Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Geography of Bliss: Eric Weiner

The title alone was enough to catch my interest, but it was the subtitle that really hooked me: One Grump's search for the Happiest Places in the World. That pretty much sums up The Geography of Bliss. Ten chapters, ten counties, and a whole book of ideas on what it means to be happy.

Eric Weiner is a world news correspondent for National Public Radio and self-proclaimed grump. He has lead a successful career in the midst of a fairly unhappy life. After reporting stories from some of the most miserable places on Earth, Weiner wonders what it would be like to instead search the globe for the happiest places in the world. This leads to a consultation with Ruut Veenhooven, a Dutch professor and world renowned scholar of Happiness. Veenhoven and his cohorts have compiled a database that measures the overall happiness of every country in the world. Weiner travels to various counties and meets with locals (and some non-locals) to find out what makes a county happy, or more specifically, what makes for a happy person.

Though I took a long time getting through this book, I loved it. I'm a travel nut, and Weiner has an immense talent at describing a scene. He also writes with humor that had me laughing out loud on almost every page. The characters he meets--despite being real people, they are in fact characters--are wonderful, wise, charming people who each have a different set of beliefs and feel differently about Happiness as a goal. I couldn't possibly list all ten countries and tell you what Weiner learns about happiness in each one, but I can give you some highlights.

  • Switzerland is one of the Happiest places in the world. This is largely due to their excellent timing, their large quantities of good chocolate (that would do it for me!), and their impeccably clean public toilets. Envy is the root of unhappiness, so the Swiss are very careful not to boast their wealth.
  • Iceland is also one of the Happiest places in the world. They live in perpetual darkness and slide around on treacherous ice half the year. They drink themselves into a stupor on the weekends, and have faith only in their history rather than in any god. Icelandic people believe that trust is the key to happiness, so they choose to trust one another and therefore, behave in a way that is trustworthy.
  • Moldova is one of the unhappiest places on Earth. It is a county without culture or money. The people are resigned to the way things are. They are neither Russian nor are they Soviets. The Moldovan people are all doom and gloom and don't work very hard at making any changes.
  • Thailand is often thought of as a Happiness Paradise. It is tropical, with lovely beaches, and all of that Buddhism floating around is very relaxing. Because Thais believe in reincarnation, they aren't all that worried about what they do or don't do in this lifetime. They believe that thinking is the enemy of happiness. The moment that you think about what will make you happy, you have already lost happiness. Therefore, the Thais simply go through life trying not to think too much about anything, but just enjoying what IS.
Unfortunately, Weiner never did tell me exactly how to be happy. But his travels explained a lot about how the world views happiness and how people expect to achieve it. I may not have the answer yet, but I certainly have something to think about.

Rating: $$$

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