Eric Weiner on chaos, philosophy, and happiness


 

Rohan: Regulars here are well aware of the book – ‘The Geography of Bliss’. I’ve been very inspired by the ideas in the book – especially by the idea of 100% attention. So, you can imagine how excited I was when Eric responded to my interview request with a ‘yes’.

Interviewing with Eric was a wonderful experience. In true journalist style, he ended up asking me a couple of questions while I was interviewing him! It made for a very memorable conversation and I walked away with a deep admiration for the depth of his insights and his wonderful way with words.

About Eric Weiner

Eric Weiner was a longtime correspondent for National Public Radio. He spent a decade overseas for NPR, based in New Delhi, Jerusalem and Tokyo.
He is the author of Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine and the author of The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World. In the book, Weiner travels to spots around the globe – including Iceland, Bhutan, Moldova and Qatar to search out how different countries define and pursue happiness.

Note: A word of apology for me regarding the video. I recognize Eric’s voice is soft compared to other videos (and especially soft compared to mine). We realized when editing this video that I need to make sure I do these Skype calls on full volume so the voice is well recorded. Apologies for the trouble!


Interview Transcript

 

Rohan: We would love to hear your story! We know you were a journalist with the NPR. What is the rest of it?

Eric: Well I grew up in Baltimore in the US. And I decided I was going to run away from home when I was 5. Maybe a lot of 5 year olds talk about running away from home, but I actually did! I ran a couple of miles before they picked me up. I guess you could say that I have been running ever since. Some would call it running away from something, but I would say running toward something!

I am a traveller and an amateur philosopher. An American writer Henry Miller can sum up my philosophy for life with this quote “When it comes to travel, ones destination is never a place but a new way of seeing things”. Long story short, I have been travelling in different capacities like a free spirit. I was with National Public Radio(NPR). I was stationed in Delhi, Tokyo and in about 30 or 40 other countries. These were not particularly happy places though.

One day I woke up and said, “This is kind of silly. Why am I travelling to these miserable places”. And so I decided to travel to the happy places on earth and see what they could teach us – about the art of happiness. I was trying to find someone to fund me for a year of travelling around the world to these happy places. A great publisher called Twelve Books did go for this and helped me. The result is the book The Geography of Bliss!

 

Rohan: How long ago was this?

Eric: I always had a way with words and I always wanted to travel. I was a journalist for a good 20 years with both NPR and New York Times for a while. At some point I realised the limitations of Journalism. For example, as a journalist, you can only report the facts and can never really say how you feel about something. I feel the liberation now that I get from writing books and magazine articles. For instance, I’m off to Kolkata over the next few weeks for research on my next book. I have the freedom for however long I want and for however long I can afford. So, if I feel like the India Coffee House in Kolkata is the place to be, I can spend days there whereas previously my editor would probably call me and say “Eric, you need to get out of this place and cover that war!”

I get the freedom to choose what I do and how I do it. And this freedom has made me realise that this is the true calling of my life! A bit late maybe, but ‘Better late then never’!

 

Rohan: What was the defining moment that made you stop and say hey I am going to write my own book?

Eric: My problem was never coming up with ideas, rather narrowing them down. I had lots of ideas for my books. It was from all the travel in all sorts of places. Once I was in Kazakhstan for about 7 weeks. My wife and I were staying there to adopt our baby girl. Staying that long was a requirement of the process. There’s not much to do there for so long and I had a lot of time to think. That was when the idea to write this book came! When you have a right idea, something sort of clicks into place, you know just know and you don’t turn back! That is quite wonderful.

 

Rohan: You next book delves into religion and spirituality. Geography of bliss never touched this topic much. How did the second book come along?

Eric: I needed a subject bigger than happiness and what is a subject bigger than happiness except for God. I came across the fact that people who were religious are happier than people who are not. Why is that? Do the religious people know something that we don’t? I have never been a particularly religious person. You call me spiritually curious maybe, but that’s about me. And then something happened to me which I describe in the book ‘Man Seeks God’.

I finished my first book and about a week later I developed abdominal pains. I was worried and I went to the hospital. They took a couple of tests and I was waiting for a specialist to tell what was going on. The nurse in my room whispered this in my ears – ‘Have you found your God yet?’. Long story short, I was not dying. Though I thought so, for a short time. That question however, stuck. So, I travelled the world as I tend to do and tried on different faiths in a serious way but with a dose of humour as I don’t tend to take myself too seriously. So, the book is an exploration of these 8 faiths and what being spiritual and religious means in the year 2012.

 

Rohan: In the ending of ‘The Geography of Bliss’ that you call your thesis of happiness, you say you need money but not too much etc. How has this changed your life?

Eric: It did not change my life in any super dramatic way. I did not move to Iceland or Bhutan. Some people say you need to move for happiness, but they are whom I call hedonic refugees. They are happier when they move to a place different from where they are born. For most of us it does not work that way. We need to find a way right here. But we can incorporate these lessons, these other ways of seeing the world into our life

The Thais have wonderful sayings. One of them is ‘mai pen rai’ or ‘Never mind, just let it go’. It is a simple saying but one that we all find tough to accept. Another is that ‘You think too much’. This idea is actually alien to many of us. So I guess I picked up these lessons of happiness through this journey and I try to go through them everyday!

 

Rohan: So I am getting to an obvious question, but ‘Are you Happy?’!

