Johnson: The Geography of Happiness and “The Paradox of Choice?”


It fell to me unexpectedly, the honor of toasting “in” the New Year. With mind and lips numb from the better part of a growler of “Hillary” from Ourayle House, I raised my glass and paused. It was dramatic…deliberate…full of intention and promise that something profound was about to be imparted. Let’s face it; some people are not suited for the spotlight. Blank of mind, I succumbed to the old standard: “To our health and happiness. Cheers!”
Perhaps it was fitting, because “health and happiness” has become my standard New Year's resolution of late. I like how general and undemanding it is, as opposed to onerous things like, “lose ten pounds,” or, “write a novel.” The “health” part is simple enough for that’s something I do anyway. But “happiness” is becoming more elusive and fleeting in today’s impersonal, device ridden culture…where “Satisfaction” is more dependent upon “upgrades” and “smart-stuff” than relationships. Why?
Let’s consult Barry Swartz, Professor of Psychology from Swarthmore College, and author of “The Paradox of Choice.” Mr. Swartz believes a false paradigm has set in amongst modern westernized cultures…that more choice equates to more freedom, and therefore, more happiness. He gives a simple supermarket example of the negative effects of “choice” when he needed to pick up a bottle of salad dressing. Facing 175 choices, paralysis set in. What should have been a lighthearted errand became problematic and anxiety producing.
In another example, Barry described the agony of replacing his worn out jeans. With literally a hundred styles and “fits” to choose from, the errand was fraught with time consuming and laborious try-ons. And even though he eventually found a good fit, Barry was, in the end, less “satisfied” because he second-guessed his choice, which led to regret, which is by definition, “unhappiness.” A similar story when he tried to buy a new stroller for his pregnant daughter.
Today, we are overwhelmed with choices…we exhibit symptoms of product envy as soon as someone whips out the latest/greatest iphone, and it’s “killing us softly.” Barry explained the role of “expectations,” that they increase in accordance to choices and how that makes us feel less satisfied than if we’d only had one or two choices. “Some choice is better than none,” he says, “but it doesn’t follow that more choices are better than some.” So what’s Barry’s secret to happiness? “Low expectations,” he says with a laugh.
This doesn’t seem fair to me. We work our butts off in blue collar "trenches" in order to someday have choices. The media brainwashes us into believing that “choices” equates to “freedom,” and it’s un-American to not want “freedom.” We are promised that if we work harder…make sound investments with the psycho “Money-Changers” over on Jitterbug Lane (Wall Street)…we can one day buy our freedom, and happiness follows.
What if I told you there was a Geography component to Joy? Not who, but where, do the “Happiest” people on earth live, and why are they happy? After querying residents from 148 countries about their “Degree of Happiness," the Galluping Pollsters anointed Panama as having the "Happiest" people in the world.
Is it something in their canal water? Or might it have to do with the fact that they don't have enough money to have "Choices," and thus, competitive consumption issues? Might Choices (Money) be the evil root of "Unhappiness?" Naw, couldn't be. Why some of the richest people I know of are Happy; take Hollywood, for instance... oops, bad example.
So, if not in Hollywood… where fame and fortune and choices abound… where do the Happiest People In the whole wide world live? Is there a Geography component to Joy?
It turns out that seven of the top ten Happiest places are smaller and poorer Latin American countries. Ah, must be the relaxed Latin work ethic… the siestas, margaritas and señoritas. America, arguably the wealthiest and Choice-Blessed country in the world, came in at number 33 on the "Happiness” poll. It seems the Beatles were right, "money can't buy love," and, evidently, it can’t buy happiness, either.
According to Gallup’s poll, the "people least likely to report positive emotions live in Singapore, the wealthy and orderly city-state that ranks among the most developed in the world." A businessman in the prosperous Asian metropolis said, "We work like dogs and get paid peanuts. There's hardly any time for holidays or just to relax in general because you're always thinking ahead: when the next deadline or meeting is. There is hardly a fair sense of work-life balance here." Sound familiar?
You may want to keep that in mind before you "resolve" your way deeper into the "American Dream" year after year. Time is more valuable to spend than money, and there seems to be an inverse relationship between Choices and Happiness.

Mark Johnson is a restless soul who lives in Ouray, Colorado with his wife, Bobbie. He is happiest when exploring the West's nooks and crannies, hiking, climbing  and mountain biking. He authors two "wanderlust" based blogs: and