Skip to main content

The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World

Review

The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World

Eric
Weiner is an NPR correspondent who has reported from more than 30
countries. To write this far-reaching tome he had to travel to
far-flung lands, all connected (with one exception) by a single
thread: these were places where, reputedly, the citizenry is
happy.

Two tiny countries offer a brilliant contrast in the principles
that Weiner set out to examine. Qatar and Bhutan are relatively
hard to reach. Both have inhospitable climates and a low
population. Both have been altered greatly in very recent history,
allowing for radical changes in the lifestyle of the
citizenry.

Qatar is a pile of sand somewhere in the Middle East that became an
earthly Eden when oil and natural gas were discovered there in such
vast plentitude as to make work, for its extended family of Arabic
inhabitants, obsolete. A Qatari will be paid to attend school, paid
to marry, given a house and allowed to carelessly wreck as many
cars as he sees fit. Rules no longer apply to the people of Qatar,
in a broad sense, as long as they obey the dictates of their
Islamic religion and stay inside, living within the bizarre
hierarchy that dictates their society --- indoors because it is not
possible to live very long without air conditioning in Qatar, which
is basically a series of connected malls and mansions, and
hierarchical because, of course, Qataris cannot do their own work.
For that they import Indians, Nepalis and other lesser races.

These strictures made it difficult for Weiner to do what a
journalist must do: interview the natives of the country. He was
told that his American passport and Jewish name would prevent him
from meeting real Qataris. So to experience the country, he had to
be content with talking to expatriates and buying one "Ridiculously
Expensive Pen." Of Qatari happiness he says, "Most of us have, at
one time or another, felt a strange and wholly unexpected flash of
unease accompany good news...you know you should be happy, but
you're not, and you can't explain why." Qatar is a big winner in
the lottery of world resources, but the very lack of friction in
their lives is a deterrent to happiness.

Bhutan, on the other hand, is a country committed to the process of
Gross National Happiness. An economically poor but physically
spectacular country high in the Himalayas, Bhutan was said by some
to be the model for the fictional Shangri-La described by author
James Hilton in his book (later a film) LOST HORIZON. Its
inhabitants can easily recall how, no more than 40 years ago,
Bhutan had no electricity, schools or hospitals. Improvements have
certainly ameliorated life for all Bhutanese. One woman Weiner
spoke to said that "Life is better now. Except for television." She
hadn't decided if television, only recently introduced, is good or
bad, and indeed many Bhutanese worry about its violent influence on
their otherwise polite, quietly content young people. "If the
social scientists are right, the most efficient way to make someone
from Bhutan happy is to give them more money...about fifteen
thousand dollars a year," Weiner suggests with some sense of irony.
More than that would be too much, as he observed in Qatar. The
Buddhist Bhutanese are remarkably free from envy of others, and no
one seems to be asking for that fifteen thousand.

Weiner's standards for measuring happiness came from various
sources, including an institute in the Netherlands devoted to its
study. His visits to Switzerland indicate that people can be quite
happy with lots of rules if they have a hand in directly setting
the rules, which the Swiss do by voting many times a year. The
English can be happy despite their bad food and dreary climate
because they have a sense of their own history and a devotion to
family and home. In Thailand he found that sex can make people
happy, even lots of uninhibited sex, if it's delivered with genuine
smiles. He keeps his narrative light but fills every page with
facts, resulting in a happy read.

To validate his research, Weiner visited one extremely
unhappy country, Moldova, a depressing chunk of the former
Soviet Union where the best that anyone could say about their
homeland was that the vegetables and fruit were fresh. Moldovan
women comprise a large pool of Internet scammer brides, finding
American men particularly willing to send them thousands of dollars
to pay taxes on a new car or other spurious expenses. That fifteen
thousand per capita would probably make a big difference in the
happiness quotient in Moldova.

On his return to America, Weiner located the latest happy
community, one of many that spring up periodically according to the
fashions of the times. Asheville, North Carolina, with its idyllic
mountain setting and proliferation of good restaurants and New Age
healing spas, is enjoying a vogue as a happy place to live. As one
newly arrived resident puts it, "A lot of people spin the globe and
their finger stops on Asheville."

However, Weiner warns, "The problem with finding paradise is that
others might find it too. And that is what is happening in
Asheville." I lived in Asheville for a few glory years in the
1990s, and watched gaping as property prices soared, traffic snarl
increased and the demands of the beautiful people drove local
businesses under. It made me see my own search for bliss as part
of the problem, so I moved away. The Asheville that
Weiner visited is already a good example of the "You shoulda been
there when" phenomenon. He says, "Asheville is on the cusp. It
could go either way." The question is, has it already gone?

Eric Weiner went to the far corners of the earth chasing happiness.
Reading his book will help you examine what you need to be happy,
and how far you are willing to go to get it. Or maybe help you
realize that it's closer than you thought.

Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on January 22, 2011

The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World
by Eric Weiner

  • Publication Date: January 3, 2008
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction, Travel
  • Hardcover: 329 pages
  • Publisher: Twelve
  • ISBN-10: 0446580260
  • ISBN-13: 9780446580267