What Are the Happiest Places on Earth?
The ones that accept who they are
CALL CHARLOTTE BORING, and people go berserk. Say it’s bland and full of chain stores, and people jump to play the city’s best creative cards, Plaza Midwood and NoDa, like a white political candidate mentioning his one black friend. The city’s nicknames—A Suburb of Itself, Pleasantville, The Velvet Coffin—are not so flattering, and ooh, do they burn because they’re just true enough.
So the city’s got a reputation for being boring, short on identity and history. What to do? In The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World, author Eric Weiner heads to countries such as Britain, the Netherlands, India, Switzerland, Thailand, and Bhutan, returning with information that left me thinking about Charlotte.
He finds happy places are neither Disney-cheery nor hedonistic; they are content. Geneva, Switzerland is a great place to live, but you wouldn’t pick it as a place to vacation (and no, Charlotte, that’s not an insult). The Swiss avoid envy and comparison, don’t fear they’re missing out, and avoid shows of wealth because they believe nothing triggers envy like money, and nothing is unhappier than envy. Over in the darkness of light-free days in Iceland, people are happy because they pour energy into creating music, art, and books (Charlotte’s working hard at this and we’re all going to benefit).
But when he talks about Qatar, Weiner makes me nervous. Qatar went from basically nothing to very rich, very fast. Old money there is 50-year-old money. The people who live there aren’t from there. There’s no traditional food or culture. The city of Doha “resembles one giant construction site.” Weiner finds himself feeling uneasy and suffocated. Why? Everything is so tasteful and controlled that it doesn’t feel alive. Creative and interesting cities, he notes, are ones where there’s social and intellectual turbulence. Qatar’s building everything a city or country could ever want to brag about, but, Weiner notes, its fistfuls of money can’t buy a past.
On a primal, DNA level, humans need history to feel safe. We need to know that a place was good to the generations of tribes before ours.
Charlotte’s challenge as it grows will be to stay out of its own way. A city’s story can’t be engineered. The better option is to accept what we have. Charlotte: where all the apartment buildings look the same. Charlotte: where home-supply stores struggle to keep up with the demand for ‘griege’ paint and posters that say “Blessed.” Charlotte: where we love diversity but not a diversity of emotions.
For a city so desperate to be liked, it does one of the most unlikeable things any of us can do: pretend to be something it’s not. There’s a sense that you better join in cheerleading the city at all times otherwise you are Not Nice and Not Charlotte and why don’t you just move?
My plea: Stop comparing, measuring, and branding. Revel in your Basic City self and learn to laugh at your own reputation. Spend half of tomorrow, ideally while in the office and pretending to listen to a conference call, reworking your Pinterest boards to add pins about being yourself and finding validation within. You are the city that tore down historic buildings and expects to be thanked constantly for “revitalization.” You have a fake lake. Repin that pin about Owning It. Repin that pin about Love Me As I Am and I’m Not Going to Change For You.
O.K., you are allowed one Blessed pin. One. One.