"The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World "
(Reviewed by Poornima Apte MAR 2, 2008)
The one thing really going for NPR correspondent Eric Weiner’s new book The Geography of Bliss, is its thesis: finding the happiest places on earth. For a year, he travels the world trying to find what makes the happy places tick.
Weiner's first stop is the Netherlands where the godfather of happiness research—Professor Ruut Veenhoven—has been crunching happiness numbers for years and has meticulously charted the results into what he calls The World Database of Happiness. Veenhoven’s database has shattered some pre-conceived notions about happiness. Turns out income distribution does not determine happiness nor does the diversity of a country’s society. One of the happiest countries in the world, Iceland, for example, is almost all white in its ethnic makeup. It is also very cold — breaking another misconception about happiness: Warm, sunny paradises are not always spectacularly happy.
“When I tell people about my project, everyone asks the same two questions: How can you measure happiness? How can you even define it?” writes Weiner in The Geography of Bliss. As he travels around the world, Weiner finds that a country’s culture and beliefs in large part, drive the factors that make its citizens happy. In Qatar, Weiner is told that belief in religion is important. That principle doesn't apply everywhere. It doesn’t explain why the happiest countries in the world—Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, the Netherlands—are hardly religious at all. “The citizens of these countries, though, clearly believe in something,” Weiner writes, “they believe in six weeks of vacation, in human rights, in democracy, in lazy afternoons spent in cafés, in wearing socks and sandals at the same time. Beliefs we may admire or, in the case of the sock-and-sandal combo, find utterly abhorrent. But they are beliefs nonetheless.”
In Thailand, Weiner is told not to think much about happiness. “Happy people have no reason to think; they live rather than question living,” he learns. And in Bhutan, Weiner finds that people learn the fine art of compromise. Contrast that with the West: “In the west and in the United States especially, we try to eliminate the need for compromise. Cars have “personal climate controls” so that driver and passenger need not negotiate a mutually agreeable temperature,” he writes.
It is evident that Weiner set out to write a light-hearted book—one that would make us happier and wiser in the end. To that end, Weiner tries hard to be funny. The problem is that in many places, his humor seems very affected and worse, it comes at the expense of reaffirming some old clichés about the places he travels to.
For example, when he first hears about Hilmar, the head of the Heathen faith in Iceland, he discovers that Hilmar is temporarily occupied and can't meet Weiner right away. “He says he's busy,” Weiner writes, “possibly with human sacrifices.”
In another instance, Weiner describes an earlier stay in India with a touch of nostalgia: “Monkeys occasionally wandered into my apartment. Snake charmers dropped by,” he writes. Really? Snake charmers? In pandering to such clichés, you can tell that Weiner is only trying hard to be funny but it fails. His tone just comes across as annoying.
It is ironic that Weiner is at his funniest when he writes about Moldova, a country that is rated way low on Veenhoven’s World Database of Happiness. Here he rents part of an apartment from an old grandmother, Luba. “Luba’s English consists entirely of the words “no” and “feevty-feevty,” the latter of which she invariably accompanies with a see-sawing of her palm,” Weiner writes.
What does it say about the project that a chapter devoted to one of the saddest places on earth is the funniest? Maybe it just shows that sadness is more fun and in a strange way, offers more color to work with.
In the end, Weiner arrives at conclusions that have been pretty self-evident all along: There’s more than one path to happiness. “Money matters, but less than we think and not in the way that we think. Family is important. So are friends. Envy is toxic. So is excessive thinking. Beaches are optional. Trust is not. Neither is gratitude.”
Weiner's book works fairly well as an antidote to chase away the winter blues. In India, after Weiner attends a talk by a new, popular guru, he likens the experience to the “spiritual equivalent of popcorn: tasty, easy to swallow, and certainly of some nutritional value, but not particularly filling.” The same attributes could possibly be applied to The Geography of Bliss. I give it a feevty-feevty.
- Amazon readers rating: from 90 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from The Geography of Bliss at The New York Times
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
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- Official website for Eric Weiner
- NPR interview with Eric Weiner
- World Hum interview with Eric Weiner
- The New York Times review of The Geography of Bliss
- BookReporter review of The Geography of Bliss and Interview
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About the Author:
Eric Weiner is a national correspondent for NPR.org. Based in Washington, DC, he writes news and analysis for NPR's website.
Previously, Weiner was based in Miami as a correspondent for NPR's mid-day magazine show, Day to Day. He covered a wide range of topics, with an emphasis on foreign affairs.Weiner is a veteran foreign correspondent for NPR, with postings in New Delhi, Jerusalem, and Tokyo.
Before joining NPR, Weiner worked as a business reporter for The New York Times from 1989 to 1991. Weiner attended the University of Maryland, where he majored in English literature. He was awarded a John S. Knight Fellowship at Stanford University for the academic year 2003-2004. He is a licensed pilot, and loves to eat sushi.