The High Country happiness paradox

It’s weird how, among the hundreds of titles displayed in a large bookstore, your eyes can light upon one cover that draws you in fetish-like, and you know instantly that said tome will be accompanying you on your drive home. Thus it was with Eric Weiner’s “The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World” (Twelve Books, 2008). The subject of happiness, or, more specifically, the fairly new science of happiness studies, has interested me ever since John Stossel’s hour-long ABC-TV special, “The Mystery of Happiness: Who Has It and How to Get It” brought the subject into America’s living rooms in 1996. It was the first time that many people even entertained the ambiguous notion of happiness being a subject worthy of the application of the scientific method. Since then, the popular media has been veritably awash in so many superficial self-help-type stories on the subject of happiness attainment that it’s almost impossible — even for those of us who don’t exactly share much philosophical common ground with the entire concept of scientific methodology — to do anything except laugh when eyeballing such vapid fluff pieces as, “Sustainable Happiness,” which recently appeared in that bastion of learned study, Yes! Magazine. Thing is, all you have to do is Google “happiness,” and you will soon come to understand that the examination of that mirthful (or not) topic has reached well into the DNA of academia. As Weiner states in his book, heretofore, the entire foundation of research into human psychology, and, by extension, cultural anthropology, has been based upon the concept that quantifiable (and therefore “useful”) understanding comes from the analysis of variations on the theme of sadness, unhappiness and dysfunction. Why, Weiner asks, has there not been more focus on the flipside of the psychological coin, on the study of happiness? After all, he notes, why should happiness be any less quantifiable than sadness? The answer of course, well, fills Weiner’s book. Weiner literally spent a year traveling around the world visiting countries where the subject of happiness plays out in often surprising ways. Included are bastions of cheerfulness, such as The Netherlands, Qatar, Bhutan, Iceland, Singapore and, perhaps surprisingly, Monterrey, Mexico. (Ss well, for the sake of comparison, the world’s least-happy country, Moldova). In each of those places, Weiner asks of local people, “Are you happy?” Of course, there are heapin’ helpin’s of relevant insights regarding fundamental denotation, relativity and context mixed into the answers he received during those 12 months on the road. All told, I liked the book enough to recommend it, despite the fact that it contained a glaring oversight: It contained nary a syllable about the Mountain Time Zone. The only chapter about the U.S. focused on Miami, Florida, which contained numerous similarities to the American West, in that many people consider South Florida to be “paradise.” (“Paradise gets old,” states one of Weiner’s least-happy Florida sources.) For many years, I wondered whether people in the Colorado High Country were truly happy. Certainly, superficially, such would seem to be the case. And rationally so. After all, how places can lay claim to recreation not just as a lifestyle preference but also as its economic underpinning? Add to that a world-class beauteous setting, a culture that casts no stones vis-à-vis things like drinking heavily numerous nights a week and an opportunity, should you desire to pursue it, to actually make some bucks, and you’ve got a place where everyone ought to be happy as pigs in slop. But I wonder. With regards to visitors, those who study tourism have in the past decade or so started cataloguing a condition called “vacation rage,” which has numerous causes: the stress of travel, the cost of travel, overly high expectations, especially as those expectations apply to family and relationship dynamics, and recent trending that sees people trying (often unsuccessfully) to fit more and more activities into less and less time. Then there’s the “paradise paradox,” wherein people move to paradisiacal places like the High Country from less-paradisiacal places like New Jersey and Mississippi with the very reasonable expectation that life will suddenly become wonderful simply by way of that move. For many, such has been the case. But, for many others, the lack of an established social network, combined with a high cost-of-living, which necessitates, rather than a life of constant on-slope leisure, a life of three jobs, have conspired to dampen the concept of paradise — to the degree that demographics experts guesstimate that more than half of those who move to the Mountain Time Zone with expectations of remaining here forevermore return to wherever it is they came from within five years. Of course, much of that is more than offset by the scenery, the opportunity to hike and ski in places like the Eagles Nest Wilderness, the overall upbeat and optimistic nature of those who call the High Country home and the fact that Colorado boasts the coolest bar scene this side of Amsterdam. Everything is yin and yang. You’ve got happy people in Akron, Ohio, and sad people in the Hugh Heffner Mansion. As Carl Franz wrote in “The People’s Guide to Mexico,” “no matter where you go, there you are.” After more than 30 years of calling Mountain Country home, I would have to straddle the fence. I think High Country people are overall happy, as individuals and in the aggregate, but I think, because their hopes are so high that they sometimes border on the ridiculous, they often set themselves up for disappointment. (Read Alain de Botton’s “How Proust Can Change Your Life” to learn more about expectation dynamics.) And the tidal forces of a high cost-of-living versus modest pay surrounded by a sea affluence cannot help but take their psychic toll.

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