Book Review: The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner

When you get right down to it, we’re all in search of happiness. That may be particularly so of Americans, for whom the “pursuit of happiness” is an “unalienable right.” Rather than a metaphoric approach to the search, Eric Weiner took a geographic one. His efforts to try to find where people are happiest is detailed in The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World.

Part philosophical discourse (from a somewhat curmudgeonly standpoint) and part travelogue, Weiner uses the World Database of Happiness (yes, there is such a thing) as the starting point for his search. He visits Amsterdam (home of the World Database) and countries where the level of happiness or contentedness is viewed as being greater than other countries. As these include Switzerland, Bhutan, Qatar and Iceland, it becomes clear that happiness is not determined by climate, per capita income or religion.

Yet Weiner, an NPR correspondent, also believes that to assess what makes people happy, you also have to look at what makes them unhappy. In fact, he observes not entirely tongue-in-cheek that is part of the rationale for his trek: “I’m already unhappy. I have nothing to lose.” Thus, he also travels to countries low on the happiness scale, such as Moldova, a former Soviet republic, and Great Britain, where Weiner terms happiness a “work in progress.” (America, the subject of Weiner’s last country-specific chapter, “is no happiness superpower.”)

Throughout, Weiner rather seamlessly blends reported research into the “science” of happiness, interviews with residents of the countries and personal experience. His own experiences on the journey range from meditating in India, smoking Moroccan hash in Amsterdam, drinking in Iceland and boarding with a Moldovian woman with whom he shares no common language and whose English extends basically to the phrase “feevty feevty.” Weiner also blends a variety of approaches, whether it’s the skeptical yet observant eye of a journalist or frequent invocation of humor, some of it self-deprecating.

Are we indeed capable of gauging our own happiness? There was this moment, for instance, when I was seventeen years old that I thought I was very happy indeed, completely content, without a care in the world. In retrospect, it turns out I was just extremely stoned at the time. Plus, beer was involved. I think.

Yet this droll approach doesn’t overpower. Underlying the humor and research is also the sense that Weiner would love to find what makes us happy. As such, The Geography of Bliss truly seeks to examine and explore what makes us happy and content. And while place plays a role, Weiner seems to discover that it may well be what is within that is most important. While Qatar is wealthy, he finds it has no culture. Icelanders are happy despite endless nights and cold. It is not Bhutan’s government policy of Gross National Happiness that makes its citizens what they are.

Weiner also discovers one can learn from places perceived to be among the least happy. He finds that there seems to be a lack of regard for trust and friendship in Moldova. To him, a tendency there to use the phrase “not my problem” seems to sum up the country and is a mindset that is instructive.

Lesson number one: “Not my problem” is not a philosophy. It is a mental illness. Right up there with pessimism. Other people’s problems are our problems. If you neighbor is laid off, you may feel as if you’ve dodged the bullet, but you haven’t. The bullet hit you as well. You just don’t feel the pain yet.

In essence, The Geography of Bliss is an enjoyable journey demonstrating that, ultimately, the search for paradise probably is not a geographic one. Instead, exploring the geography of happiness helps us learn that while geographic place can be a factor, mental states and attitudes ultimately determine the success of the search.

Travel, at its best, transforms us in ways that aren’t always apparent until we’re back home.

Eric Weiner, The Geography of Bliss

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