The word “happiness” is pounded into our skulls from a young age. “If you’re happy and you know it,” we sing, dutifully clapping our hands. We’re greeted with “Happy birthday!” and “Happy New Year!” We’re cajoled with “Don’t worry, be happy.”
Later, we’re more cynically informed that “happiness is a warm gun,” a disturbing thought that ultimately gets us no closer to what exactly all this happiness means. And the more we repeat the cloying little word, the less sense it makes.
That might have something to do with the fact that the innocuous suggestion of happiness is far older than the concept that we humans not only could achieve it, but should achieve it. As a species, we’ve evolved from merely surviving to thriving to creating our own personal destiny.
“It’s a very American idea, but a modern idea, too,” says Eric Weiner, author of The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World (Twelve, 2008). “It’s sort of a long evolution from the idea that we don’t have control over our destinies to the idea that we do, and then if we’re going to control our destinies, what more could we want than to be happy?”
However, he continues, “It also creates an expectation or obligation, especially in this country, to be happy. We think, if we’re not happy, what the hell is wrong with us?”
It was Weiner’s book (namely the “America” chapter) that led TV-news show 20/20 to report, “Asheville was recently named the happiest place in America.” Not exactly, Weiner notes: “I never actually said that Asheville was the happiest place, but it seems that people have latched onto that. I said it’s a place people go to because they think they will be happy. But it’s a nice place.”
While most of the locales mentioned in Bliss have quietly gone about their business post-happiness (or unhappiness) designation, Asheville has turned the five pages of text (in which Weiner writes, “It dawns on me that Asheville is an island. A crunchy island of peevish liberalism in a state that is not so liberal” and “Asheville is on the cusp. It could go either way”) into a national ad campaign.
“Is it Time to Reinvent Yourself, Retire, or Buy a Vacation Home?” asks a full-page Beverly-Hanks & Associates spot in New York magazine. The solution, laid out in glossy real-estate images, seems startlingly simple: “Asheville North Carolina,” we’re told. “The Happiest Place to Live in America.”
Happiness, the five-step program
There’s a man walking up Biltmore Avenue. He’s sporting a fedora, talking on a cell phone, carrying a briefcase. This could be a scene from anywhere, except that our businessman is dressed in cutoff jeans shorts and flip-flops. Welcome to Asheville.
The latest Hershey’s Bliss (a chocolate candy) ad campaign informs us that “Bliss is everywhere, you just have to unwrap it.” Asheville is doing its damnedest to do just that. Local facilitators Nina Anin and Thomas Young recently led the workshop “Joy: Your Natural State of Happiness” at the Center for Creative Living. Chicago-based personal-growth trainer Sara McIntosh chose Asheville to launch her Conscious Freedom Intensive course (see “Don’t Worry, Be Happy (Here’s How),” May 28 Xpress). Goliath’s Happiness Press (publisher of alternative nutrition, health and food-preparation books) is headquartered in Asheville; so is the Great Cosmic Happy-Ass Card Company.
If we, as a city, aren’t happy yet, we should get an A for effort. But are workshops, relaxed dress codes and publishing companies enough to generate geographic bliss? Kathy Freston, author of Quantum Wellness: A Practical and Spiritual Guide to Health and Happiness (Weinstein Books, 2008), believes that achieving contentment is less about grand gestures and exterior elements, and more about small, focused changes within one’s self. During a June episode of Good Morning America she suggested five steps toward greater happiness. These include a 12-day cleansing diet, a daily meditation practice, volunteerism, positive visualization and journaling.
While none of these are new concepts, they’re all practices made readily available in Asheville. Healthful, organic food? Check. Meditation groups and classes? Check. Worthy causes and nonprofits in need of assistance? Got those, too. Hand-bound journals made from recycled paper, assembled by a nonprofit organization that you can take to your creative-writing workshop? Bingo.
Most of a year after completing Bliss, Weiner believes that his thesis—that “place matters and happiness is a cultural construct more than we think it is”—Sean Bookman, co-owner of Namaste Sacred Events (www.namasteasheville.com), moved to Asheville because he felt the place would allow him to both run the business and live the life he desired.
“I first came to Asheville for the Governor’s Conference on Tourism at the Grove Park Inn as a representative for Condé Nast Traveler magazine,” he recalls. He slipped away to take a hike on the Blue Ridge Parkway and enjoy a Cosmic Karma pizza at Mellow Mushroom, where he called his wife to tell her he’d found the perfect place for them. Then, “As I looked up in the sky I saw fireworks in the direction of the Grove Park Inn. My stomach dropped as I remembered that I was supposed to be hosting the fireworks and giving a little speech at the opening of the conference. It kind of solidified that I needed to leave that old life and follow my inspiration.”
