The search for happiness

What if Eric Weiner, the author of "The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World," came to Ashland?

Ashland has several strikes against it for those seeking happiness.

According to Weiner's research, Democrats and people with advanced degrees are more prone to unhappiness. Ashland has a relatively high share of those categories of people. Workers are most unhappy when they commute, and 55 percent of Ashland's workers travel in from surrounding cities.

But on other measures, the chances of being happy in Ashland are good.

Weiner relates how many studies show proximity to nature can not only make people feel happier, but can improve their health.

Patients recovering from gallbladder surgery in a Pennsylvania hospital had shorter hospital stays and less pain and nausea when they had a view of trees outside the window. Patients who had nothing but a brick wall to look at asked for more injections of painkillers, according to a study by psychologist Roger Ulrich.

It's hard to go anywhere in Ashland without running into nature, whether that's walking under the trees that line the sidewalks, strolling in Lithia Park or hiking and biking the trails that lace the hills above town.

Oregon may be one of the most unchurched states in the nation, but there's a huge variety of congregations to choose from in Ashland. People who attend religious services are happier than those who don't, Weiner discovered in his review of the research.

People who help others and are involved in the community are happier. Ashland has so many volunteer opportunities with the city government, the schools, Ashland Community Hospital and social, cultural and environmental groups that it almost requires effort not to get involved.

A correspondent for National Public Radio, Weiner has been stationed around the globe. For his book, he traveled to statistically happy places like Iceland. (Pre-financial meltdown Iceland, however.)

Of all the countries he visitied, Iceland's culture is most like Ashland's, which means Ashland is a promising place to live. Weiner interviewed Larus Johannesson, who has earned his living as a chess player, a journalist, a construction company executive, a theologian and a music producer. In Iceland, like in Ashland, creativity is encouraged.

I remember meeting one man who lived in Medford but liked to visit Ashland for that very reason. No one here made fun of his desire to learn to play the piano as an adult.

Though most of his travels were abroad, Weiner did visit a town in America that is remarkably like Ashland — Asheville, North Carolina. Nestled in the mountains, Ashewille has theater, yoga studios, a large variety of restaurants and a troubled relationship with growth and change. Like Ashland, it has been profiled in national magazines as a great place to live.

Does this sound familiar? Weiner writes that there is tension "among the old-timers who don't want anything to change and the newcomers who want everything to change and the people who have been here for ten years and want to lock the door behind them."

One not-so-surprising fact about happiness is that it can't be bought with money. Most residents of the tiny Middle Eastern country of Qatar aren't very happy. Massive natural gas wealth means they don't have to work and an army of foreigners does everything from building their skyscrapers to raising their children.

People seem to have a natural happiness set-point. In one study, lottery winnners soon returned to happiness levels just above their pre-win levels. People who were paralyzed eventually returned almost to the levels of happiness they had before their accidents.

My prescription for a happiness boost?

Visit the Ashland Public Library, where "The Geography of Bliss" is shelved in the new books section by the check-out desk. Chat with the librarians, volunteers, friends and neighbors you'll run into there. Then take this funny and fascinating book to Lithia Park, find a bench under a tree or by the duck pond and start reading.

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