Street in Bergen
My family moved from New York to Orange County, California toward the beginning of my junior year in high school. We lived only a few miles from Disneyland, which billed itself as the “happiest place on earth.” I did love going to Disneyland. My next-door neighbor’s sister worked there, and I was able to use her pass to get in for free. This was back in the days when you needed tickets to get on the rides, but I would go there at night and settle myself in New Orleans Square, where a “real” New Orleans jazz band would play and I could sit back, drink a non-alcoholic mint julep, and just take in the music. It was obvious that the happy world Disney created was two-dimensional—mostly facades held up by scaffolding, and while New Orleans Square itself was also faux, the jazz musicians were the real things. Those solitary nights represented brief moments of happiness, something I didn’t experience too often in high school. But it was the brevity of those moments that, I suppose, made them precious.
I am thinking about happiness because I am writing this in the place that the most recent “World Happiness Report” ranked as the actual happiest place on earth—Norway. What makes this the happiest place, according to the committee chaired by the noted economist and likely distant relative John Helliwell, is that it is rich not with money, but with all of the factors empirically found to correlate with happiness: caring, freedom, generosity, honesty, health, income and good governance. Okay, income is on the list, but not at the top and not necessarily because it is plentiful, but because its distribution is more equitable. I love the notion, as quoted in the summary of Helliwell’s report, that “It is sometimes said that Norway achieves and maintains its high happiness not because of its oil wealth, but in spite of it.” The U.S., by the way, came in 19th, down from 3rd a decade ago, primarily due to declining social support and increased corruption. And these data were taken before Trump’s ascendancy, so I can only imagine how much further the U.S. has sunk.
I have only been here a few days now, but I admit there are many things that make me happy when I see them. People have faith in their government, which seems to act prudently and on behalf of its citizens and not in the oligarchical fashion I see in the U.S. now and nearly everywhere else I go. In spite of drastically falling oil prices its economic forecast is excellent according to the financial posts I read, because of the government strategy to develop slowly and plan for the long-term.
I am happy too about the single payor health system, the fact that women are paid and treated equally (the heads of both armed forces are women!), that women receive 100% of their pay while taking 10 months of leave for pregnancy (or 80% if they take a year), that the trains are so quiet and have “family cars” with playrooms where kids can play and mothers can nurse, that I rarely see a police officer and the ones I do see do not wear guns, that there is a general air of safety here, that there is virtually no traffic, multiple options of public transport, babies and young lovers everywhere, that the mentality of the place has caused Norway to take in a large percentage of Syrian and other refugees (1% of its population compared to 0.3% in the U.S.), and yes, no matter which direction you turn there is something natural and beautiful to look at.
The Norwegian attitude, in which humility is considered one of the highest virtues, is a refreshing counterpoint to the narcissism and self-aggrandizement that is now represented on the nightly news as the chief symbol of my native country, as well as the fact that no one expects you to tell them what you are feeling but you are expected to be direct and honest about what you are thinking.
Of course not all is pleasant in Pleasanton. For some reason they speak Norwegian here, which I imagine sounds a lot like English to people who don’t speak English. It should be an easy language to learn for an English-speaker, given its shared Germanic roots and similar grammatical structure, but local variations in pronunciation are so profound that even Norwegian language TV shows have Norwegian subtitles. (They might claim this is for the deaf, but I don’t buy it.) There is a dearth of available real estate, so what is here is beyond the price range of most rapacious Americans. Food is expensive, even for Norwegians who trek to much-despised Sweden to get good deals. And most gringos find the weather here miserable, although I confess that after living in drought-ravaged California most of my life I find the occasional unpredictable downpour quite refreshing.
As I have written in these virtual pages before, I am not a big fan of happiness. In my humble opinion, it is a greatly over-rated emotion. It is, I believe, a gateway drug and must be consumed accordingly. If not consumed sparingly it can lead to elation, which is a dreadful state of vacuous inauthenticity. I’ve encountered it before, and it’s a tough addiction to crack.
Whether or not the people of Norway are any happier than the rest of us is not something I would trust to a bunch of researchers to tell me, nor frankly do I care that much. Happiness is not something that you have or earn. It has you. Perhaps Jefferson knew that well when he declared that humans had an inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We have no right to happiness, only the right to pursue it. Or, perhaps William Blake said it more poetically when he wrote that famous four-liner more than 200 years ago:
He who binds himself to a joy
Does the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sun rise.
As a teenager in Orange County every once in a while I kissed that joy as it flew past me in the mirage of New Orleans Square, in the shadow of a papier maché Matterhorn, and now, as it gently rains outside the very real “Godt Brod” bakery and coffee shop in Bergen, I can feel it hovering about in the air.