Eric: I am less unhappy than I was before! Lets put it that way. You seem happy Rohan, are you happy?

 

Rohan: It’s funny but somebody the other day asked how my day was. I said it was very busy. She asked if it was good busy or bad busy. I said that I never think of things as bad busy. I just think of it as busy or good busy. She said that I was too young and not old yet!

Eric: Haha. I don’t buy that. What is the source of your happiness?

 

Rohan: I lost my dad and uncle when I was very young and it left my family in a tough place. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger I guess. I guess I just realized that ‘Life is a blessing’. I think it really is! I write down 5 blessings in my life/things I am grateful for, think about my bucketlist and make commitments on how I plan to live the day every morning..

Eric: I read in a paper that in Washington, there is a public bucket list wall. People write down ‘Before I die..’ things on it. And interestingly most of them are to do with travel and places people want to see! I think this travel impulse points to how people want to get out of the confines of their lives. One person from Ghana even wrote I want to swim in Buttermilk. That seemed odd but there was something very spontaneous about that.

I think it is important to remind ourselves of mortality. You lost two very important family members and I am sure that was very hard but it also probably reminded you about the fragility of life. I think people respond to crises like that in two ways. They either close down and shrink or they grow and expand. Seems like you have done the latter and I am really happy to hear that!

 

Rohan: I remember a quote that, At the end of the day, it’s your conception of death that decides our answers to life. I find that very deep. I was lucky with people in my case. I had my friends and family taking care of me. I think that’s the thing about India. How there is always family!

Eric: Yes, there was this study done about homeless people in Kolkata and California. The homeless people in India were much happier! They have family connections and relations. And that is a part source of happiness.

 

Rohan: I think connectedness, right?

Eric: Its usually people. But you could be connected to your Labrador or your gold fish. To nature or universe. We tend to talk about happiness as if it was a personal thing here in the US. It’s a very telling phrase that ‘you sabotage happiness by treating it as something you hold for yourself’.

 

Rohan: I am sure you know Jonathan Haidt’s Happiness Hypothesis. I find it very interesting that he says it comes from the between.

Eric: Happiness is a by-product! Its never works like I am going to be happy today. I am going to be kind to others today or I am going to have fun today or I am going to be more appreciative today works. That will help your happiness.

 

Rohan: Eric, you get to decide how you spend your time. How do you discipline yourself?

Eric: When I go to a place I try and stay focussed. I try to answer one big question or a few big questions at a time. My travel is always designed to uncover answers to these questions. I think the day of just roaming around the streets of Kolkata in search of answers are over. The world is pretty well discovered by now! Technology has shrunk the world that way.

The kinds of travel books that still appeal to people are the ones where you travel with a purpose. My next book is based on the geography of genius. It is about how certain places make us feel more creative. And how certain places through history are very innovative. And about why that is. I am travelling to seven cities to discover what is in the air and what makes it work. So I want to ask you Rohan, where did you feel your most creative self?

 

Rohan: I have lived in Chennai, Singapore and London. In terms of places I think London is the place I feel most creative! Another place is the Silicon Valley or the bay area as they call it. I think there is a certain energy in the air. I think diversity helps when it comes to feeling energy. I also think history helps. For example the bay area has an history of innovation..

Eric: When you take Kolkata as an example, most people think of Mother Teresa and poverty. And then there are the great writers Tagore and Vivekananda and artists and Indian film makers. I am just wondering maybe the messiness of the city creates inspiration..

 

Rohan: I think Chaos helps, too! I feel very creative back home.

Eric: One of the great things about moving out of home and returning is that you see it with fresh eyes. Does that happen to you?

 

Rohan: I remember this quote that says ‘You travel around the world and come back to the place where you started and finally recognize it’ that is the essence of travel, I think!

Eric: I think TS Elliot said that. And I think we’ve butchered it. (haha)
(Original quote: And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we began and to know the place for the first time)

 

Rohan: I am exploring routines as a source of happiness. Do you have daily routines that help?

Eric: Oh boy. That’s a good question. When you are a free spirit you do not have a structure in your life. So you have to create a structure. So, I need to pay more attention to my schedule than you do because you have to be at a certain place for work. I don’t have to be anywhere except to pick up my daughter from school.

So I try to map out my day pretty tightly. I start the day with some Buddhist meditation or exercises. I find I need to get out of home to right as there are too many distractions. I go to a coffee shop or someplace like that. I catch up on e-mails and block out time to write. I use a program called Freedom that cuts me off the internet! I need that discipline. I try to block out the time and give myself the routine. I think it is important. We need structure in our lives, even if we are by ourselves.

 

Rohan: What is a message you would like to pass on to the motley bunch of readers on this blog – let’s say a bunch of youngsters like me?

Eric: You say youngsters and I am struck by how many young people from your age are so damn serious about everything! They feel like they are very behind in their lives. How can you be? You are 23! They have to take their tests go to graduate school and what not. If you look at great people like Einstein, they were terrible at school and would appear to be goofing off.

So, my message, if you Don’t take things so seriously. If you lose that sense of playfulness – what the Thais call ‘Sanuk’, you have lost everything. The moment work feels like work, you are not going to do anything great. When it feels like play. it doesn’t feel like a burden. So, Chill out and have some fun!


Thank you Eric! That was fun, entertaining and profound all at once. Thank you so much for taking the time.

Hope you all enjoyed it as much as we did.

Real Leaders Team