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Travel Bookshelf: The Geography of Bliss

Travel Bookshelf: The Geography of Bliss

In The Geography of Bliss, NPR foreign correspondent Eric Weiner travels the world to find happiness. Is that so different from what the rest of us are doing?

Well, yes and no. Wiener makes a science of it. He goes about it with more deliberation than most of us wanderers.

Before he takes on the geography angle, he runs down the findings of the field (yes, Virginia, there is a discipline called “Happiness Studies,”except they PhD it up and call it Subjective Well-Being, or SWB). The SWB experts have happiness stats both surprising and obvious, like that optimists are happier than pessimists, rich people are happier than poor ones (but only slightly), people with a college degree (BA) are happier than people with a high school diploma, but people with advanced degrees are less happy than those with just a BA. (Forget grad school! Just go traveling!)

But the “what kinds of people are happiest” question is just a prelude to the meat of the Geography of Bliss, which is, of course, geography, or rather blissography: where in the world are people the happiest? And if I go there, can I get me some?

So begins our whirlwind tour of the soul of ten countries:  the Netherlands, Switzerland, Bhutan (where they measure not the Gross National Product but Gross National Happiness), Qatar, Iceland, Moldova (infamous as the unhappiest country in the world), Thailand, Great Britain, India, and the U.S. He stays only a few weeks in each place, something that doesn’t seem egregious when he connects with a place and its people (Bhutan and Iceland, for instance) but causes problems in places like Qatar, where he can’t get any Qataris to talk to him. “The usual journalists’ trick of interviewing the cabdriver wasn’t working,” he writes.  “He was invariably from India. Nor could I interview my waiter (Filipino) or the manager at hotel reception (Egyptian).” In fact, more than 90% of people working in Qatar turn out to be from somewhere else—which adds to Weiner’s difficulty in getting a read on the culture of this oil-rich nation.

Whether the natives are cooperating or not, Weiner spins a good tale. He’s is a clever kvetcher, and I mean that as a compliment. Clever kvetching has become its own genre—think David Sedaris—and I’m glad. How can you not smile when you read: “I desperately wanted to see the world, preferably on someone else’s dime. But how? I had no marketable skills, a stunted sense of morality, and a gloomy disposition. I decided to become a journalist.”

That gloomy disposition is, of course, the motivation for his project: to find the places in the world where people are happiest. And though, as Eric Hoffer says, “The search for happiness is one of the chief sources of unhappiness,” Weiner has that covered: “That’s ok,” he says. “I’m already unhappy. I have nothing to lose.”

And we, the readers, have everything to gain from this very funny and thought-provoking book about what happiness is and where people find it.

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4 Responses to “Travel Bookshelf: The Geography of Bliss”

  1. Kathy Mueller says:

    I’m curious. Of the many places where you have lived and/or traveled, which did you find had the highest happiness quotient and in which places did you find yourself the happiest?

  2. missmoveabroad says:

    What an excellent question! And a hard one to answer. My happiness level in any given place relies on so many variables, including who I’m with (or how I feel about being alone) and what I was doing. Being alone can be lonely or it can be liberating.

    I remember a waiter at the Sano Banano restaurant in Montezuma (Costa Rica) telling me, as he showed me to my table for one, “Mejor sola que mal acompañada.” (Better alone that with the wrong company.)

    I’m also happier (wherever I am in the world) if I feel like I have a project or a purpose. Maybe that’s why I became a travel writer–to have something to do when I went on the trips I am compelled to take.

    What about you, Kathy?

  3. Kathy Mueller says:

    That was a well thought out reply and has made me question my own happiness when traveling. I definitely get a huge shot of happiness when in the presence of natural beauty, like the California coast around Sea Ranch/Gualala. I loved living on Lake Atitlan in Guatemala in the mid ’60s before the tourists came. One of my favorite trips of all time was a safari in South Africa. Seeing those animals in their natural setting was thrilling.

    On the other hand, I love the energy of big cities — London, Paris, Rome, Hong Kong, and most of all New York City. I love walking wherever I am. Like you, I like a project, but I’m not a writer. I just like to have a plan of what I want to do and see in any particular place. I have found that I’m not good at having no schedule whatsoever.

    Sorry for the long reply, but you are good at making a person think.

  4. Zoltan LaPlace says:

    Although when you travel, you are always somewhere (GPS-wise) those places are always imagined (not imaginary). The subjectivity of imagined geographies aren’t mapped sufficiently well enough at this time. Maybe one day we’ll have travel guides to the places that are not really there. Although you wouldn’t want to book a hotel recommended in a travel guide written by Jorge Luis Borges, you would find other valuable information in such an imaginary guide to a putatively real place.

    Pema Chodron, wise Buddhist nun that she is, recommends not geographies of bliss, but going to the places that scare you.

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