on February 6, 2008
Author, Eric Weiner, is mired in the bad-news business of journalism. As a correspondent for National Public Radio he has reported from Miami, New Delhi, Jerusalem, Afghanistan, Tokyo, and Iraq. He has covered wars and conflicts. He has won awards for coverage of Islamic issues in Asia and the tobacco industry in the U.S. He has focused on a lot of bad stuff--which often seems the modern definition of news. It is no wonder that he openly cops to being unhappy.
Weiner's quest here is to find a place and conditions that might cheer him up. He apparently considers only slightly the fact that any place he goes, he takes his unhappy self with him. The sub-title, One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World, sets the stage.
Can the conditions of place cause or at least contribute to happiness? My personal experience and letters from readers says yes. I confined my search to the contiguous 48 states; travelholic Weiner takes us to nine more countries.
First to The Netherlands and the World Database of Happiness to learn what Ruut Veenhoven, "the godfather of happiness research" knows. On to Switzerland, where the natives feel more than contentment but less than joy. Thence to Bhutan, where the king has proclaimed Gross National Happiness; Qatar, where each new husband gets a $7,000 monthly allowance, a building lot and a no-interest home loan; Iceland, where we learn that colder is happier; Moldova, "the least happy nation on the planet" according to Veenhoven's data; Thailand, where keeping the long view of life creates much joking and laughter; Great Britain, where culture hinders happiness; India, a destination happy place; and then back home to Miami, where all that sunshine leaves our author cold.
We learn that money wealth gives but a small edge. America is the richest country the world has ever known, yet our self-help bookshelves sag. As poet-laureate, Charles Simic, noted in a recent interview: "It's an industry. It's really frightening. People need to read a book on how to be happy? It's completely an American thing."
Lucky for we readers, Weiner (pronounced whiner, poor guy) has a happy sense of humor that has survived the negative focus of journalism. The Geography of Bliss is a fun read, a lively travelogue of ideas, a mind tickler, a book that fulfills its purpose.
What I take from this entertaining tome is that a myriad of factors contribute to happiness: society, culture, community, biophilia, relationships, belonging, trust, openness, creativity, action, flexibility, unpredictability, altruism, a healthy balance of comparative feelings, hedonism, but not too much, and money, but just a bit. And, yes, place--if it allows these things.
On my writing studio wall is a framed piece of calligraphy that sums it up for me. It reads: "The grand essentials to happiness in this life are something to do, someone to love and something to hope for." (Joseph Addison--1672-1719)
on December 25, 2007
If you're looking for a definitive answer to the book's premise, i.e., that happiness is about place, you might be disappointed. If, however, you are game for a journey about exploring that concept, Eric Weiner's book is for you. At once intelligent and witty, Geography of Bliss takes the reader to unfamiliar places to meet strangely familiar people. That's because the essence of what makes us happy (or unhappy) is basically the same everywhere, alloyed only by our culture and circumstances. It's a book that will make you think and laugh on the same page. And, it might just make you happy.
on January 15, 2008
Eric Weiner is an NPR correspondent who has reported from more than 30 countries. To write this far-reaching tome he had to travel to far-flung lands, all connected (with one exception) by a single thread: these were places where, reputedly, the citizenry is happy.
Two tiny countries offer a brilliant contrast in the principles that Weiner set out to examine. Qatar and Bhutan are relatively hard to reach. Both have inhospitable climates and a low population. Both have been altered greatly in very recent history, allowing for radical changes in the lifestyle of the citizenry.
Qatar is a pile of sand somewhere in the Middle East that became an earthly Eden when oil and natural gas were discovered there in such vast plentitude as to make work, for its extended family of Arabic inhabitants, obsolete. A Qatari will be paid to attend school, paid to marry, given a house and allowed to carelessly wreck as many cars as he sees fit. Rules no longer apply to the people of Qatar, in a broad sense, as long as they obey the dictates of their Islamic religion and stay inside, living within the bizarre hierarchy that dictates their society --- indoors because it is not possible to live very long without air conditioning in Qatar, which is basically a series of connected malls and mansions, and hierarchical because, of course, Qataris cannot do their own work. For that they import Indians, Nepalis and other lesser races.
These strictures made it difficult for Weiner to do what a journalist must do: interview the natives of the country. He was told that his American passport and Jewish name would prevent him from meeting real Qataris. So to experience the country, he had to be content with talking to expatriates and buying one "Ridiculously Expensive Pen." Of Qatari happiness he says, "Most of us have, at one time or another, felt a strange and wholly unexpected flash of unease accompany good news...you know you should be happy, but you're not, and you can't explain why." Qatar is a big winner in the lottery of world resources, but the very lack of friction in their lives is a deterrent to happiness.
