Eric Weiner’s The Geography of Bliss: One Grumps Search for the Happiest Places in the World proved to be an extraordinarily useful resource for making future travel plans. For example, stay away from Moldova -- nothing works, including Moldovans. Moldovans have become resigned. Corruption is widespread.
Another questionable vacation destination is Qatar. The country is owned by one large, extended family that is so wealthy none of them ever need to work again -- the same is true for all their descendants. In order to keep the country running smoothly, workers are imported from all corners of the earth. Consequently, one can hear most of the world’s languages being spoken in Qatar. Sounds wonderfully cosmopolitan, until you realize that rarely can two people on the street understand each other. Relationships and camaraderie aren’t in abundance. Neither is happiness.
The Geography of Bliss is filled such insights -- insights that challenge many presuppositions concerning the sources of human happiness. Moldova, for example, went from being a communist country to a democracy. One might think that this would improve the Moldovan’s outlook on life. Yet in the ensuing years, the country became what research has identified as the least happy nation on the planet. Various convincing theories are offered by the people that Weiner interviews -- lack of trust in each other, lack of national identity, lack of hope. Weiner combines these first-person observations with scientific research to help explain why something seemingly counterintuitive makes perfect sense.
Weiner travels to Iceland where, in the dead of winter, with not a hint of light to be found, he experiences one of the world’s happiest countries. With only 300,000 people, all of whom, geneticists have found, are related to each other, Icelanders celebrate their language, their culture and their uniqueness. But most of all, Icelanders celebrate failure. They cultivate it, embrace it and boast about it. If failure can make you happy, a little lack of light is no big deal.
The Swiss, on the other hand, are disdainful of happiness. With an efficiency, punctuality and cleanliness that turns Germany green with envy, along with an amazing natural beauty surrounding them, the Swiss are presented with a conundrum. If they wake up one morning and find that they are not happy, they have no one to blame but themselves. Moreover, with their system of direct democracy, the Swiss are constantly presented with choices -- they vote seven or eight times a year. Yet the relationship between choice and happiness is not as obvious as one might think. Choice is only good, research has shown, if the choice matters.
And so it goes with every country that Weiner takes us to. The Netherlands, Bhutan, Thailand, the U.K. and the U.S. In each, we are confronted with some apparent paradox -- happiness where it seems to make no sense, misery in spite of things that most people aspire to have and believe to be great sources of happiness. And in each case, we discover why things are not as one might have imagined. In turn we are led to challenge our own beliefs about happiness. This exceedingly well written, general audience book is less a book about the relationship between place and happiness, than it is about the role of human needs and behaviors in making us content. What this book has to offer is an extremely entertaining, and thoughtful look at just what those needs and behaviors might be.
© 2008 Patti Ross
Patti Ross, Ph.D., Minneapolis, Minnesota.