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The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World

1 rating: 3.0
A book by Eric Weiner

Starred Review. Fortified with Eeyoreish fatalism—I'm already unhappy. I have nothing to lose—Weiner set out on a yearlong quest to find the world's unheralded happy places. Having worked for years as an NPR foreign correspondent, he'd gone … see full wiki

Tags: Books
Author: Eric Weiner
Genre: Travel, Health, Mind & Body
Publisher: Twelve
1 review about The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search...

Happiness is a trip around the globe

  • Feb 13, 2009
  • by
This is the latest addition to the recent wave of books about the "science of happiness". The best among those books was Daniel Gilbert's "Stumbling on Happiness" and, while this book is not without a certain charm of its own, it poses no serious threat to Gilbert's supremacy. It might seem as if this ground has already been covered more than adequately, but Weiner is smart enough to have come up with a reasonably appealing, and effective, gimmick. Instead of just giving yet another presentation of the experimental work and its conclusions, he packages his whole investigation as a travel memoir. As a correspondent for NPR, Weiner spent ample time reporting from the world's trouble spots. He bases this exploration of happiness on the following hypothetical question:

"What if I spent a year traveling the globe seeking out ... the world's ... unheralded happy places? Places that possess one or more of the ingredients that we consider essential to the hearty stew of happiness: money, pleasure, spirituality, family, and chocolate, among others."

So he began by traveling to Rotterdam to meet with Ruut Verhoeven, "Professor of Happiness Studies", who grants him access to the "World Database of Happiness", the largest and most comprehensive repository of quantitative data about the relative happiness of people in different countries around the world. Weiner describes the research findings as "alternatively obvious and counterintuitive, expected and surprising". He proceeds with a thumbnail sketch of the effects of key factors on happiness:
"Extroverts are happier than introverts; optimists are happier than pessimists; married people are happier than singles... ; Republicans are happier than Democrats; ... people with college degrees are happier than those without, though people with advanced degrees are less happy than those with just a BA; people with an active sex life are happier...; women and men are equally happy, though women have a wider emotional range; having an affair will make you happy but will not compensate for the massive loss of happiness you will incur when your spouse finds out and leaves you; wealthy people are happier than poor ones, but only slightly."

It seems that Weiner was really suffering from severe wanderlust, because he provides only a perfunctory discussion of the results summarized above, focusing instead on trying to get a geographical handle on happiness, that is, to identify countries at the high and low extremes of the distribution of happiness scores. This leads him to the choice of countries he reports on in the book: Switzerland, Bhutan, Qatar, Iceland, Moldova, Thailand, Great Britain, India, and the U.S. These particular destinations seem to have been chosen partly for their utility in helping to illustrate key results gleaned from happiness research, partly for their desirability as places to visit. (It's obvious that Weiner had a longstanding yen to visit Bhutan; one can hardly grudge him this small pleasure, if only to compensate him for the miserable weeks in Moldova).

Most of the book then is structured as a chronological account of the places he visited, and what he learned in each. It's a standard travel narrative, with little didactic chunks pasted in at various points (usually towards the end of the chapter devoted to a particular destination). During his stay at each location, he generally tries to interview a variety of people to ask about their thoughts on happiness; typically these subjects include one or more "experts", random "wo(man) on the street" interviews, and any available U.S. expats. This gives him the chance to revisit the academic findings, and to discuss various aspects at greater length as the book progresses. As gimmicks go, it's not a bad one, and the result is quite readable, without being exceptional.

It suffers from the kinds of minor defects you might expect. Not everyone he meets while engaged in his happiness tourism is interesting, or has anything useful to add, and at times you wish that he'd been a little more selective in his reporting. A more distracting flaw is that Weiner shares a weakness exhibited by many memoirists - he has a compulsive, almost pathological, need to be liked. Not just by the locals in the places he visits, but also by his readers. This leads him, on far too many occasions, to lapse into what I can only describe as a very regrettable cutesiness in his writing, which goes from just slightly annoying to fingernails-on-the-blackboard irritating as the book progresses. Discipline is not a hallmark of his style; for instance, we get sentences like this:

The prize wasn't much ... but the event marked a major shift, what I might call a paradigm shift if I were the kind of person who used terms like "paradigm shift".

But there are compensating moments of charm:

"Its name, like all Icelandic words, is impossible for foreigners to pronounce lest they risk total and irreversible facial paralysis, so for safety reasons I will not divulge it here."

Overall, Eric Weiner is a genial, if occasionally over-eager, guide. The particular conceit that he adopts in the book, discussing the findings of happiness researchers by placing them in the context of the people and places he visits, works surprisingly well. I thought his chapter on Iceland worked particularly well. Others, such as those on Great Britain and on India, were less successful - somewhat unfocused, and lacking a coherent argument. The book would have benefited from some tighter editing. But these are minor flaws in a pretty decent book.

Four stars.

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