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Actually, happiness isn't within

Some cultures are simply better at producing happy citizens than others.

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A new year is upon us, and the self-help industrial complex is in full swing, pestering us to slim down, bulk up, become a new you, a better you, a happier you. Yes, it's all about you. The 1970s may have been the "Me Decade," but the naught years are shaping up to be the "You Decade."

There is, it turns out, little difference between You and Me. Both outlooks reflect a firmly held and particularly American belief that happiness lies deep inside the inner you, or me, or whatever.

The self-help industry has it wrong. Social scientists studying happiness (or subjective well-being, to use the academic term) have found that external factors – quality of government, social interactions and, to an extent, money – determine our happiness more than anything else. In other words, happiness does not reside inside of you. Happiness is out there.

Which particular "out there" makes a huge difference in your happiness level. National levels of contentment vary widely, from the morose Moldavians to the chronically cheerful Danes. Happiness, it turns out, is like oil. Some countries are awash in it; others are bone dry.

In fact, psychologists at the University of Leicester in Britain recently produced the world's first map of happiness. Using data from the emerging science of happiness, they created a color-coded atlas of bliss, a topography of the human spirit, from Algeria to Zimbabwe. It's not climate or topography or some mysterious "energy" that is at work here, but national culture. Some cultures are simply better at producing happy citizens than others.

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