Bhutan, on the other hand, is a country committed to the process of Gross National Happiness. An economically poor but physically spectacular country high in the Himalayas, Bhutan was said by some to be the model for the fictional Shangri-La described by author James Hilton in his book (later a film) LOST HORIZON. Its inhabitants can easily recall how, no more than 40 years ago, Bhutan had no electricity, schools or hospitals. Improvements have certainly ameliorated life for all Bhutanese. One woman Weiner spoke to said that "Life is better now. Except for television." She hadn't decided if television, only recently introduced, is good or bad, and indeed many Bhutanese worry about its violent influence on their otherwise polite, quietly content young people. "If the social scientists are right, the most efficient way to make someone from Bhutan happy is to give them more money...about fifteen thousand dollars a year," Weiner suggests with some sense of irony. More than that would be too much, as he observed in Qatar. The Buddhist Bhutanese are remarkably free from envy of others, and no one seems to be asking for that fifteen thousand.
Weiner's standards for measuring happiness came from various sources, including an institute in the Netherlands devoted to its study. His visits to Switzerland indicate that people can be quite happy with lots of rules if they have a hand in directly setting the rules, which the Swiss do by voting many times a year. The English can be happy despite their bad food and dreary climate because they have a sense of their own history and a devotion to family and home. In Thailand he found that sex can make people happy, even lots of uninhibited sex, if it's delivered with genuine smiles. He keeps his narrative light but fills every page with facts, resulting in a happy read.
To validate his research, Weiner visited one extremely unhappy country, Moldova, a depressing chunk of the former Soviet Union where the best that anyone could say about their homeland was that the vegetables and fruit were fresh. Moldovan women comprise a large pool of Internet scammer brides, finding American men particularly willing to send them thousands of dollars to pay taxes on a new car or other spurious expenses. That fifteen thousand per capita would probably make a big difference in the happiness quotient in Moldova.
On his return to America, Weiner located the latest happy community, one of many that spring up periodically according to the fashions of the times. Asheville, North Carolina, with its idyllic mountain setting and proliferation of good restaurants and New Age healing spas, is enjoying a vogue as a happy place to live. As one newly arrived resident puts it, "A lot of people spin the globe and their finger stops on Asheville."
However, Weiner warns, "The problem with finding paradise is that others might find it too. And that is what is happening in Asheville." I lived in Asheville for a few glory years in the 1990s, and watched gaping as property prices soared, traffic snarl increased and the demands of the beautiful people drove local businesses under. It made me see my own search for bliss as part of the problem, so I moved away. The Asheville that Weiner visited is already a good example of the "You shoulda been there when" phenomenon. He says, "Asheville is on the cusp. It could go either way." The question is, has it already gone?
Eric Weiner went to the far corners of the earth chasing happiness. Reading his book will help you examine what you need to be happy, and how far you are willing to go to get it. Or maybe help you realize that it's closer than you thought.
--- Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott
This travelogue by self-confessed grump Eric "Whiner" is a yearlong tour of a very unusual assortment of countries (sample: Holland, Qatar, Bhutan and Iceland), most of which have been chosen because they are home to some of the happiest resident populations in the world, (although a couple are chosen to present a contrast). There are some interesting conclusions drawn about what does and doesn't make for happiness, about the importance of democracy and wealth (so revered in the US) and how they are part of the answer but far from being the solution.
Weiner has a lovely turn of phrase (reminiscent of Bill Bryson) and although The Geography of Bliss wasn't as laugh-out-loud funny as I expected (more dryly amusing), it is both immensely readable and packed to the gills with fascinating nuggets of information. Weiner visits two countries that I have spent considerable time in (India and Switzerland), and while I felt his observations of Switzerland were pretty much spot on, I felt that he only scratched the surface of India, a country which I consider to be particularly complex. But I loved his description of Slough in England (the location for the UK TV show "The Office") as "a showpiece of quiet desperation" and I now have even less desire than ever before to visit Moldava which sounds like a hideously depressing place.
Ultimately there are no major revelations in this book - essentially, his argument is that happiness means different things to different people - but it makes for easy, thought-provoking reading. I enjoyed it.
on January 16, 2010
I really wanted to enjoy this book, and to find some degree of depth in its pages, but I feel that both of those goals were thwarted. The author isn't so interested in the roots of happiness as he is in enjoying quaint local (and overly stereotyped) customs, then drawing some happiness-related conclusion based on his experience. His narration can be best compared to that of a happiness critic, who samples local fare and rates them based on his personal, culturally influenced preferences. I feel like he's not thinking about the greater human condition, and when various people he interacts with call him on it, instead of reflecting on it, he asks, "Does this curious perspective of theirs make them happy?" before he glazes over the question and moves on. There's little space for revelation in this mindset.
