Most people hate flying. I love it. Nothing makes me happier than a long flight — the longer, the better. I once flew nonstop from New York to Bangkok: 17 hours of pure bliss. I packed two books and actually read them. I stared out the window and actually had ... thoughts. Some of my best ideas take flight at 35,000 feet. It could be the thin air up there, but I think there's another reason: disconnection. No e-mail, no cell phones. No guilt, either, because at 35,000 feet I am "offline." Don't you love that word, offline? I do. But it is about to go the way of other cherished expressions, like "out of the office " and "on vacation."
Every culture has its out-of-bounds venues, circumscribed places and times in which the normal demands of society no longer apply. Buddhist monks on meditation retreats, college students on spring break. Instinctively, we humans recognize the value of tuning out the world, at least for a while. We know we'll return refreshed and ready to cope again.
These off-limits spaces, though, have been steadily shrinking as technology's reach has expanded. Oddly, we don't put up a fight, but rather embrace this erosion of our leisure space. Many people love their BlackBerrys and iPhones, viewing them as tools of liberation rather than what they really are: electronic tethers, like those ankle bracelets that some convicts have to wear. The airline cabin represents the last refuge from ubiquitous connectivity, the last place where we are forced, for better or worse, to be with ourselves ... and our thoughts.
But, I hear the technothusiats say, just don't log on. No one's forcing you. You can always opt out. If only. Every technology, from the car to the cell phone, starts out as optional and soon becomes mandatory. We can't opt out, lest we be labeled an out-of-touch Luddite or, worse, old.
But, the technothusiats coo, onboard Internet access will be so convenient. Those who can log on at 35,000 feet will enjoy a "competitive advantage." Perhaps, but the first person to send a package Federal Express also enjoyed a competitive advantage — for about two seconds. Once everyone can send a package overnight, the advantage disappears, and all that remains is the expectation.
So, please, airline executives, I beg of you: Don't do it. You've already deprived me of leg room, decent food and dignity. Don't take away my peace of mind, too.
Eric Weiner is author of The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World, now out in paperback.
If there is one formula that we all subscribe to — Republicans, Democrats and Independents, alike — it is this: a strong economy equals happiness and, conversely, a weak economy equals unhappiness. There's only one problem: It's not true.
America is four times wealthier than it was in 1950, yet we are no happier, according to many surveys. Wealth, it turns out, is subject to the law of diminishing returns. Beyond a certain point, it takes a lot more money to make us just a little bit happier.
Look, I realize that if you've lost your job, or your home, or your 401k has taken a big hit, you're not likely to be happy. But for most of us, that is thankfully not the case. We might be anxious about the economy, worried, but that doesn't mean we're miserable.
It takes a lot to shake our national happiness. The attacks of Sept. 11, horrific as they were, did not do so, according to surveys conducted shortly afterward. If there is such a thing as a happiness bubble, it is a much tougher, resilient bubble than the stock and real estate ones that have burst recently.
So, if it's not material prosperity, what makes us happy? Study after study has found that the answer is — in two words — other people. Warm, caring relationships; high levels of trust; strong families. None of which, of course, has anything, to do with the Dow or the NASDAQ or — our favorite economic barometer — Gross Domestic Product.
GDP is the sum of all economic transactions in a given year, a giant national cash register that tallies everything. Everything, except — in the words of Robert Kennedy — "the beauty of our poetry, or the strength of our marriages or the intelligence of our public debate."
A few countries recognize this mismatch and are trying to do something about it. The tiny Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan has implemented a policy of Gross National Happiness.
The French and even the dour British are also exploring ways to come up with a national happiness index. There's no reason why we couldn't do the same. It's far from infallible — happiness being such a slippery, subjective thing — but it would do no harm.
I can envision a day when, along with the Dow and the GDP, the NHI, or National Happiness Index, flickers across our TV screens. Perhaps then we'll realize what we've known all along: it's the only number that really matters.
Eric Weiner is the author of The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World.
As a foreign correspondent for NPR, Eric Weiner spent more than 10 years reporting on problems overseas, such as suicide bombings in Jerusalem and student suicides in Tokyo. Then he became intrigued with finding the places in the world where people are reportedly the happiest — and learning why.
He chronicled his travels in The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World.
Weiner says finding happiness hasn't always been a goal for the masses.
"Happiness went from being this glorious benefit bestowed on the fortunate few to something that each one of us expects to obtain, and expectations and happiness are not necessarily related. They often go in opposite directions," Weiner tells Scott Simon.
Weiner started his search at what he describes as a "rather unhappy-looking office building" in Rotterdam that houses the World Database of Happiness, where much of the data from the "burgeoning science of happiness" is compiled. Then, he traveled to several countries to try to create an "atlas of bliss." One of them was Switzerland.
So why are the Swiss so happy? Perhaps because things there work well, Weiner says.
"The trains really do run on time; the streets are clean," he says.
But Weiner says he believes there are other reasons why the Swiss rate high on the happiness scale.
"One is that they do vote a lot. They vote seven or eight times a year in public referendum, and they have a say in what happens. And having a say in your life is an important ingredient in happiness," he says.
They also have a healthy attitude toward money, he adds.
"In America, we have this attitude of 'If you've got it, flaunt it,' and the Swiss way is 'If you've got it, hide it. Do not provoke envy in others.' And envy, I do believe, is one of the great enemies of happiness."
In another stop on the happiness search, Weiner visited Bhutan, where he met a man with this rather unexpected advice: To be happy, you need to set aside a few minutes a day to think about death.
"That really hit home with me, I have to say," Weiner says. "In this country, we do not talk about death. ... We will talk about anything except for death. We will talk about how much money we make, we'll talk about our sex lives, we'll talk about politics. We will not talk about death."
Another theory that stuck with him is that happiness isn't personal — it's relational. "I know that sounds a bit corny and a bit hackneyed, but it's true," he says.
Since writing the book, Weiner says, "I am happier — but still grumpy."
Weiner is a correspondent for NPR.org.