well, you get the gist. As we drove away after dropping him off, I found myself contemplating the idea that there can be a difference between a person’s circumstances and a person’s experience. And that difference might just be outlook. Which brings me to…
Well, that’s the geography that NPR journalist Eric Weiner opted to approach in his unusual travelogue, The Geography of Bliss, which I just finished. Weiner traveled to half a dozen countries with a specific eye toward the national character as it relates to overall happiness of its citizens. He started with research at a Dutch institute studying the science of happiness, then (armed with his statistics) moved on to some of the higher-ranking happy-countries (Switzerland, Bhutan, Iceland, Thailand, India), along with a couple middling-happy places (Qatar, Britain, the U.S.) and one notably unhappy one (Moldova).
His journey is intriguing for its insights—he’s not a spectacularly happy person himself, which may be why he’s chasing the question—as well as the people he interviews and the questions he undertakes to ask, both of them and of himself.
Some of his observations didn’t surprise me. There’s not an exact correlation between money and happiness. There seems to be a much stronger (negative) correlation between envy and happiness. In cultures based on competitive consumerism, people tend to be less happy with whatever they have, compared to someone who has less but lives in a less acquisitive culture.
Even Qataris, with nearly the highest per capita GDP in the world, “can build a future with money but not a past,” let alone happiness. Bhutan, on the other hand, actually has a government mandate to increase the GNH—Gross National Happiness. But as one hotel owner observed, its success depends on “knowing how much is enough.” (Not something Americans are known for…)
Happiness, it would seem, stems from a combination of things that can probably be described as outlook or attitude. People who exhibit patience or are willing to “let things go” when they can’t be helped… are happier. People who have enough challenges to provide contrast to (and thus appreciation of) their blessings… are happier. People who have relationships, connections, and trust with family and neighbors… are happier. People who don’t have “more” (than they have) rubbed in their faces… are happier. People who feel connected to their surroundings, to their landscape… are happier. People with Faith… are happier. People who help or care for other people… are happier. And people whose outlooks match the accepted attitudes of their culture… are happier.
With all of that in mind, I’m back to considering Vern. His circumstances are trying, yes. Yet I can’t help but think he could be having some happier experience if he could (for example) see the blessing of a mechanic who would interrupt a date to help him out on a frigid Friday night…
Paradoxically, we both felt happier for our encounter. Maybe because we helped someone, maybe because we drove away appreciating our ability-to-appreciate… Maybe because we see the Lord work more deeply in our life than merely “loving a duck.”