The first country visited in this book is Holland, and the theme explored in this chapter is that of tolerance and its relation to happiness. However, instead of thinking about what non-judgement means in terms of community relations and emotional health, he points out that they are particularly tolerant of marijuana and prostitution. He lights up in Rotterdam, muses about the wonders of Moroccan hash, then concludes that the Dutch version of happiness is not for him because he would spend his years sitting around, high as a kite, not doing a thing. The fact is, few Dutch natives live their lives like this, and generally just tolerate the tourists engaging in this kind of behavior - their happiness is not due to an availability of neuroactive substances. Similarly, his trip to the Netherlands is followed by some time spent in Switzerland, where he muses that the Swiss may be happy because they have so much chocolate, which contains some chemicals that behave similarly to the active chemical in marijuana; aside from that, they're just happy because it's so darn clean everywhere. He speaks with an American ex-pat when visiting Bhutan, and when she describes her Bhutanese husband, she actually says, "I married the noble savage." From thereon out, nothing her husband said or did could escape that cliche, and so went his role in the anecdote.
The other chapters didn't bother me quite as badly as the first two, but there wasn't much significant improvement. I kept waiting for things to improve, but they didn't. This book is decent if you're looking for happiness tourism; aside from that, it's a load of tourist fluff.
on December 24, 2007
Eric Weiner, a well known and amusing journalist, has produced one of the funniest and sharpest books on the market. The search for what makes people happy can easily become an exercise in tedious piety, a too earnest account that reads like an economic research paper. Not so with Weiner, whose deft touch amuses and enlightens, in precisely that order. By taking this wry approach, Weiner is rather more profound than he would concede, and less grumpy than he would like to appear. That is the beauty of "The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World," it is a very learned and intelligent book that wears its erudition lightly and communicates insights with skill and many wonderful laughs.
on February 25, 2008
Great title and the comparison to Bryson did, in fact, kick me over the edge to purchase this book. Ultimately, it was not a horrible book, but it certainly did not meet my expectations. The humor occasionally brought a smile to my lips, but never a knee slapping guffaw like Bryson delivers. And, the premise was intriguing, but the dots didn't get connected. Within each chapter (each of which is devoted to a unique country the author visits), I had a hard time remembering what the tagline for the country was (e.g. Happiness is a Contradiction, Happiness is Boredom), an indication to me that the themes were getting lost in the recounting of the people and places he went. I considered not finishing it many times, and did not find it a page-turner. I did persevere, however, so it was not THAT bad, but in retrospect, it was not a book I care to have in my collection, and it will not be one I recommend to friends and loan out. So, all in all, it was not money well spent.
on January 13, 2008
Several times I have purchased books on Amazon after hearing an interview on Public Radio or C-Span's Book TV and was disappointed after getting the tome and actually reading it. My experience with this book was different in that I heard Eric interviewed on NPR, thought he was bright and interesting and bought his book and absolutely loved it.
Having visited most of the places mentioned in the book, and being a lover of human geography, I was delighted with the author's observations and conclusions. I highly recommend this book. I enjoyed the writer's sense of humor and writing style.
I have also decided to "dance while I can," no matter who's watching.
on September 15, 2009
Weiner came up with a fascinating question to explore: how much is happiness related to place. But this book is more a collection of interviews with some interesting (and some not-so-interesting) people in about a dozen countries ranging from Switzerland (happy in their neutrality and limited expectations, says Weiner) to Bhutan, where they index Gross National Happiness. Given that Weiner is a radio corresponent for NPR, it's not surprising the book's focus is interviews. But the focus on individuals overlooked one of the central sources of happiness: a sense of belonging or community.
Another glaring omission: In his global travels, Weiner never visits Africa! I won't overgeneralize, as Weiner ofter does, but in my travels in Africa I've found that many people are remarkably happy and joyful despite overwhelming hardship. This would have been worth exploring. And his section on the US, just 4 or 5 pages about Asheville and his brief note on Florida, seem like an afterthought. I would have appreciated a deeper exploration of happiness in the US, where we have so much material wealth but where the pursuit of individuality leads to so much isolation and loneliness.
I did enjoy parts of this book and found some comments illuminating, and Weiner has done his homework and shares some intriguing nuggets of research. But in the end "Bliss" felt like a trifle when, if executed well, it could have been immensely satisfying.
on January 7, 2008
I absolutely loved this book. It was surprising that I found myself underlining so many funny, thought-provoking, interesting passages. It was a great read for a world traveler (i.e. me), but I also bought a copy for my mom, because it's so multi-dimensional and entertaining that I thought she'd enjoy it, too.