THE GEOGRAPHY OF BLISS: ONE GRUMP’S SEARCH FOR THE HAPPIEST PLACES IN THE WORLD
By Eric Weiner
Twelve, 329 pages, $25.99
To earlier civilizations, happiness was not just a state of mind but a place on the map. Homer put the Elysian Fields west of the Mediterranean, beyond the Pillars of Hercules; Dante thought Paradise might be on a mountaintop opposite Jerusalem; and early Christians believed that Eden was in modern day Iraq, or possibly sub-Saharan Africa. But these days we don’t need bards and holy men to locate the world’s most blissful place: We have social scientists.
“Happiness studies”—the science of what makes humans happy and why—is a burgeoning new field among sociologists and psychologists. Its findings provide inspiration for NPR correspondent Eric Weiner, whose debut book, The Geography of Bliss, explores how nine countries—ranging from the U.S. and Britain to remote locales like Bhutan and Moldova—understand and experience happiness. It’s a novel idea, managing to combine elements of travel memoir, humor book and self-help guide. But happiness is a tricky subject. It’s hard to say something about it that’s not banal, and in his attempts to leaven the mood, Mr. Weiner gets a little too goofy, sapping the force of his more interesting observations.
His journey begins in the Netherlands. Although he finds time to smoke up in a cafe, his destination is not the pleasure dens of Amsterdam but the University of Rotterdam, where a sociologist has compiled something called the World Database of Happiness—“the secularists’ answer to the Vatican and Mecca and Jerusalem and Lhasa,” a “repository of mankind’s knowledge about happiness.”
Mr. Weiner spends days surfing the bliss files, and he reports an assortment of fun facts: The happiest countries in the world have the highest suicide rates, temperate climes are happier than tropical ones, married couples are happier than singles, Republicans happier than Democrats, and so forth.
But as he sets off to study happiness up close, he seems reluctant to dig deeper. His problem is not that he has nothing to say; rather, it’s a ruinous penchant for one-liners. More often than not, the jokes clang. Impoverished and unhappy Moldova “is nation-building gone horribly awry and, like plastic surgery gone horribly awry, the results are not pretty.” The Swiss, who don’t trust the nouveau riche, leave Mr. Weiner feeling left out: “I don’t have any old money, unless you count that crumpled $10 bill in my wallet which I think was printed back in 1981.”
THERE’S AN IDENTITY CRISIS at the root of this book. Imagine Alain de Botton and Dave Barry on the road together, arguing over who gets to write the next paragraph.
Mr. Weiner calls himself a “grump” (“As a child, my favorite Winnie-the-Pooh character was Eeyore”), but there’s no trace of black bile in these pages. Looking for a comparison to modern day Reykjavik, he quotes Peter Hall, a British urban planning professor, on fin de siècle Paris, where “any innovation, any new trend, was immediately known, and could freely be incorporated into the work of any of the others.” Then, perhaps fearing this might be too highbrow, Mr. Weiner adds: “In other words, the Parisian artists of 1900 believed in open-source software.” Right.
It’s possible, of course, to be both funny and serious, but Mr. Weiner’s attempts to combine the two often end in jarring compromise. In spite of some promising insights (“Icelanders … occupy the space that exists between not believing and not not believing…. [T]he door to the unexplained is always left slightly ajar”), his chapters inevitably drift toward platitudinous conclusions. In Bhutan, for example, where “Happiness is Other People,” a zenlike feeling washes over him as he’s about to leave: “All the moments of my life … every success I have enjoyed, every blunder I have made, every loss I have endured has been just right.” In Thailand, apparently, ignorance is literally bliss: “Thais are deeply suspicious of thinking. For [them], thinking is like running. Just because your legs are moving doesn’t mean your getting anywhere.”
And just because you write about happiness doesn’t mean your readers will smile. Hopefully in his next book, Eric Weiner will find a way to keep his jokes and his ideas from undercutting one another.
Justin Reynolds is a writer living in Berlin. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org