In 2002, the Bookmans opened Namaste Yoga & Healing Center. They sold the yoga studio earlier this year to focus on the sacred-events business, “a locally based production company dedicated to presenting art, music, spirituality and consciousness on a global level.” But more has changed than Bookman’s calling card. Prior to his Asheville move, he says, he was “in disguise as a buttoned-up businessman.”
Today, in full beard and dreadlocks, Bookman muses, “Is it a coincidence that I never bought a Bic razor again since I moved to Asheville?” He says his life—which now includes two young daughters—is a happy one in Asheville (except for the downtown-parking situation, which he describes as “a crime against business owners and locals”). But Bookman suspects that happiness is less about hairstyle and cosmic pizza, and more about something intangible—something maybe even mystical.
“On a deeper level, the ‘happy feeling’ comes from the geographic, geological and prophetic standpoint,” he offers. “Asheville is sitting in the most ancient mountain range on earth, sitting on a bed of crystal, and has been known as a healing ground for time immemorial.”
Happy real estate
Katie Skinner, co-owner of the L.O.F.T. of Asheville (www.loftofasheville.com), relates much of her “happy feeling” to the success of her business. The boutique (its name a clever acronym for Lost Objects, Found Treasures) offers an eclectic array of gift and decor items, from garden art and unique furniture to journals and rustic picture frames. “What I’ve carried here has changed as Asheville has changed,” she notes.
Skinner’s business is a success story (it’s been open for a dozen years now), and so is the niche she’s carved for herself in Asheville. People relocating to this area these days are often struck by the high rents (especially in relation to salaries), the tight job market and the expense of home ownership. But when Skinner made the move in 1992, she recalls, “I wanted to get a new job and get out of Florida. As soon as I got here, everything fell right into place.”
Such claims of synchronicity are as routine in Asheville as yoga teachers and Subaru Foresters. Not that there’s anything wrong with that: The common experience of the stars aligning is yet another indication of the city’s beatitude. But Skinner’s case of right-place/right-time meant she was able to buy the building that houses her store, as well as a home in desirable Montford. “When I bought that building, it was cheap,” she says. “I’m glad I got what I got when I got it: It gives me a sense of security.”
No one, having met Skinner, would doubt the bubbly redhead is genuinely enjoying herself. But are a successful business, a nice home and a sense of security the same thing as happiness? Weiner says, “I kind of conclude at the end of the book that maybe [happiness] is not the highest ideal we should be seeking.”
“I think the happiest people weren’t looking for happiness per se,” he adds. “They wouldn’t quite articulate it that way. They’re trying to lead a meaningful life.”
This definitely seems to be the case with the L.O.F.T.‘s proprietress. When asked what she loves about Asheville, she quickly responds, “Diversity. The majority of the people I know are so accepting of anyone who comes here. You can truly be who you are without putting on a facade.”
That sense of freedom to find oneself is definitely a motivating factor for people to move to Asheville, but there’s another, amorphous quality to the city that may explain its ultimate felicity: slackness.
This isn’t to imply that nothing gets done around here, or that the typical Asheville resident lacks motivation, capability or creativity. Quite the opposite, in fact: Asheville’s population is inspired by a variety of interests: artistic media, spiritual pursuits and entrepreneurial endeavors. It’s just that no one gets in too much of a hurry about it. For transplants from larger urban centers, the less-cutthroat environment is a relief. For those who come from smaller towns, the supportive, friendly clime is welcoming. So what if few people are getting rich or famous quickly? According to Weiner, lowered expectations are the surprise ingredient to true contentment.
“There’s a nuance there that some people miss, that you can have low expectation, but that doesn’t mean you’re a lazy person who doesn’t strive,” the author says. “What you don’t have expectations about are the results. Go give 100-percent effort to whatever you’re doing, but your happiness isn’t tied to the results.”
Since Asheville and many who live here can be considered works in progress, this seems like sound advice. So we strive (or don’tr strive) for happiness, while we continue to become our most authentic selves, express ourselves fully and carve out our individual niches in this city, doing so under the “Happiest Place in America” banner. Even if it’s a bit of a misnomer. After all, living in a town with such an accolade can make one feel downright … happy.
who: Eric Weiner
what: Author reads from The Geography of Bliss
when: Thursday, July 3. 7 p.m. (Free. www.malaprops.com or 254-6734.)