Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for The Happiest Places in the World

Money matters, but less than we think and not in the way that we think. Family is important. So are friends. Envy is toxic. So is excessive thinking. Beaches are optional. Trust is not. Neither is gratitude.

Some places are like family. They annoy us to no end, especially during the holidays, but we keep coming back for more because we know, deep in our hearts, that our destinies are intertwined.

When an Aztec child was born, a priest would say, “You are born into a world of suffering; suffer then and hold your peace.” There is something noble in that attitude, that quiet suffering. True, Aztec civilization died out centuries ago, leaving only a few ruins now trampled on by sunburned American tourists. But never mind. At least they had the decency not to whine about their demise. You have to respect that in a dying civilization.

Happiness and unhappiness are not opposites, as we often think. They are not two sides of the same coin. They are different coins. It is possible, in other words, for a happy person to also suffer from bouts of unhappiness, and for unhappy people to experience great moments of joy.

In the past, the sun has always been there for me, the one celestial body I could count on. Unlike Pluto, which for decades led me to believe it was an actual planet when the whole time it was really only a dwarf planet.

Things are not as they seem. We humans do not know a damn thing. About anything. A scary thought but also, in a way, a liberating one. Our highs, our accomplishments, are not real. But neither are our setbacks, our mushkala. They are not real either.

Our families are our greatest source of love and support. They are also the ones who are, statistically, most likely to kill us. As Yi-Fu Tuan points out, “We cinch both our enemies and lovers.” And so it is with families. They are our salvation and our ruin.

In transit. If two sweeter words exist in the English language, I have yet to hear them. Suspended between coming and going, neither here nor there, my mind slows, and, amid the duty-free shops and PA announcements, I achieve something approaching calm. I’ve often fantasized about living in Airport World. Not one airport, mind you, like the Tom Hanks character in that movie, but a series of airports. I would just keep flying around the world, in a state of suspended aviation. Always coming, never arriving.

Travel, at its best, transforms us in ways that aren’t always apparent until we’re back home.

In Bhutan, the roads don’t subdue nature but are subdued by it, bend to its whims, curving and snaking around the mountains in a series of endless switchbacks. I find this meditative. For about ten minutes. Then, I find it nauseating. Now I know how a pair of socks feels on tumble dry. No wonder they abscond.

The last time I saw such arrogance from an animal was in India, where the cow, smug in her holiness, has developed a serious attitude problem.

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