Eric Weiner is a self-described mope and longtime foreign correspondent for National Public Radio. Since the time he ran away from home at the age of five, he believed that happiness is just around the corner.
The Geography of Bliss considers the influence of geography on personal happiness. You could call this approach: “Better living through geography.” In this book, Weiner recounts his worldwide search for happiness. These are some of the things he discovered:
- There is such a thing as the World Database of Happiness, and it’s directed by Ruut Veenhoven, Robin Williams lookalike and Emeritus Professor of Happiness Studies at Erasmus University in Rotterdam.
- While smoking hash (for research purposes) in Rotterdam, he found that hedonism and tolerance, although correlated with happiness, didn’t equate to happiness.
- You can find contentment in Switzerland, and also boredom.
- Bhutan has a government policy of GNH—Gross National Happiness.
- Our GDP includes things that make us unhappy—like assault rifles.
- It’s not all about money. Qatar has plenty of money, but—like all nouveau rich—Qataris possess a strange mix of arrogance and insecurity. Because Qatar is growing so fast, it has to import its culture.
- Temples in Japan are routinely destroyed and rebuilt; yet people still consider them as old as the day they were first built. The essence of the original structure remains. (Planners—try this at your next neighborhood meeting.)
- “We are shaped not only by our current geography but by our ancestral one as well. Americans, for instance, retain a frontier spirit even though the only frontier that remains is that vast open space between SUV and strip mall.”
- Iceland has a large and proliferate arts community because of its social safety net. People are allowed to fail. When we let go of our fear of failure, we take more risks. Icelandic people are able to reinvent themselves many times over without worrying about the things Americans worry about, like stability or healthcare.
- In developing countries, people who move from the village to the city are happiest.
- Moldova is one of the unhappiest places in the world, not because it’s poor, but because it has no national identity.
- Traffic has never been associated with happiness.
- “It’s never a good sign when the best thing to recommend a place is that it’s near other places. Just ask the residents of New Jersey.”
Weiner ends his odyssey in Asheville, North Carolina. Asheville is one of my favorite places of all time. It may be one of the happiest places in the United States. But there is tension in Asheville: “Tension among the old-timers who don’t want anything to change and the newcomers who want everything to change and the people who have been here for ten years and want to lock the door behind them.” Weiner should have been a city planner; this pretty much sums up every neighborhood meeting I’ve ever been to.
Weiner argues the point that happiness is not deep inside you, as the self help industrial complex would have us believe, but out there—somewhere. “Where we are is vital to who we are.”
Maybe, someday, we’ll be adding happiness elements to our comprehensive plans along with land use, housing, and transportation.
Part foreign affairs discourse, part humor, and part twisted self-help guide, The Geography of Bliss takes the reader from America to Iceland to India in search of happiness, or, in the crabby author’s case, moments of “un-unhappiness.” The book uses a beguiling mixture of travel, psychology, science and humor to investigate not what happiness is, but where it is. Are people in Switzerland happier because it is the most democratic country in the world? Do citizens of Qatar, awash in petrodollars, find joy in all that cash? Is the King of Bhutan a visionary for his initiative to calculate Gross National Happiness? Why is Asheville, North Carolina so damn happy? With engaging wit and surprising insights, Eric Weiner answers those questions and many others, offering travelers of all moods some interesting new ideas for sunnier destinations and dispositions.