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.